At an hour of the morning that many of us might find unfamiliar, United Teacher of Los Angeles (UTLA) President Warren Fletcher walks to the corner and waits for a city bus to take him downtown.
As the unlikely leader of the Los Angeles teachers union for the past two years, Fletcher has changed the tone of the union to what he calls a more “low-key” approach to labor leadership. He prides himself on running things quietly, without bringing unnecessary attention to himself. He comes and goes without an entourage. He calls himself “dull.”
And yet, Fletcher is deeply opposed to what he believes are overzealous reform measures. His voice rises and his demeanor becomes animated when discussing the struggles his and other teachers’ unions have fought.
Fletcher sat down to answer some questions from LA School Report contributor Jonathan Arkin, talking about UTLA’s recent accomplishments, the district’s “top-down” approach to policymaking, and the union’s goals for the upcoming School Board election.
“The most valuable thing we have is our credibility,” said Fletcher. “When we say something is a bad idea, the public tends to trust us…as we come to this School Board election, it’s the same template.”
Los Angeles School Report: Can I call you ‘Fletch’?
Warren Fletcher: (laughs) No.
WF: During a short period of time when I taught P.E., all the other teachers used to call me ‘Fletch,’ so I have my lifelong allocation of that nickname.
LASR: What did you do before?
WF: Before I was a schoolteacher, I was a cab driver. That is where I learned every day was a different challenge. You can never predict the next thing that’s going to fall on your desk.
LASR: Let’s talk for a moment about your predecessor, AJ Duffy. He took some pains to distance himself from the current leadership. How would you compare or contrast your styles of leading UTLA?
WF: I’ve known Duffy for 25 years…we have different styles. I’m the first to say that. I tend to keep a somewhat lower profile.
LASR: Would you say that the 2011 health benefits victory, which you called a “huge” victory for the union, is your administration’s greatest negotiation accomplishment to date?
WF: I don’t like using the term “my.” [That victory] is the accomplishment of the union. I think securing the health benefits package in its present form was a major victory.
LASR: When you took office, you indicated that you’d like to get down to the “bread and butter” issues that concern the membership and the students as well. Using a real bread and butter example, there’s an issue that has become a very sticky thorn in teachers’ sides – BIC (Breakfast in the Classrooms). Many teachers say it takes instruction time away from them, and they say the union isn’t stepping in.
WF: Only the L.A. Unified School District can take the simplest thing, something as controversial as an ice cream cone – free and reduced meals – and make a complete mess of it. I don’t think anyone is opposed to free and reduced meals. But only if it doesn’t get in the way of instruction and create sanitary issues.
LASR: What’s the biggest challenge facing your membership today?
WF: The endless cycle of cuts and cuts and cuts have done damage to every school district in California. You have students with challenges that educators have to meet, and we are doing it with less and less. These are hard times to be a teacher right now. Our profession in many ways is under attack. Our members need a union that keeps its eye on the ball, the priorities on the school site.
LASR: What does the passage of Prop. 30 do for the rank and file? Besides just the reinstatement of furlough days?
WF: All that does is bring us back to zero.L.A. teachers have basically made financial sacrifices for the last four straight years [with] furlough pay…this year we won’t be making that sacrifice. But teacher pay has been the same for the past seven years. We have to, as we move forward, make sure that everyone understands that if we are to keep people in the profession, you can’t stagnate the pay rate indefinitely.
LASR: With the union’s House of Representatives election [now concluded], and the reform group trying to get people to run, take us inside that room. Who is running that [House of Delegates] room? What’s going on?
WF: Unions are all about dissenting voices. NewTLA is a group within UTLA…no matter what belief structure people have, my job is that I am there and I am there to hear concerns and to address [them]. Everyone is not going to agree. Every member of UTLA has right to be a part of the discussion. We’re a democracy so in the end the direction that most closely matches what most teachers believe. The last thing UTLA has to be is an echo chamber. I’m comfortable interacting with any member. What makes us strong is our diversity.
LASR: What are you hoping for from the March 5 School Board elections?
WF: We have a School Board that on a lot of occasions has pursued an agenda that has a lot more to do with the school ‘reform’ fad. The School Board two three years ago was operating in a bubble – I don’t think they understood how destructive what they were doing was. The one tool we have in the union, during election time, the most valuable thing we have is our credibility. When we say something is a bad idea, the public tends to trust us…as we come to this School Board election, it’s the same template. We need to make sure the public hears where the teachers stand, where the Board has made the right moves with relation to instruction, and where the School Board has made the wrong move in relation to instruction.
LASR: In your most recent State of the Union speech, you said the union would “face down the bullies and expose the charlatans.” What do you expect to say next year?
WF: I’d like to be able to say that we kept the promise to California’s voters…that all the Prop. 30 dollars went to the classroom. Stabilizing the school district to get us…back on the track to recovery from all the brutal cuts we’ve taken. It is possible for an institution like LAUSD to behave in a responsible way.
Jonathan Arkin is a graduate of Columbia University, USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Edited and condensed for clarity
Previous posts: Duffy: Comments From The Classroom, Steve Zimmer: Stuck in the Middle, Board President Garcia Talks Policy & Politics, Board Member Martinez Touts Union Support & Public Choice, A Conversation With John Deasy, Board Member Galatzan Tells (Almost) All,