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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Grace Toohey, Howard Blume and Andrew J. Campa

Massive strike shutters LAUSD, canceling class for 420,000 students as picketers brave the rain

LOS ANGELES — A massive three-day strike calling for better wages and working conditions for some of Los Angeles public schools’ lowest-paid employees — bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants, cafeteria workers and others — began with a rainy start Tuesday, though picketers tried to keep the energy high despite the dreary day.

The striking school employees, joined in solidarity by the teachers union, shuttered the nation’s second-largest school system after last-minute efforts to avert the strike failed, disrupting classes, vital meal services and the daily routine of 420,000 children and their families.

By 5 a.m., when bus drivers typically begin their day, hundreds of district employees joined the picket line at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Van Nuys bus yard, marching in rain ponchos and balancing signs with umbrellas. At other sites, heavy rain soaked the picketers’ paper and cardboard signs.

Employees shouted, “Whose house? Our house!” a tweet from the union showed, and held signs that read “Last straw” and “We demand respect!”

“As a building engineer, I was called an essential worker by LAUSD during the pandemic ... but it seems LAUSD has forgotten that,” Conrado Guerrero, president of the striking Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, said Tuesday at a news conference.

Max Arias, executive director of Local 99, said the decision to walk off the job was the “workers’ last resort” after almost a year of bargaining for better wages and repeated alleged unfair labor practices, the impetus for the strike. The union has demanded a 30% salary increase, plus $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid employees.

“We’ve had enough of empty promises,” Arias said from Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Koreatown. “If LAUSD truly values and is serious about reaching an agreement, they must show workers the respect they deserve.”

U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Burbank, joined the striking workers at Kennedy Community School, calling the median income of $25,000 for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and school aides “poverty wages.”

“People with some of the most important responsibilities in our schools should not have to live in poverty,” Schiff said. “They deserve to work in dignity and live in dignity.”

There had been hope of averting the walkout based on informal conversations over the weekend and mediation that resumed Monday between the school district and Local 99.

Arias has said a primary goal of Local 99 has been to raise the average annual wage of members to $36,000.

This weekend, the offer from the district, according to its leaders, was 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 since 2020-21, along with expanded hours, more full-time positions and improved eligibility for healthcare benefits.

“This is a historic offer,” Supt. Alberto Carvalho said Tuesday during the Board of Education meeting. “It recognizes that these are the employees who have made huge sacrifices. This board, myself, my team, we have incredible respect for our bus drivers, for our custodial staff, for those who prepare and distribute meals for our students or to our students.”

District officials have generally denied wrongdoing in the unfair labor practices filed by Local 99, but Carvalho has pledged an investigation.

United Teachers Los Angeles — which represents teachers, nurses, therapists, counselors and librarians — has joined the picket line in support of Local 99.

“We will stand united — 65,000 members strong — until LAUSD and Supt. Alberto Carvalho give respect to the education workers that keep our schools running and our children safe,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of UTLA, said early Tuesday.

Alejandra Sanchez, a special education assistant, was one of 20 picketers in front of Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School. Her job isn’t easy. She said students with behavioral issues sometimes pull her hair, and her arms have been scratched and bitten.

“They don’t mean harm,” the 18-year LAUSD employee said.

“I love my work and the students,” said Sanchez, 45. “And it’s sad that I have to get up today in the rain to fight for respect because the district doesn’t understand what I and so many others do.”

Pay for aides who work with special education students starts around $19, and they can earn up to about $24 an hour working six hours a day.

Charles Flowers, a campus aide at the Eagle Rock school, said he understood the burden the strike would cause, but asked parents for patience.

“We need you on our side,” he said.

Flowers helps in a few high school classes, sometimes answering student questions, checking assignments or helping with quizzes.

“My job is to help the students,” he said. “I love doing it, but I also have to be paid a good wage.”

Flowers was joined on the Eagle Rock picket line by high school teacher Pablo Oliveros.

“We are out here speaking up for our SEIU brothers and sisters who are living below the poverty line,” said Oliveros, 41, a 21-year art teacher. “This can’t continue to happen.”

A group of about a dozen Spanish-speaking parents spoke at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, calling for an end to the strike. Some placed equal responsibility on the unions and the school district; others put heavier blame on the unions, while also expressing sympathy for the workers, especially the low-wage employees represented by Local 99.

“It does impact education,” said Maria Nieto. “I invite the union to please respect the rights of our children, just like I ask for respect for what they are demanding. And I invite you as an executive board to sit down and negotiate as soon as possible to stop all of this.”

The pandemic and the teachers strike of 2019 set back her daughter’s learning, and Nieto said she has yet to recover academically. As an immigrant, she said, “I don’t have the same labor rights as many of you do, but I have still given to this economy, and we’re all here because of our children. Education is a basic right.”

District officials are not supposed to respond directly to public comment — because these comments are not on the agenda — but Carvalho spoke briefly, saying that the board and district negotiators are standing by to resume negotiations whenever Local 99 is ready to bargain.

The leaders of the union group have said they are committed to bargaining but are waiting for the next official step, the convening of a fact-finding panel.

No talks are scheduled for the duration of the three-day walkout.

“The one thing I think is important for everyone to know is that we keep hearing that we should go back to the table and negotiate,” Carvalho said. “We agree. We have an open invitation to the union leaders to come to the table.”

Cafeteria worker Norma Leandro began picketing outside Shenandoah Elementary School in La Cienega Heights at 6:30 a.m., when she would normally begin serving free breakfast to students.

Shenandoah is one of dozens of sites where the district is providing free child care during the strike. Its students, about one-third of whom are English-language learners, live mostly nearby. Yet by 8 a.m., Leandro had yet to see a single child enter the building.

“We expected lots of kids here for care, but nobody showed up,” she said.

Coordinator Christine Ferreira of UTLA said the school had worked hard to let parents know care would be available during the strike.

“I was kind of worried about that,” she said of the anticipated chaos Tuesday morning. “But I haven’t seen any kids. We were anticipating we might have some kids come by saying, ‘Wait, the school’s closed?’ But we haven’t seen any of that.”

In South L.A.’s Florence-Firestone neighborhood, Cynthia Salazar walked up to Parmelee Avenue Elementary to check her 8-year-old son into the site’s day-care program — which also was far from busy. About 8:15 a.m., she dropped him off with the Beyond the Bell staff. He was one of only three students.

“They closed the schools. For me? It’s a big problem,” said Salazar, who was rushing to get dressed for work at a nearby grocery store.

Other child-care sites were more crowded, including Pan Pacific Park Recreational Center downtown, where services remained busy and food distribution lines steady throughout the morning.

Besides child care, many families and officials were worried how children would get essential meals typically provided by schools. Distribution sites were set up throughout the county. On the Eastside, there was a steady stream of parents arriving amid a downpour. Volunteers filled bags with oranges, apples, celery and carrots. Parents got a pack filled with meals to tide them over during the three-day strike.

Carmen Santillan arrived to an El Sereno site shortly before 9 a.m. with her 13-year-old grandson, Mikey, in tow.

“I think it’s really good that they give the kids food and they’re still supplying it for the three-day strike,” she said.

Santillan worked for LAUSD for 36 years as a teacher’s assistant and retired last year.

She said children do lose out with the strike “and this is only going to put them behind.” But she added that workers deserve more pay.

Back at Eagle Rock, high schoolers Romy Griego, Willow Ryu and Izzy McBride joined the roughly 70 to 80 teachers and staff picketing in front of the school. The trio are members of the Students Deserve local youth coalition, which focuses on the empowerment of Black students in the district.

“We have been trying to meet the superintendent and get him to understand our needs, and so far, he’s refused,” said Griego, a sophomore. “So we know how SEIU workers and teachers feel, and we’re here to support them. A win for them, we feel, is a win for students too.”

Roxana Tynan, whose daughter attends Eagle Rock and joined strikers Tuesday, said she was aware most parents didn’t have the luxury of a flexible schedule to protest, but thought any short-term pain from closed campuses was worth the long-term gains.

“Of course, we want our kids in school, but it’s not sustainable,” she said. “We’re going to keep losing teachers and staff like special ed aides, custodians and others if we don’t pay better. This is in the best interests of our children.”


(Los Angeles Times staff writers Sonja Sharp and Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.)

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