I Crossed the UTLA Picket Line and – Surprise! – It Was Terrible


Warnings of a potential strike by United Teachers Los Angeles had been rumbling for weeks, and I was excited. My own union — the Animation Guild — had sidestepped a strike not long ago, accepting the terms negotiated for a new contract with producers. While I agreed with the verdict, a part of me had been disappointed not to fight for more. The problem was, I didn’t know what “more” actually meant.

By contrast, the teachers had a very clear list of requests. Smaller classrooms. Full-time nurses and librarians. Slightly improved pay raise, and so on. These were all issues I could get behind. But even if I did feel like arm-chair nitpicking, I adore unions. Maybe some of them adhere to the old stereotype of burly gangsters on endless coffee breaks, or demand unreasonably high dues? I’m pretty sure most protect their workers. (Why would Republicans be so gung-ho about busting them if they weren’t?) Mine has two pension plans, wage minimums, zero-dollars-a-month healthcare for me, and $50-a-month for my family. I spend less on dues than I do my cell phone plan.

Sure, I’ve had non-union jobs that treated workers well. I’ve also had jobs with unpaid overtime, expensive or non-existent healthcare, little or literally no pay. All things equal, non-union can suck it.

The timing of the strike was fortunate. My husband was working freelance from home, and my kindergartener, while thriving academically, was having a rough time adjusting to his new school. Many days were rocky, with his teacher Ms. Fiona giving us daily reports. A tantrum in music class, the loud noises hurting his ears. Wandering away mid-lesson. He’d had the same issues in preschool, and now as then, improvements were slowly coming the longer I worked with his teacher. Together with his counsellor Mr. Pershing, we were devising solutions. Earmuffs for music class. A game about superheroes to help him focus. He’d have some great days. Then all of a sudden I’d get a call from the main office, by a person who didn’t know my son or what we’d been working towards. Someone who only knew his misbehavior. The constant vigilance felt exhausting. My family had just finished three very peaceful weeks of holiday break at home. What were a couple more?

That was, if we decided to keep my child from school.

Daily, the LA Unified School District had been emailing and robocalling reminders that school would be open, with business as usual. Our school’s parent association also assured us that sending our kids was an acceptable action, for those who needed to. I felt badly for parents already stretch thin. PE, music, the garden — these are all funded by our contributions (another reason the LAUSD needs to cough up some dough.) The association has a dollar amount they ask of every family, knowing that some can’t or won’t meet it. It’s a fraction of what we’d paid for full-time preschool. A total bargain for us, an impossibility for others. And for them, the strike presented no choice.

As an alternative for expressing support, the association suggested joining the walk-in held a couple days before the strike. So we did. Thirty minutes before the first bell, my family and I held up signs and waved to passers-by and celebrated a small act of civil disobedience. To be clear, I do not love rallies. Drenched in anxiety sweats, I got off the sardine-packed train of agitated protestors halfway to the first Women’s March and never looked back. But the people in front of the school smiled and greeted us by name. Ms. Fiona, Mr. Pershing, other teachers and aides. It made me feel hopeful and useful for the first time since Trump’s election.

And yet, I still could not make up my mind about crossing the line. Would the unexcused absences hurt my child? Would he really miss out on learning, and for how long? What if my husband was hired full-time and couldn’t care for him? Would the school hold it against us for losing them money from the state? He happened to attend on permit — considering his difficulties, what if this tipped the scales against next year’s renewal, and my child had to start all over again at yet another new school, destroying all our progress?

I decided to give the LAUSD the benefit of the doubt. They’d get my child for a week. After that, home he’d stay.

Day one of the strike arrived. My first hints of misgiving surfaced before I even parked. The air surrounding the campus felt decidedly foreboding, and it wasn’t just the pouring rain. I saw no other students or parents. The regular side-gate was closed, forcing us to the main entrance. Chants and drumming grew louder as we splashed up the sidewalk, and I thought about turning around for home. But today of all days, I’d left my husband sick and sleeping in bed.

Everything in me said abort, abort. And yet we didn’t.

If you’ve never broken a strike line you actually agree with, let me tell you: it’s every bit as gut-churning as you’d imagine. Bonus points when it’s comprised of friends. The familiar faces, the kind hellos, the slow dissipation into confusion as they realize you’re not aiding the fight but rather squirming on through to hinder your common goals. We had to actually join the marching line on the way to the door, filing in right next to Ms. Fiona.

“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled, fumbling with my umbrella.

“It’s okay,” she smiled from beneath her slicker. “I understand.”

Inside was no better. The cafeteria held a smattering of students, the only representatives from K through second grade. The few adults were somber and frowning, and I didn’t know whether to be pissed or grateful they’d come to work. I left my little boy in the care of strangers and exited through a different door, crossing the street in shame. Back in my car, I burst into tears and texted my husband.

“I don’t want him coming back.”

In my warm, dry office, at my well-paying union job, I could not shake my sadness. When my boss sent out a company-wide email allowing us to bring our children to work, it took about five seconds for me to hatch a plan.

“What can I bring the picket line?” I messaged Ms. Fiona. One Target run for water and snacks later, I returned to pick up my child. He was running down the hallway for me before I even reached the main office.

“I’m so glad you came!” he squealed. Signing him out, the office person gruffly informed me she was about to call anyway. Apparently, my son was having trouble focusing during PE in the music room.

“Well I’m here now,” I said, with none of my usual humility.

“Do you think he’s coming to school tomorrow,” she asked, her voice softening.

“I don’t think so.”

I took my child back to work with me. For the next few hours he watched Netflix at my desk, wearing my giant headphones and giggling every so often at his cartoons. Not exactly educational, but better than PE in the music room. The next day he stayed home with Dad, and so shall he until the strike ends. Tomorrow I’ll do another run for supplies. Ms. Fiona’s letting me know what more I can do.


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