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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Howard Blume

LAUSD bus drivers, food workers, teacher aides give union OK to call strike if talks fail

LOS ANGELES — Members of the union that represents most nonteaching employees in Los Angeles schools — cafeteria workers, custodians and teacher assistants — have overwhelmingly voted to allow their leaders to call a strike if negotiations don't lead to an agreement.

The 30,000 workers represented by Local 99 of Service Employees International Union include bus drivers, campus security aides and gardeners — all essential to operations in the nation's second-largest school system.

The union is seeking a 30% wage increase plus a $2-per-hour "equity wage adjustment" for all — which would especially benefit hourly workers making the least. The union is negotiating for salary terms going back to the start of the 2020-21 school year.

The ballots were tallied Saturday, and the outcome was no surprise — a strike-authorization vote is a standard pressure tactic — and the approval does not mean there will be a strike. But the union leadership now has a strong endorsement to call a strike at its discretion.

The size of the "yes" vote — 96% — was intended to send an unmistakable signal about worker dissatisfaction to the L.A. Unified Board of Education and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

"Working families cannot wait for living wages," Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias said. "Students cannot wait for clean, safe and supportive schools. We won't wait anymore. Workers have made it clear that they don't want any more empty promises."

Arias accused L.A. Unified of treating his members with "blatant disrespect."

"After nearly a year of bargaining, LAUSD has shown no effort to truly move essential workers out of poverty and address dire staffing shortages in our schools," he said. "Furthermore, throughout the bargaining process and the strike vote, workers have been subjected to surveillance, intimidation and harassment by the school district."

Local 99 has filed "dozens of unfair labor practice charges" with state regulators, Arias said, "to protest LAUSD's unlawful interference in workers' right to vote and participate in union activities."

The school district on Saturday did not respond to these specific allegations, but provided a statement.

"Los Angeles Unified is committed to fair and equitable negotiations that offset the pressures of inflation for all employees who serve our students and schools," the statement said. "We are hopeful that we will reach an agreement at the negotiating table that is beneficial to our dedicated workforce and avoids disrupting the significant improvements we are making in instruction and social emotional support for students, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic."

Local 99 had declared an impasse in negotiations. The next step under California labor rules is mediation, scheduled to begin Feb. 21. Members cast ballots for the strike authorization from Jan. 23 through Friday.

The teachers union has pledged to support a Local 99 strike. Members also have not reached a contract settlement, but their negotiations are not as far along in the process. Even so, teachers union leaders have been especially specific in accusing the district of sitting on billions of dollars in reserves that could be used for additional hiring and higher pay.

In a recent interview, Carvalho addressed claims related to district reserves.

"We're not sitting on $5 billion worth of reserves," Carvalho said. "And to say that is inspiring false hope — period. I stand by it."

Carvalho also said that the district is actively filling vacancies and has done well in a tight labor market, adding 2,100 teachers for the current school year.

While members of the teachers union have highlighted their struggles to get by in high-cost Southern California, Local 99 workers generally make considerably less, with wages well below the federal threshold for "very low income."

The average annual pay for the unit with instructional aides, including for special education, is $27,531. The average for the unit that includes bus drivers, custodians and food service workers is $31,825. Teacher assistants on average make $22,657. Those in the unit that includes after-school program workers on average make $14,576.

About 24,000 Local 99 members work fewer than eight hours a day, and about 6,000 work eight-hour jobs. Many union members are part of households with school-age students, including many in L.A. Unified.

"This over-reliance on a low-wage, part-time workforce makes it difficult for the school district to retain and recruit workers, leading to serious staffing shortages," a union spokeswoman said.

More than 10,000 Local 99 members do not get healthcare coverage though the school district.

A challenge for the union is winning meaningful raises for work that typically does not pay well and continues to be low paid in other school systems. It has been commonplace for Local 99 members to work second jobs and rely on the employment of other family members.


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