The media tends to pay a lot of attention to UTLA, the powerful local union that represents classroom teachers. LA School Report is no different.
But there’s another union that arguably just as influential when it comes to LAUSD issues: SEIU Local 99, which represents non-certificated school employees (also called classified employees) such as teacher assistants, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and special education aides.
“The SEIU Local 99 gets everything they want all the time from the school board,” said one political consultant.
Sometimes, SEIU also stakes out positions that are different from those of UTLA. The most recent example is that SEIU has endorsed two candidates UTLA is backing — incumbent Steve Zimmer and newcomer Antonio Sanchez – but it has also endorsed Monica Garcia, UTLA’s main target in the upcoming election.
While many observers chalk the occasional splits between SEIU and UTLA up to SEIU’s close relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, others cite more nuanced reasons.
“The difference between SEIU and UTLA is, there’s a higher likelihood that SEIU members live in higher poverty areas,” said the political consultant (who asked not to be named). “And there’s a much higher likelihood that SEIU members send their kids to crappy public schools.”
This has made SEIU members more sympathetic to school reform priorities such as teacher effectiveness, charter schools, and accountability.
It also helps that many charter are open to hiring SEIU workers. SEIU looks at charter schools and sees an environment ripe for organizing.
The strong influence SEIU has on LAUSD could be seen at the last Board meeting, on December 11, when the Superintendent asked the Board to approve the demotion of one classified employee and the dismissal of two classified employees. An SEIU representative showed up and asked the Board to reconsider. The item was postponed until January.
The real question is how much money SEIU will spend to get Garcia, Sanchez, and Zimmer elected.
In 2011, SEIU spent more than $850,000 in a losing effort to elect Luis Sanchez, another candidate that UTLA opposed. That’s more than the Coalition for School Reform spent on Sanchez, who lost to Bennett Kayser, the UTLA-backed candidate.
The political consultant we spoke with also noted the key role that may be played by Courtni Pugh, head of Local 99, whom he called “one of the shrewdest political strategists in the state.”
Pugh was promoted to the head of Local 99 in September.
“The fact that she’s running [SEIU] 99 should scare the bejesus out of UTLA, especially on the Monica Garcia race,” said the consultant. “It’s basically Courtni Pugh against Warren Fletcher.”