Last week, as another round of negotiations failed and the United Teachers of Los Angeles announced a new strike date for January 14, Kirti Baranwal, a teacher with the Spanish-English Bilingual Program at the UCLA Community School, read her 2nd and 3rd grade students a book called Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. The cows in the book have a problem: “Dear Farmer Brown, The barn is very cold at night. We’d like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows.” Farmer Brown rejects the demand, and the cows go on strike. The hens engage in a sympathy strike; a duck acts as a mediator to help negotiate a deal. In the end, the farmer agrees to an exchange of the cows’ typewriter—which they used to write out their demands—for the electric blankets, and everyone is happy.
“We laughed a lot during the book, but the kids got it,” Baranwal told Jezebel on Friday, after her final day of classes before the strike. “The author is trying to tell you that you can make change.”
Baranwal is one of the 30,000 UTLA teachers who will strike on Monday, a decision that will impact an estimated 500,000 students at more than 1,000 schools across the second-largest school district in the country. For Baranwal, reading Click, Clack, Moo, along with another children’s book about the United Farm Workers Delano grape strike and the Los Angeles Justice for Janitors strike of 2000, was an age-appropriate way to talk to her students about the looming strike—both what it meant for them, and what it meant for their teachers.
The strike, which was authorized last summer with 98 percent support from teachers, comes after nearly two years of ongoing negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District, during which teachers have worked without a contract. The teachers’ demands range from the bread and butter of salary and benefits to proposals around lowering classroom sizes and hiring more nurses and counselors in their schools. They are asking for greater accountability in regulating charter schools and reforms to disciplinary practice that teachers argue feed the school-to-prison pipeline. The demands are both practical and existential: the contract is about day to day working conditions of thousands of teachers but also, more fundamentally, the survival of public education in an era of accelerating privatization.
The stakes are high for everyone, a fact which the district has tried to use to turn public sentiment against the teachers and that teachers argue only underscores the urgency of their demands. Right now, 81 percent of students in the district rely on a free or reduced-cost lunch program. Los Angeles has among the highest housing costs in the country, and a poverty rate that reflects a growing affordability crisis. All of this comes into the classroom with students each morning. “The strike is not going to hurt students,” Baranwal told Jezebel. “Conditions in our schools are hurting students.”
This is how Baranwal told Jezebel she spent the last week: preparing for the strike by talking to parents, talking with students, and getting emotionally prepared for the picket line as Los Angeles teachers join a wave of militant educators in the fight to defend public education.
BARANWAL: We were still at the bargaining table on Monday, so I waited to speak to my students until it seemed absolutely certain that the strike was going to happen. We started the week with a book called Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type. And then we read ¡Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A., which is told from the perspective of a little boy whose mommy goes on strike.
We didn’t talk about the strike then, only what was happening in the books, and right now we’re doing a unit on asking questions. So for each book, we talked about: What was the problem? What did other people do to help them? How did the strike help them? By Wednesday, we were still waiting to see if the strike would be Thursday or Monday, so we held our community circle, as we do every day. A talking piece gets passed around to the left direction in the circle because our heart is on the left side of our bodies. We speak from the heart, and everyone listens. That day during community circle, after a Tuesday night meeting with parents, we finally talked about the strike.
I was really surprised by the maturity of the kids’ questions: How long will the strike last? Will it affect our perfect attendance awards? The attendance award was a big topic of interest. But they got it—they got that at this moment in history, teachers are going on strike for lower class sizes, for more counselors and nurses and librarians. I was able to tell them we want better pay for the work we do, and that our work is teaching you. So it means, during the strike, I won’t see you because I’m going to stop working. I am going to ask the district for these really important things we want because we have been asking for 20 months now; we have written letters and gone on marches, just like the characters in these books did. And so we are going to go on strike like them, too.
I’m an elementary school teacher, but I used to be a middle school teacher. In elementary schools, in the upper range, there are 30 kids in a classroom. Our high school and junior high students are looking at 30, 40, and sometimes 50 kids in the classroom. So for one adult to meet students where they’re at—academically, socially, emotionally—is really hard with that many kids. Many of our students have witnessed domestic violence, they’ve witnessed family members being taken away by the police, by immigration enforcement. There are students who are homeless. In those situations, it is very hard for a student to focus on math, on reading, on writing. So when our basic needs—feeling safe, having a home, having enough food—aren’t being met, it is very hard to focus on academic learning. Many of our students are coming to school with heavy, heavy amounts of trauma. So this is why we are asking for counselors, for smaller classroom sizes. To really be able to support these students.
From talking to parents, I know there are parents who support what we’re doing but won’t have other options and so they will bring their children to school. I have a daughter who’s seven, and she’ll be on the picket line with me. I have spoken to her about that, how some of her friends will be inside the school and some of them will be outside with us. It will be a disruption to our lives, which is the point of the strike. For workers to show that our jobs matter, and that in our case it’s not just about our jobs but also our students—that their lives matter. So talking to parents, they understood that.
But walking out of my classroom for the last time on Friday was hard. Oh my god, it was scary. I haven’t even verbalized that yet. I don’t take going on strike lightly, at all. It will be a disruption to my child’s life, to my students’ lives, to my own life. But I think that when I am able to put all of those fears aside, I get that this is such a huge moment for us to come together as a community and really, collectively, demand serious investment in public schools. Our contract demands are not the end all be all to fixing public schools, but it is a start.
We need the district to show some respect for our communities, for students and families who are mainly working class, mainly Latino and students of color. And we will fight. In the day to day, teachers on the ground hold stuff together. We go above and beyond to take care of our students. And we want the district to do that too, to really push itself. It inspires me that our contract demands are not just about teachers as workers. In our contract, it’s us asking: How do we, as union members, raise standards and the bar for what communities and students deserve? Because the billionaires are not going to do it. The privatizers are not going to do it.
So am I ready to go on strike? No. I probably won’t be until Monday morning when I’m on the picket line. But I think that every time we enter into hard places in our lives, we always enter with hope about what can come out on the other side. It will be a learning experience for all of us. We will grow as a community. I don’t have any doubts about that.