Mayor Bass mediating ongoing LAUSD strike; schools to remain closed Thursday

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: Yadira Martinez, 53, left, works for LAUSD as special education assistant, on strike joins the picket line at Florence Ave Elementary School on Wednesday, March 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Yadira Martinez, 53, left, who works for LAUSD as special education assistant, joins the LAUSD strike at picket line near Florence Ave Elementary School in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles public schools will remain closed Thursday, the last of a three-day strike, as Mayor Karen Bass stepped in Wednesday to join talks with union and school district leaders to offer "assistance and support," the district reported.

No details were released Wednesday night about the substance of the talks or the status of negotiations between the district and leaders of Local 99 of Service Employees International Union. But in a social media post about 8:30 p.m. the district said it "must formally announce" the school closures.

Earlier Wednesday, the district said on social media that Bass was talking with both sides.

"District officials have been in conversation with SEIU Local 99 leaders with the assistance and support of Mayor Karen Bass," the midday update began. "We continue to do everything possible to reach an agreement that honors the hard work of our employees, corrects historical inequities, maintains the financial stability of the District and brings students back to the classroom. We are hopeful these talks continue and look forward to updating our school community on a resolution."

A man in a crowd of people raises a fist.

The walkout is being led by Local 99 — which represents the school system's lowest-paid workers and whose members include bus drivers, teacher aides, special-education assistants, custodians and food-service workers. United Teachers Los Angeles urged its members to join in the strike — an act of solidarity that led to the closing of campuses.

Max Arias, the executive director of Local 99, expressed optimism about the talks in a statement. But the union is moving forward with plans for a large rally near downtown Thursday after picketing campuses.

"We are grateful that the Mayor has stepped in to provide leadership in an effort to find a path out of our current impasse," Arias said. "Education workers have always been eager to negotiate as long as we are treated with respect and bargained with fairly, and with the Mayor's leadership we believe that is possible."

The negotiation process

The union has defined the walkout as a three-day protest of unfair labor practices, which typically involve allegations that an employer has interfered in legally protected, union-related activity.

Blanca Gallegos, the union spokesperson, said violations include illegal messaging from district officials, such as alleged threats of termination or retaliation against workers for voting to support a walkout or participating in one. The union also alleged that the district changed job classifications “for no reason” and gave "poor job performances” to bargaining team members because they were negotiating.

District officials have either denied wrongdoing or are still reviewing more than a dozen allegations filed with state labor regulators.

In a typical strike, workers begin their walkout when negotiations fail and end it when a deal is reached.

The formal negotiations between Local 99 and the district have been contentious but are following a step-by-step state-regulated process. The union has declared "impasse," which means talks are at a standstill between the two sides. After that, a mediator steps in — a process that has already occurred but also has failed to lead to an agreement.

The next step is fact-finding, in which experts will try to determine what the district can afford and assess the costs of the contract proposals from each side. That step has not begun.

Arias, in his statement Wednesday, used the words "current impasse" and therefore seemed to be referring to the formal negotiation process and not the ongoing job action.

But later Gallegos added more detail, suggesting that the dispute over contract issues and unfair practices was on the table to be resolved.

"Mayor Karen Bass is hosting the meeting in an effort to find a path past our impasse with LAUSD, including resolving issues of the contract and the unfair labor practices," Gallegos said.

She cautioned against presuming there would be an immediate resolution.

"There is no timeline to how long these talks may take," she said.

Gallegos did not rule out a return to the picket lines “if the workers’ demands are not met.”

A crowd of protesters; many wearing red and purple. A picket sign says "On Strike For Our Students."
LAUSD employees and supporters picket in front of the LAUSD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Workers are ready and will not back down,” she said, “and so we’ll continue that process and [if] it would be to move forward with more action like this, then [we] will.”

The union wants a 30% across-the-board salary increase plus a $2-per-hour addition for the lowest-paid workers.

The district has offered a 23% pay increase and 3% bonus that L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho has called "historic." Only workers on the job since the 2020-21 school year would receive the full wage increase.

Day Two of pickets

For rank-and-file union members on Day Two brought more picketing and rallies.

Bus drivers joined by other strikers and supporters began protesting in pre-dawn hours at the district's Gardena bus yard, yelling, "Don't cross," and carrying signs that read, “Equitable wages NOW!” and “Salarios justos AHORA!” Throngs of picketers converged under often rainy skies on campuses throughout the 700-square-mile school system and were to attend larger rallies later in the day.

A seated man in a purple polo shirt poses near office windows with a city view
Max Arias, head of SEIU Local 99, poses for a portrait at the union's offices in Los Angeles on Monday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The walkout has been supported by United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents 35,000 teachers, counselors, therapists, nurses and librarians, many of whom stayed off the job and joined picket lines. Striking workers forfeit their pay for time away from the job.

Armando Franco, an AP World History teacher who has taught at South Gate High School since 1994, described his Local 99 co-workers as “the most crucial working force at LAUSD.“

“Without them there are many things that wouldn’t happen,” Franco said, noting it’s “shameful” to know his peers are suffering.

As cars passing South Gate High honked in support of picketers, Franco said he hopes the display of solidarity between teacher and support staff will help everybody, “especially the working class."

“Ultimately, unions are the only mechanism that teachers have to ensure that a fair and equitable working condition is available,” Franco said.

While a three-day strike is not ideal, he said, the three lost school days will be worth it if the union can bring about not just salary increases, but wins including more full-time staff dedicated to cleaning schools, feeding students, providing after-school programming and supporting students with special needs.

“If you think about it, three days in the lifespan of a student is pretty insignificant, but those three days will have a significant impact in their lives if we get what we are asking for,” Franco said.

Carvalho has challenged the contention that the lost school days are unimportant or a necessary sacrifice. In a briefing this week, he said every school day matters and that workers could achieve the best contract the district can afford without going on strike.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.