“It’s Up To Us”: A reflection on the LAUSD strike and contract with teacher Tammy Matz

Tammy Matz has been an LAUSD public school teacher for almost eighteen years and currently teachers third grade at Melrose Elementary school, while also serving as that school’s UTLA Chapter Chair (the equivalent of “steward” or “delegate” in some other unions). Being a parent at Melrose, I sat down with Tammy after the fifth day of the strike to discuss her thoughts on this historic moment for Los Angeles and our school’s little corner of the fight. I caught up with Tammy again after the schools had reopened to get some final thoughts.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)

Tell me about yourself. How did you get into teaching and how did you end up as the UTLA Chapter Chair for your school? 

I started teaching full time in 2001. Before that I worked as an assistant for awhile in a special ed classroom. I worked in Hollywood and as it was becoming gentrified people were moving out and I was eventually displaced. The principal at my previous school knew the principal at Melrose [Elementary] and told her about me. I was hired at Melrose in 2008 before we became a Magnet. I was very much interested but did not know that much about the union. At my previous school, the principal had been very combative and for a period we didn’t even have a union rep because he harassed people once they were no longer Chapter Chairs. So at a certain point no one wanted to step up, and someone said “you’d be really good at doing it.” I didn’t know that much about it, and I was like “okay.” I ran and I’m sure I ran unopposed.

For many years I went to my meeting and leadership conference and Melrose was an easy gig. We had an amazing principal, and we had a really open relationship and we would talk very frankly. A couple years ago as the school board started to change, the whole flavor of being Chapter Chair changed. We no longer had as many friends on the board. When Steve Zimmer was defeated by Nick Melvoin, it became a charter organization. They brought [former superintendent, John] Deasy in with absolutely no transparency and they brought [current superintendent, Austin] Beutner in the same way, with no input from anyone. We’ve been working for almost two years without a contract. We’ve not only made no progress, but the district has moved backward. We had some very key demands from the beginning. There was a part of our contract demands involving class size caps. The board finally “agreed” to remove it, but they replaced it with something that was even worse. They’ve always been able to remove class size caps if there was a “fiscal emergency” and there has been one every year according to them. So while the class size caps are fairly manageable, they’ve never been observed. That has been a huge thing.

When I first became chapter chair, our leadership was not terribly charismatic. The president was [A.J.] Duffy, and I don’t even remember who was after him. He was fine, I don’t think he made any big stands. And then this group of people ran, and they came from West Area, where we are. Alex [Caputo Pearl] and Cecily [Myart-Cruz] were on that ticket, who I had been seeing at our meetings every month and I had a lot of faith in them. They were smart, they were measured, Cecily’s a firebrand and Alex has a lot of integrity and I really respected them. They were elected and I feel like the leadership has been really inspiring.

When that slate came along, beyond just the personalities, was there a different set of issues that they were emphasizing, or was it just a more militant approach to the same issues that had already been on the UTLA agenda?

I don’t remember much of what went before because it was unmemorable. When they came in it just felt like we had strong leadership. We had people that really spoke to what the public school system needed and I just don’t remember that before. I remember Duffy had blasted John Deasy. But as soon as he was no longer our UTLA president he opened up charter schools. I remember seeing that and thinking just, “wow.” I think there were people leading up to the new leadership who were sort of getting uneasy with UTLA. There was some talk of starting a new union. I don’t think that is any longer the case. People are really rallying behind our new leader.

When did preparation for a strike enter the conversation for UTLA membership?

I’m really bad with time, but I feel like as we’ve watched the board become less and less open to the voices of public school teachers, I think there has been an uneasiness that has grown and grown. Beutner’s appointment was really a call to arms. This is somebody who has absolutely no background in education. He has made his vast fortune dismantling businesses and selling them off. He clearly, as we’re seeing, doesn’t have a lot of people skills. But running schools like a business isn’t in our interests. Teaching is not a business. It’s an art, a calling, and at least when there are people on the board who have been educators and understand what educators need and hear our voices, that’s one thing. But [former LAUSD board president] Steve Zimmer being defeated was kind of the death knell, it was like, no one’s going to save us, it’s up to us. Beutner was just the last nail in the coffin.

What are some of the issues with this strike that motivate you personally?

You know, the entire time before I came to Melrose I was working at a regular [non-Magnet] pubic school. My first year at Melrose it was a regular public school. It was slated to become a Magnet. We were told it would be a lot of work getting the Magnet going, and I thought, well I’m already working hard, but I had no idea (in the same way everyone says they’re “tired” before we started striking, but I had no idea what that really meant until this week). It was a lot of work. It was a vast feat. There were a few parents at the time who were very keen on volunteering at the school. We wanted parent volunteerism but we did not want parents volunteering in their own child’s room for a number of reasons. And they were very, very upset about this. They then got on the bandwagon and wanted us to become a charter school, so they could become stakeholders. They knew that was the way in. They didn’t like what the faculty— who had all agreed on this point—were saying. So they wanted us to become a charter school. I remember meeting with them and how adamant the teachers all were: “No, we are not doing that. Our school is about inclusivity. We have not worked this hard to not serve all students.” The idea of charters choosing to reject children because they might be difficult in some way, whether it’s because they have special needs, because they are learning English or for any number of things. One of my neighbors had a child in a charter school and I recently asked her about it and she said “oh, she had to go to a public school because she has an IEP [Individual Education Program] and they can’t keep her there.” So I think for me, the biggest issue is that charter schools can pick and choose. That stirs something in me that I’m very uneasy about. There are lots of children who come to school with huge issues and I feel like they’re the ones that need us the most. Turning our backs on them is not an option for me. I feel like with my experience in the classroom, I’ve seen how much those children can change. Saying “no, we don’t [take those children],” that to me is a huge issue. The idea of turning an entire school district in that? Where do those kids go?

[The charter school lobby] have gone on record years ago saying we spend too much on education and children don’t need anything beyond an eighth grade education. But the “haves”—their children will always be educated, and that’s not why I am doing what I’m doing. That for me is why this is so important, because every child deserves that education. So that’s my biggest thing. If you look at Reed Hastings [CEO of Netflix] and Eli Broad and the Waltons and the Koch brothers and everything they’re doing, they’re trying to dismantle public education, they’re trying to break unions.

They see a major opportunity for profit in the secondary sources of privatization, from the companies that provide the standardized tests to the companies that build the schools. It’s almost like the union is not so much the direct target they want to attack, it’s just that the union is what’s standing in their way of their mega profits.

Exactly, because then they can steamroll. And that’s why even before we went on strike there was a lot of discussion of the fact that we’re the second largest district in the country. Districts throughout the United States where people are not unionized, they risked a lot to walk out. What we do now is being watched across the United States by districts everywhere and also by the privateers. That’s why we need to hold the line come hell or high water. We are making a bigger point.

You’ve told me several times that the teachers at Melrose voted unanimously to strike. I know there’s a strong culture amongst the teachers here, but is there anything you can say about the work you or other folks did to get teachers organized and prepared for the strike?

It’s been a sleepy little school, it’s really harmonious, and we have a supportive principal. I feel like as we got closer to a potential strike date, people got more galvanized, it became much easier. Initially it was really hard. People were all over the place and I’d call meetings, I would send an email and text and make an announcement and people would wander over. Sometimes I felt frustrated because I don’t want to browbeat people. But toward the end of winter break I contacted everybody to say I’m having a meeting on Monday after school so we can go over what’s coming down this next week. And every single person was there and on time. The exchange of ideas was there. As the chapter chair I went home and I felt like, wow, this is it!

However many years ago, there was the potential for a strike. There was a demonstration and a huge rally downtown and we were told that that was what averted a strike. [This time around] we had that demonstration on the 15th of December and I would have thought that this would say something. But what seemed to happen was that Beutner doubled down. He just continued to lie, downplay the number of people there, and he was saying stuff to the press and people just started getting more and more ready. But I remember that first day we got back and he had just come out with some new outrageous statement and people were like “I’m ready to go now!” He continued to spread confusion—that was part of what they were doing, sending out messages to teachers and parents who were coming up and saying “what’s going on?”—this was what they wanted to do, what they were trying to do.

That was the strategy.

That was the strategy. They were trying to create chaos, they were spreading misinformation, they were changing messages, and as we were getting closer, instead of making any show that he was concerned or aware or was listening at all, he just doubled down. I keep using the analogy of when you break up with somebody and you have doubts and think “oh did I do the right thing?” and then you see them and they do or say something and you think “thank you for making it clear I did the right thing.” That’s what was happening.

So Beutner was almost doing the organizing for you.

He was helping! He has mis-stepped all along the way. He was trying to drive a wedge between teachers and parents, and he has not only failed miserably, but when we go back, what has been forged between the teachers and the parents is the most powerful thing to come out of this. At Melrose even our principal joined us, slightly nervously, on the second day of the strike. He sort of was encouraged. We looked out and saw the support staff and they had sort of talked him into it. The second day I was told he went up to them and said “so are we going out?” He has been out every day standing in the rain screaming “Hey hey! Ho ho! Austin Beutner has got to go!” He brought us coffee the other morning. I have looked over in the afternoon and seen him talking to groups of teachers and I thought, we will never be the same as a school. Ever. We are going to walk back in supported by our administration, supported by all of our support staff, and custodial staff even brought out the boom box. We were supported so outrageously by our parents, our students, and each other. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know people that I really never knew.

Prior to this strike had you ever been on strike before?

I’d never been on strike but when I was in junior high school, my mom was a teacher and the teachers went on strike. I was out for twenty-three days, and I remember at my junior high school… I know that the strike in ’70 had the least buy-in. There was better buy-in in ’89 and this strike has the highest buy-in of UTLA members. So a lot of my teachers did not go out on strike. I remember my music teacher especially—I was getting an A in music—and my music teacher did not go out and my mother wrote her a letter asking what can she do and I was told that I could do an extra credit report, which I did and I still got a C in music. I’ve never forgotten that. Mrs. Pederman! 

I guess a “C” from a scab is kind of like an “A” from a teacher with integrity. 

Yeah! And I remember [Swiss Composer] Arthur Honegger is who I wrote my report on. So I had never been on strike, but I was raised never to cross a picket line. But this is my first experience and I suspect probably for many if not all of our members at Melrose. I went to my Chapter Chair meeting on Saturday and two women got up and this is their third strike. These two old gals and they got a standing ovation like you wouldn’t believe. I’m also really taken by the fact that we have I think at this point five brand new teachers at this school. Yanely who is not only our newest hire, but probably our youngest teacher, she and others will be able to say “oh yeah it was crazy, we just started teaching and we were part of this huge thing.” Really amazing.

In terms of the day-to-day picket line, you spoke a little bit about the community support. Is there anything else that’s been surprising about how it’s worked, as the woman in charge, the one we’re all looking to for leadership?

I think the rain kind of threw us for a loop, but I have learned that you find out a lot going through challenges. The night before I was really anxious, because I didn’t know how all the pieces were going to fall into place. I was really lucky because my husband was right there and he’s amazing at planning and he was the one who contacted our friends who had the tents. I had somebody very detail oriented, very good with all that stuff. But with the things that kept happening through the rain, there were a couple of times where we’d come home and I’d have meltdowns. I’m not only the Chapter Chair but UTLA, in order to help with distribution, has chosen some Chapter Chairs to be sub-cluster leaders, which means that we are responsible for distributing things to other schools, so I have four other schools. It’s like my phone never stops buzzing. We got home Tuesday night and I got the text reminding me that we had to pick up materials at UTLA Wednesday morning and had to distribute them and I kind of had a meltdown. I was like “I don’t know how we’re going to get everything set up! How are we going to do it?! We have to be there at 6:45 and set up the tents!” And Daniel just said, “You know what? We’ll get there we’ll set everything up and then I will go and distribute to those schools and that’s what he did.

It’s also really taught me that everything is not me. I don’t need to micromanage. That’s one thing I tend to do because I like to have things done the way I want them done and what I realized is I’m seeing certain strengths coming through with people I just didn’t even know. It’s like “You do this, you do this, you’re really good at this.” I’m seeing my peers in a completely different way. Tuesday afternoon it was around 3:00, it was our second day in the rain and one teacher, she looked bedraggled and she said “why do we need to be here now? There are no students,” and I said “Look at these cars. Listen to all the honking. That’s why we have to be here. It’s the court of public opinion, we want them to see us out here, and they see how much we care.” And that was it for her. She’s out there screaming and dancing and she gets it.

How do you envision things playing out in this next week?

The bargaining is confidential, so we keep getting updates that say very little except “hang in there! We need to remain strong. We need to be stronger than ever. We’re bargaining, we’re at the table, we’re together.” We can no longer meet where we normally do, at Hamilton High School, so we are now meeting at this great church on Walgrove and our meeting was amazing. A lot of questions were answered so when the district and the union reach a tentative agreement, that will be put before the rank-and-file membership and we will all vote on whether to accept it or not. We will not go back to school until we have voted to accept whatever agreement is put forth.

I will say that a lot of people are concerned about the transition back in. I’m not concerned about that at all. I did talk to my students. I sat them all down. I wanted them to understand what was going on before we left. I explained it to them in a way that I felt was appropriate for third graders. Most of them had already heard about it. You know, they made me cards. I’ve had people email me saying “my son really misses you and he’s looking forward to seeing you.” So I really feel like when we go back in it will be a love fest. There’s a really beautiful picture on Facebook of a picket line walking by a fence and a child’s hand reaching through to touch their teacher. So much of what I’m reading is “I miss my students, I want to be back in the classroom.” I know that we all want to be back with our students. My impression is they all want to be back with us as well. I think that there will be a huge warm celebration of being together again and I definitely think we will talk about it. [Melrose Principal] Matthew came out one day and gave us all an envelope from all of our students that were at school and he said if you don’t have very many letters it’s because very few of your students are here. I’m happy to say that I had two letters. Both of them were “thank you for fighting for us. We miss you, we love you.” So I think that it will be very fulfilling to be together again, and I made very clear that what we were doing was because we love them and we care about them and we need to make sure that they have everything that they need.

I keep telling people I don’t think I’ve ever experienced something like this in my lifetime. And I’ve talked to folks who are a generation older than me who have said the same thing. And you can’t fully understand it unless you’ve been out there and seen and felt it. I wanted to close by just asking what it feels like to be at the epicenter of this event.

The enthusiasm is infectious. People are saying that when they go home find themselves chanting. Somebody was saying “Bacon! Bacon! You can’t hide! I can see your greasy side!” [a play on “Beutner/Bacon” and “greedy/greasy”]. I said that my new affirmative response to everything is raising my fist. I have also found myself on the brink of extreme emotion almost all the time. I have cried very easily. When Matthew came out and joined our line on Tuesday and it was pouring rain, I was wiping my eyes with my wet, gloved fist and my face was all squinched up because I was so moved by that. Going downtown and just everywhere you looked—no one scared of the rain, and this is LA—no one cared. Large crowds I do not like, I’m claustrophobic, but there was a moment where we were trying to get across from 1st to 2nd street and I realized we were getting closer to the stage, and there came a point where I was just being pressed forward into a wall of people, and this is my worst nightmare. But that crowd, screaming out the window at complete strangers, getting down to the subway station and everyone down there is wearing a rain poncho and red as far as you can see, on the platform carrying signs. One school starts a chant and everybody’s chanting it. It was unforgettable.

The day after this interview, UTLA reached a deal with the district and the membership voted 84% in favor to accept it, ending the strike. The agreement includes class size caps for all grade levels, 300 new school nurse jobs, allowing for a full-time nurse in every school (at Melrose we currently have a nurse one day a week), a significantly lowered ratio of counselors to students, funding for new community schools, and a process to cap charter schools, among other gains, with none of the concessions the employer had asked for. Opinions vary over the degree and importance of the victory. I caught up with Tammy again after the schools had reopened to get some final thoughts.

So, the agreement has been ratified, and it’s certainly a major victory for teachers and the entire public school community. How are you feeling about the deal and what do you think it means for the immediate future?

I felt good about it from the beginning. I think we definitely have more work to do, but it’s brought some of our main concerns to the forefront. There was an initiative brought to the board today proposing a moratorium on charter schools [the resolution passed, with one member, Nick Melvoin voting no]. Charter schools are really choking the life out of public schools, so I feel really good about that. I feel really good about some of the wins we had. The class size issue, it’s over time, little by little, but we will be decreasing class size across the board. But the biggest thing for me is the dialogue about charter schools.

It seems like that was one of the things that was controversial when folks were voting. Some people felt the language around charter schools was not strong enough, but it does seem like after the news today, now that LAUSD has voted to send a recommendation to the state level for a moratorium that things do seem to be happening. What do you think the battle around charter schools will look like in the years ahead?

I don’t really know. I do know that a lot of charter school parents went down to the district to demonstrate today so they’re kind of galvanized into action as well. I appreciate that some parents can get things from charter schools that we weren’t able to get, like smaller class sizes. But we need to develop some sort of accountability for charters. I would like to see them all be unionized, personally. The people teaching at those schools don’t have contracts, most of them. They have no protections. Inclusion in charter schools has to be an issue, as I mentioned already. This needs to be addressed. Children with special needs, children who are English learners.

I have profound concerns about the charter industry. These corporations that open charter schools, they’re for-profit [about 15% of charter schools are managed by for-profit organizations]. They are run by people who are business people. All of these scandals are coming out. Kids go to school one day and suddenly their school is closed. I just feel like there has to be accountability. It seems like the answer to any issue with public schools has become: open more charters. We should be working within what we have to address concerns. Most of the people who live where I live send their children to charter schools. The effort that they take to send their kids to charter schools, if they just got involved at the public school that they don’t want to send their children to, they might be able to work to improve whatever they don’t like about the school. But instead they won’t even consider it. You know, “we’ve heard bad things so we’re going somewhere else.” To me that’s not really supporting the community. You’re moving into the community because you can afford to live there, but you’re taking your child away and giving your resources to a different community. I know that there are schools where big problems need to be addressed. I would hope that people would start to use some of the funding that we are hoping to get and address some of these issues in realistic ways. Put things back in schools that children used to have that they don’t have anymore, and also bring in new things that will help them, like mindfulness practice and doing meditation instead of detention. There are charter schools. I don’t think that they’re just going to disappear. But I hope we can work towards making them more accountable, more inclusive. My hope is that they stop creating more and more and focus instead on the schools that are already existing.

One does wonder if the charter schools get unionized and they have some sort of regulations around accountability, then does the whole motivation for the charter industry disappear and we don’t see so many charters after that?

That could be accurate. I know that UTLA has been working with some of the charters to unionize, and some of the charter organizations have really exerted anti-union pressure and threatened their teachers who are trying to unionize. Because people are deciding, without oversight, what to do with a lot of money. It’s reasonable that whatever accountability LA public schools have, the charter schools should have.

Any final reflections on this whole experience?

Being on strike was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was really empowering and really unifying. We’ve talked about it since our return. We were very lucky as a school because of all the support we had. It was what you can achieve if you stand together. Everyone has their own circumstances, but the reason our strike was the [brief] length of time that it was had to do with the sheer number of people who chose to take action. Every day the support that we saw from people who were completely random, local businesses, people who would walk up who didn’t have kids would bring us stuff, people honking, it did a lot to remind me about humanity, because for awhile I really struggled with that. This was a reminder of why I have faith in humanity. It was a really powerful experience.