Mayor Bass mediating LAUSD strike; union has not ruled out a second walkout at later date
As a strike that has shut down Los Angeles public schools continues into a second day — and with the possibility of future walkouts a reality — Mayor Karen Bass has stepped in to talk with union and school district leaders to offer "assistance and support," the school district reported at midday.
The district's noon update, posted on social media, revealed few specific details and gave no indication that the third scheduled day of the strike Thursday could be prevented.
"District officials have been in conversation with SEIU Local 99 leaders with the assistance and support of Mayor Karen Bass," the 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."
Max Arias, the union's executive director, said in a statement, "We are grateful that the Mayor has stepped in to provide leadership in an effort to find a path out of our current impasse. 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."
In the best-case scenario the strike could end after two days. But on Wednesday afternoon, it looked most likely that the strike would continue for the scheduled three days.
There's also a worst-case scenario, under which the strike would fail to resolve differences — and workers and families would be looking at another walkout in the future.
For rank-and-file members of Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, Wednesday dawned as another day for picketing and rallies.
Bus drivers joined by other strikers and supporters began protesting in pre-sunlight 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.
In the morning, a spokesperson for Local 99 reiterated that the union does not have any negotiations scheduled with L.A. Unified for the duration of the strike.
The district's midday announcement did not necessarily change that situation — the conversations with Bass may be informal.
There were no plans announced by the union early Wednesday afternoon to extend the current walkout beyond Thursday.
“Right now, we are intending to go the full three days,” said Blanca Gallegos, an SEIU Local 99 spokesperson. “This is our second day and the workers are energized.”
Gallegos did not rule out a protracted strike later “if the workers’ demands are not met.”
“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.”
Union leaders said they remain committed to bargaining, but are waiting for the next step in the process laid out under state rules, which would be the setting up of a fact-finding panel. At this time, no date has been set for a fact-finding panel to begin its work.
The strike culminated a months-long escalation of labor tensions in the nation's second-largest school district of 420,000 students. Bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants, cafeteria workers and other support staff are calling for a 30% salary increase, plus $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid employees.
Last-ditch efforts to avert the walkout failed late Monday. Supt. Alberto Carvalho has pleaded with employees to return to bargaining, calling the district's offer of a 23% pay increase and 3% bonus "historic."
But frustrated union members showed growing resolve in their walkout, which was called to protest alleged unfair labor practices by L.A. Unified.
Max Arias, executive director of Local 99, said the decision to walk off the job was a "last resort" for the union's 30,000 workers after almost a year of bargaining for better wages. Many workers take second or third jobs to make ends meet. The union's goal has been to raise the average annual wage of members from $25,000 to $36,000.
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.
The walkout has roiled family schedules, as thousands of parents seek day-care options or are missing work. Some parents lamented that the school shutdown was harming their children's emotional health and academic progress, while others said they backed the walkout.
County and city leaders are again offering free day care for families, but food distribution was provided only on Tuesday, with more than 124,000 meals handed out to cover the three days, according to the district.
On a typical school day the district distributes close to a million meals — breakfast, lunch and some dinners as well.
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 in solidarity and joined picket lines. Striking workers forfeit their pay for the time away from the job.
Danny Armstrong, a drama teacher at Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills, said he would need to tighten his belt to forgo pay for three days. But he attended a union rally at district headquarters Tuesday — and brought his daughter Honey, a 16-year-old Valley Academy junior — to support staff members who keep schools running.
“It breaks my heart that the district’s message to our children is ‘Hey, we’re not going to pay the people who take care of you,’ so we don’t really care about you,” Armstrong said.
Honey said the civics exercise taught her an important lesson: “If you want a good education, you’re going to fight for it,” she said.
At Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, Carvalho said district leaders had "incredible respect" for workers and the offer recognized they made "huge sacrifices" for the families they serve. But he said the union wage demands, coupled with raises for other union and nonunion employees, would exceed what the district can afford over the long term. The union argues that the district's reserves are large enough to afford the pay increases.
Because the wage-negotiation process is still under way, Local 99 called the strike to protest alleged unfair labor practices. Although district officials have either denied wrongdoing or are still reviewing more than a dozen allegations filed with state labor regulators by Local 99, Carvalho has nonetheless pledged an investigation into the claims.
Gallegos, the union spokesperson, said among their chief concerns are what they believe to be illegal messaging from district officials that has threatened termination for workers voting to support a walkout or participating in a strike and has changed job classifications “for no reason” and given"poor job performances” to bargaining team members because they were negotiating.
“Participating in your union is a protected activity and workers have a right to do that and the district has been violating those rights,” she said.
Carmen Marchany, a special education assistant who lost her husband to COVID-19, said it’s been hard to provide for her family with low wages and rising inflation.
The South Gate High School alumni transferred to work at the school — where she was picketing Wednesday — so she could be closer to family.
“This community is my community,” Marchany said as she stood in the rain.
"It hurts my soul because people sometimes think of us as hired baby-sitters," Marchany said. She works with nonverbal and students who use wheelchairs.
Everybody on the picket line is simply seeking equity, she said.
“We just need — need — to feel like we’re valuable, like we’re worth something,” Marchany said. “We give everything. Isn’t that worth something?”
Times staff writers Brittny Mejia, Sonja Sharp, Debbie Truong and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.