By Christopher Weber | The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Thousands of service workers backed by teachers began a three-day strike against the Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday, shutting down education for a half-million students in the nation’s second-largest school system.
Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 30,000 teachers’ aides, special education assistants, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and other support staff, walked out amid stalled contract talks.
Teachers joined rain-soaked picket lines early Tuesday as workers demanded better wages and increased staffing before heading to a huge rally outside the district’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. 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.
Bus driver Mike Cervantes began his day of protest with a 4 a.m. rally at a bus yard before joining a demonstration at a school and then heading downtown.
“I’m going to be here, rain or shine,” he said. “This is historic.”
Lydia Vasquez searched for her husband in the crowd as demonstrators chanted “we are the future.” He works as a school custodian and she couldn’t remember the last time he got a raise. “We really need to be out here having our voices heard,” she said.
Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing 35,000 educators, counselors and other staff, earlier pledged solidarity with the strikers.
“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,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz told a news conference.
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.
“We remain ready to return to negotiations with SEIU Local 99 so we can provide an equitable contract to our hardworking employees and get our students back in classrooms,” the superintendent said in a statement Tuesday.
Liev Kaplan, 6, marched with his mom, Tiffany, an adaptive physical education teacher. “We want to fight for everyone so they can have fair pay,” the first-grader said. His dad teaches math. “We are an education family,” Tiffany Kaplan said. “But we can’t educate if the kids are not fed, if they’re not feeling safe. We have to support our support staff.”
During the strike, about 150 of the district’s more than 1,000 schools remained 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.
“I will make sure the wellbeing of L.A. students always comes first as I continue to work with all parties to reach an agreement to reopen the schools and guarantee fair treatment of all LAUSD workers,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a statement.
Jerilyn Lopez Mendoza said she supports the walkout because she wants staff to be compensated fairly, but she worried how missing three days of school might affect her 15-year-old daughter, who is autistic. For the sophomore it means three days away from her social circle and the routine that school provides, her mom said.
“I’m obviously in favor of the strike and want to be supportive of the workers and their requests for fair pay and working conditions, but it also does affect my family negatively,” Lopez Mendoza said.
Workers, meanwhile, said striking was their only remaining option.
Instructional aide Marlee Ostrow, who planned to join picket lines, said she’s long overdue for a raise. The 67-year-old was hired 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.”
The union says district support staffers earn, on average, about $25,000 per year and many live in poverty because of low pay or limited work hours while struggling with inflation and the high cost of housing in Los Angeles County. The union is asking for a 30% raise. Teachers want a 20% pay hike over two years.
The district has offered a cumulative 23% raise, starting with 2% retroactive as of the 2020-21 school year and ending with 5% in 2024-25. The package would also include a one-time 3% bonus for those who have been on the job more than a year, along with more full-time positions and an expansion of healthcare benefits.
“This offer addresses the needs and concerns from the union, while also remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the District in a financially stable position,” Carvalho’s statement said.
The White House said President Joe Biden supports workers’ right to strike and the collective bargaining process.
“We urge both sides to work in good faith toward a mutually acceptable solution so that there can be a quick resolution and the kids, and school employees, can get back to where they want to be, which is in school, especially the kids,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.
The strike has wide support among union members.
SEIU members have been working without a contract since June 2020, while the contract for teachers expired in June 2022. The unions decided last week to stop accepting extensions to their contracts.
Teachers waged a six-day strike in 2019 over pay and contract issues but schools remained open.
Associated Press writers John Antczak in Los Angeles and Collin Binkley, Sarah Brumfield and Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this report.