Manual Arts High School has a proud 109-year history. Alumni include painter Jackson Pollock, actor Paul Winfield, and tennis champion Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez. Former teacher Josh Pechthalt was shaped by – and has helped to reshape – the South L.A. fixture.
CFT President Josh Pechthalt was a student at Fairfax High in 1970, when United Teachers Los Angeles struck for nearly a month. He later taught social studies at Manual Arts High School for more than 20 years, and was on the front lines in 1989, when UTLA struck a second time.
Pechthalt left Manual to serve as a vice president of UTLA, on the AFT side of the merged local union, followed by four terms as head of the California Federation of Teachers. As CFT president, he has focused on the statewide fight for fair taxation to save public education, but as UTLA contract talks with Los Angeles Unified dragged into their second year, it became clear that his “home union” was heading for its third walkout.
On day one of the strike, Pechthalt was back at Manual – located about 10 blocks south of the University of Southern California – with a picket sign in his hand and mixed feelings.
Even in the pouring rain, strikers were in a proud, confident, jubilant mood. Pechthalt recognized Lupe Bermudez and other former students who had become teachers and taken active roles in UTLA. Bermudez, the current UTLA chapter chair at Manual Arts, was in elementary school during the ‘89 strike.
“You feel a sense of pride that these kids have stepped up and taken leadership,” he said. “It’s a decidedly younger crowd, with more young people of color. It’s an incredibly healthy development in Los Angeles.”
But Pechthalt was also sorry to find old colleagues gone. The district classified the school as “low performing” and made wholesale changes several years ago. “One of these groups that ‘implements reform’ came in and, basically, chased everyone out,” he explained. “Good teacher or bad, it didn’t matter.”
You feel a sense of pride that these kids have stepped up and taken leadership. It’s a decidedly younger crowd, with more young people of color. It’s an incredibly healthy development in Los Angeles.
Manual Arts strikers anchor Central Area “gauntlet”
On day three, Manual strikers canvassed the community and found that almost everybody had heard about UTLA’s demand for smaller classes. “We were happy and excited that our parents and neighbors were so interested and engaged,” said Bermudez.
Later that day the Manual strikers formed a “gauntlet” with pickets from other Central Area schools that stretched a mile-and-a-half down Vermont Avenue. Passing drivers saluted the thousands of teachers by honking car and truck horns in solidarity.
“Our message was clearest whenever we were most visible,” Bermudez said.
Manual strikers picketed every afternoon in front of campus. Students in the school’s marching band set up to one side of the line and played the school anthem, “It’s So Hard to Be a Toiler,” and other songs.
“I’m tired and wet,” said picket captain Jacqueline Adamescu, “but I feel great.”
Adamescu teaches freshman English, chairs the English department and teaches yoga as an elective. This is her fifth year with “her own classroom” and her third year at Manual, but the Ohio native said she lives “paycheck to paycheck.”
About 80 percent of her students are Latinos, she said, with many recent arrivals from El Salvador and Guatemala. There aren’t enough special education staffers for co-teaching with general education teachers, or enough psychiatric social workers in a neighborhood where children are commonly exposed to shootings and violence.
“This movement is for young people and the community schools they deserve,” Adamescu said.
A strike restores people’s faith in themselves. And this is a strike they are going to talk about the rest of their lives. They accomplished so much more than anyone would have thought just a few months ago.
On day four, Pechthalt penned a guest column – “Why I joined the picket line at Manual Arts High in L.A.” – and described for non-teachers what it’s like to work at an underfunded urban public school.
“Every year I taught at Manual Arts would begin the same. Like thousands of other teachers, I would stop at an office supplies store to buy pens, pencils, folders and other basics my students didn’t have and the school didn’t provide,” he wrote in the political news site CALmatters.
“I would also get cleaning supplies. Not because the custodians didn’t do a good job. They did. But cutbacks limited their number at my school and the time they could spend in my classroom.”
Pechthalt said he believes the teachers’ firm commitment and decisive action, coupled with overwhelming parent and public support, could change education policy in California for decades.
“A strike restores people’s faith in themselves,” he said. “And this is a strike they are going to talk about the rest of their lives. They accomplished so much more than anyone would have thought just a few months ago.”
Every year I taught at Manual Arts would begin the same. Like thousands of other teachers, I would stop at an office supplies store to buy pens, pencils, folders and other basics my students didn’t have and the school didn’t provide.
Pechthalt is looking forward to November 2020
After leading CFT for eight years, Pechthalt plans to step down this spring after the annual Convention. His most notable electoral campaigns include Proposition 30 – the “Millionaires Tax” – in 2012 and Proposition 55 to extend that tax in 2016. He also rallied AFT locals across the state to step up worksite organizing drives ahead of the Supreme Court’s long-expected Janus decision.
“After 35 years of being active, I’m going to take a break, think about what it all means, and maybe try my hand at writing.”
The UTLA strike isn’t Pechthalt’s last hurrah. He has helped lay the groundwork for a massive campaign to pay for the local community schools, smaller class sizes, enriched curriculum, and other real reforms UTLA won as a result of the strike.
Schools and Community First, a CFT-backed initiative on the November 2020 ballot, will restore an estimated $11 billion per year to state social services – including $5 billion for public education – by closing a Proposition 13 loophole that allows commercial and industrial property owners to dodge tax increases.
“The state must act,” Pechthalt says. “California is the fifth largest economy in the world, but we are a dismal 43rd in the nation in per pupil spending. And without dramatic action in Sacramento, teachers and school workers will likely be out on the picket line very soon in school districts throughout the state.”
— By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter