Amid stalled labor talks, thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District unionized employees rallied in downtown’s Grand Park Wednesday ahead of an anticipated announcement of a possible three-day strike that would force a closure of district schools.
Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents roughly 30,000 cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and other workers, organized the rally, joined by members of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the district’s teachers and others, totaling another roughly 30,000 workers.
Both unions are working to negotiate new labor pacts with the district, but those talks have been fruitless thus far. SEIU, which has declared an impasse in talks, announced plans earlier this month to cancel its existing contract, moving the union closer to a possible strike. UTLA followed suit a week later, and said its members would honor picket lines if SEIU called a strike.
SEIU-represented workers voted in February to authorize the union to call a strike if negotiations failed, and such a walkout could be announced during the Wednesday afternoon rally, with a strike potentially lasting three days.
On Monday, LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho sent a message to district parents and staff saying that a walkout by more than 60,000 workers would likely mean a closure of all schools in the district.
“We would simply have no way of ensuring a safe and secure environment where teaching can take place,” Carvalho said. “We will give you as much advance notice as possible, but we encourage you to begin discussions with your employer, child care providers and others now.”
At a news conference Wednesday morning, Carvalho lamented the possibility of a strike that could shutter schools — on the heels of extended campus closures that impacted student learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What are the consequences? The consequences are once again learning loss, deprivation of safety and security that schools provide to our kids, deprivation of food and nutrition that many of our kids depend on,” Carvalho said. “I know that we focus our attention on the needs of the workforce. I need to focus my attention also primiarly on the needs of our kids.”
Another round of negotiations is scheduled for Friday. He urged the SEIU and UTLA to stay at the bargaining table until an agreement is reached to avoid a strike.
“With both time and resources to be allocated in reaching an agreement, we are calling on them to come to the table for staff and students, right now,” he said in a statement late Wednesday. “We need to reach a resolution that honors the work of our dedicated employees, while respecting the rights our children have to a quality education, meals and access to enriching school activities.”
District officials said last week that Carvalho had made the SEIU union “one of the strongest offers ever proposed by a Los Angeles Unified superintendent.” According to the district, the offer included a 5% wage increase retroactive to July 2021, another 5% increase retroactive to July 2022 and another 5% increase effective July 2023, along with a 4% bonus in 2022-23 and a 5% bonus in 2023-24.
“Ultimately, we must do what is in the best interest of our students as well as our workforce, which includes exercising fiscal responsibility,” according to a district statement. “Our general fund is not a flexible budget reserve — the district cannot go bankrupt. We need to be united in our efforts to provide every child with access to a high-quality public education that will prepare them for success in school and life.”
SEIU officials are asking for a 30% wage increase across the board, while UTLA has been pushing for a 20% raise. The unions have pointed to the district’s projected $4.9 billion reserve fund for 2022-23, while also citing rising inflation and housing costs.
“Workers are fed-up with living on poverty wages — and having their jobs threatened for demanding equitable pay. Workers are fed-up with the short staffing at LAUSD — and being harassed for speaking up,” Max Arais, SEIU Local 99 executive director, said in a statement last week. “We demand that LAUSD stop the unlawful activity, or workers are ready to take stronger action to protest these unfair practices. Canceling our contract is not a decision we make lightly. But it’s clear that LAUSD does not respect or value the work of essential workers in our schools.”
Union officials have said the affected workers earn an average salary of $25,000 a year and have been working without a contract since June 2020.
The union declared an impasse in negotiations in December, leading to the appointment of a state mediator.
In addition to salary demands, union officials have also alleged staffing shortages caused by an “over-reliance on a low-wage, part-time workforce.” The union alleged shortages including:
— insufficient teacher assistants, special education assistants and other instructional support to address learning loss and achievement gaps,
— substandard cleaning and disinfecting at school campuses because of a lack of custodial staff,
— jeopardized campus safety due to campus aides and playground supervisors being overburdened and
— limited enrichment, after-school and parental engagement programs due to reduced work hours and lack of health care benefits for after-school workers and community representatives.