Tens of thousands of workers in the Los Angeles unified school district, accompanied by teachers, walked off the job on Tuesday over stalled contract talks for higher pay and better working conditions, shutting down the nation’s second-largest school system.
The strike, which is expected to last three days, upended the lives of more than 500,000 students and their families from schools in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teachers demanded more support at a time when educators in the city and elsewhere are struggling to afford to live where they work.
The latest strike comes years after a swirl of educator activism swept across the country, from Oklahoma to Chicago to Los Angeles itself, as teachers take more aggressive labor action to compel districts to improve working conditions during contract negotiations. In 2019, tens of thousands of teachers walked out of Los Angeles schools for six days and demanded higher wages, smaller class sizes, and more support staff.
This time, the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 30,000 teachers’ aides, special education assistants, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and other support staff, led districtwide demonstrations. Support workers, who earn, on average, $25,000 a year, with many living in poverty and working limited hours, have demanded a 30% pay raise and more staffing.
In what Los Angeles schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho called a “historic” offer, the district has proposed a pay increase of more than 20% over multiple years, with a 3% bonus and “massive expansion of healthcare benefits”, he said on Fox 11.
Despite last-minute efforts to avert the strike, talks failed. The district’s support workers, who bring students to and from school, clean schools and feed students every day, have been working without a contract since June 2020.
The strike started on Tuesday morning from a bus yard, with workers chanting for better wages and increased staffing in a steady rain before dawn. Some held signs that read: “We keep schools safe, Respect Us!”
The district has more than 500,000 students from Los Angeles and all or part of 25 other cities and unincorporated county areas. Nearly three-quarters are Latino.
Parent Danielle Peters rallied with union members outside Hancock Park elementary school, along with her children, Jack, 10, and Ella, seven. She said it was wrong that school workers earn as little as $15 an hour, a wage Peters remembers earning for babysitting.
“They are underappreciated, they are underpaid, and they have the most important job in the world,” she said of support staff. “We care about them, and this is the least we can do.”
Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing 35,000 educators, counselors and other staff, pledged solidarity with the strikers.
The union’s 2019 strike resulted in a contract settlement, but teachers continue to negotiate with the district after that contract expired in June 2022. Teachers are asking for a 20% pay increase over two years, more targeted support for Black students, and more housing aid for low-income families, as they frame their demands around meeting the rising cost of living in Los Angeles county and the need for increased support in the years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Friday, the teachers union informed the district that it was terminating its contract, allowing teachers to strike alongside SEIU workers and adding pressure on ongoing negotiations.
“These are the co-workers that are the lowest-paid workers in our schools and we cannot stand idly by as we consistently see them disrespected and mistreated by this district,” the UTLA president, Cecily Myart-Cruz, told a news conference.
Myart-Cruz was joined by Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat and Senate candidate, who said the strikers were earning “poverty wages”.
“People with some of the most important responsibilities in our schools should not have to live in poverty,” Schiff said.
On the picket lines, Danielle Murray, a special education assistant, told KABC-TV working conditions had been declining every year.
“We’re very understaffed,” Murray said. “The custodial staff is a ghost crew, so the schools are dirty. They’re doing the best they can.”
She added: “Some people are saying, ‘If you want more money, get a better job.’ Well, some of us have bachelor’s degrees, but we choose to work with a special population that some people don’t want to work with. We want to make a difference to these students.”
Superintendent Alberto M Carvalho accused the union of refusing to negotiate and said that he was prepared to meet at any time day or night. He said on Monday a “golden opportunity” to make progress was lost.
“I believe this strike could have been avoided. But it cannot be avoided without individuals actually speaking to one another,” he said.
Local 99 said on Monday evening that it was in discussions with state labor regulators over allegations that the district engaged in misconduct that has impeded the rights of workers to engage in legally protected union-related activities.
“We want to be clear that we are not in negotiations with LAUSD,” the union said in a statement. “We continue to be engaged in the impasse process with the state.”
Those talks would not avoid a walkout, the statement said.
During the strike, about 150 of the district’s more than 1,000 schools are expected to remain open with adult supervision but no instruction, to give students somewhere to go. Dozens of libraries and parks, plus some “grab and go” spots for students to get lunches also planned to be open to kids to lessen the strain on parents now scrambling to find care.
“Schools are so much more than centers of education – they are a safety net for hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles families,” the Los Angeles mayor, Karen Bass, said in a statement on Monday. “We will make sure to do all we can to provide resources needed by the families of our city.”
Workers, meanwhile, said striking was the only option they had left.
Instructional aide Marlee Ostrow, who supports the strike, said she was long overdue for a raise. The 67-year-old was hired nearly two decades ago at $11.75 an hour, and today she makes about $16. That isn’t enough to keep pace with inflation and rising housing prices, she said, and meanwhile her duties have expanded from two classrooms to five.
Ostrow blames the district’s low wages for job vacancies that have piled up in recent years.
“There’s not even anybody applying because you can make more money starting at Burger King,” she said. “A lot of people really want to help kids, and they shouldn’t be penalized for wanting that to be their life’s work.”
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