UTLA Factions Lining Up to Oust Fletcher as President
Hillel Aron | August 6, 2013
Campaign season for UTLA began in ernest this weekend at the union’s annual leadership conference with one slate of members emerging as the leading opposition group to incumbents and other candidates testing the waters.
“Unions have to be unified to do whatever they do,” said LAUSD Adult Education teacher Matthew Kogan. “But democratic processes are divisive. We can’t be anything but democratic, but that democracy puts people in camps.”
Elections for president and six other leadership positions are five months away, giving challengers plenty of time to generate opposition to Warren Fletcher, the current UTLA president, who is expected to seek reelection.
One group is well on the way. A faction called “Union Power” has a slate of seven members, headed by Alex Caputo-Pearl, a former teacher at Crenshaw High, which was recently reconstituted by LAUSD. Caputo-Pearl said the other six candidates were drawn from three caucuses of UTLA activists: the Progressive Educators for Action (or PEAC), the Latino Caucus and the United Valley Caucus.
“Our slate really is a very broad coalition,” said Caputo-Pearl.
Caputo-Pearl is a member of PEAC, which strongly opposes the spread of charter schools and the use of public school choice to upend district schools. But he’s worked before with the Latino Caucus which, like PEAC, pushes for a tougher stance against certain district policies, like reconstituting schools and using student test scores for teacher evaluations. But the two factions aren’t always on the same page.
“I myself tried to participate in PEAC for a long time, but it felt to me like something else was driving that agenda,” said Ingrid Villeda, co-chair of the Latino Caucus. “It was mostly theory. I’m an action-oriented person.”
Villeda said her caucus hasn’t made an endorsement in the union election, but will eventually.
“We have engaged in deep conversations with the [Union Power] slate, and with Alex personally,” she said. “To be honest, we haven’t had any conversation with Warren Fletcher. He has not addressed the caucus at all, or even let us know that there’s an interest on his part.”
Fletcher was first elected as UTLA president in 2011 in a close election — and a surprising one. His opponent in the runoff, Julie Washington, had the support of Fletcher’s predecessor, A.J. Duffy. And Fletcher himself wasn’t part of a slate of candidates; he was simply a well-known UTLA activist running on a “back-to-basics” platform with an agenda that was not as broad as Washington’s or Duffy’s. Fletcher won support from a group of “reform”-friendly teachers calling themselves NewTLA, a group which no longer exists.
“NewTLA endorsed Warren — it wasn’t based on having a reform agenda, it was primarily because we thought it would be an opportunity for greater democratic dialogue within the union, and hearing the voice of multiple perspectives,” said Michael Stryer, one of the founders of NewTLA who currently works for Teach Plus.
Throughout his tenure, Fletcher has been described as both a “moderate” and a “pragmatist,” attempting to balance the demands of the “progressives” and “social justice advocates” within PEAC and the Latino Caucus with some of the more “reform” teachers, who were less organized and less active.
“The rank and file is not crazy about the district, but they’re definitely more moderate than the activists,” said one consultant who has worked with UTLA in the past.
No sooner had Fletcher been elected than he began to face criticism from different factions — even from other elected officers, some of whom were on the opposition slate — and are again.
“The hostilities started before they even took office,” said one teacher. “There was talk, like, ‘I can’t work with that person.’ Each claims to have tried, and maybe in their own minds they have.”
“More than anything, [Fletcher is] very inaccessible, even to his allies,” said another teacher. “He talks to virtually no one.”
But Fletcher also kept the support of many key allies, including the substitute teachers, who tend to be far more active than other teachers and have a disproportionate representation in UTLA’s governing body, the 350-member House of Representatives.
Another key faction could be the Adult Educators, like Matthew Kogan, who became active after they were threatened with extinction in 2011. After that, said Kogan, “there was a conscious choice to became more active politically.”
Kogan said he hasn’t decided whom he’s voting for this time around.