LAUSD schools to open Friday as strike ends and labor talks continue with Bass mediation

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 22: Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) workers and supporters dance at a rally outside a LAUSD district office on the second day of a strike over a new contract on March 22, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Tens of thousands of public school employees including bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and teacher aides are taking part in a three-day strike, calling for fair wages and benefits, which has left 420,000 students out of school in the second largest school system in the U.S. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Striking workers rally outside Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
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As the Los Angeles Unified School District strike that has shut down campuses concluded Thursday afternoon, schools will reopen Friday and Mayor Karen Bass will continue working to mediate the ongoing dispute.

The participation of the mayor began Wednesday, a mediation effort to reach an accord between L.A. Unified and Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents some of the lowest-paid school employees and whose members include gardeners, custodians, teacher aides, special education assistants, bus drivers and food service workers.

Bass hopes to help the parties reach an agreement "to reopen schools and guarantee fair treatment of all LAUSD workers," according to a public schedule sent out by her office.

Local 99 characterized the effort in similar terms.

"Talks convened by Mayor Bass between SEIU Local 99 and LAUSD continue today," said spokesperson Blanca Gallegos. "We are hopeful that under her leadership we can have productive talks."

These talks have not affected the course of the strike — which was set to last three days.

"Workers will return to schools and worksites tomorrow," Gallegos said. "What they accomplished in the last three days is greater recognition for their contributions to student learning. We are hopeful this will lead to ongoing good faith negotiations with LAUSD."

Although the walkout is spearheaded by Local 99, United Teachers Los Angeles urged its members to join in the strike — an action of solidarity that led to the closing of campuses.

During a boisterous rally Thursday afternoon attended by thousands at Los Angeles State Historic Park, union members chanted: "When we fight, we win." Local 99 leaders and supporters vowed that salary demands would be achieved.

The union wants a 30% across-the-board salary increase plus a $2-per-hour addition for the lowest-paid workers.

The district has offered a 23% pay increase and 3% bonus that L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho has called "historic." Only workers on the job since the 2020-21 school year would receive the full wage increase.

Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias did not attend the rally because he and bargaining team members "continue in talks with the district," a union spokesperson said.

UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz told the crowd: "Our unity has shifted the power dynamic in LAUSD. Who is stronger in this fight? We are."

Later, she said the three-day action demonstrated "that education workers care about each other.... But it's also about what we bring to students every single day, our babies and the communities in which we serve. This is righteous."

Los Angeles school officials have revealed few specifics of Bass' mediation, but the talks remained crucial.

"District officials have been in conversation with SEIU Local 99 leaders with the assistance and support of Mayor Karen Bass," the update said. "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."

A man wearing a red cap raises a fist amid a crowd, some wearing red
Protesters picket in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Tuesday, the first day of a three-day strike. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Max Arias, the executive director of Local 99, expressed optimism Wednesday even as the walkout continued into Thursday.

"We are grateful that the Mayor has stepped in to provide leadership in an effort to find a path out of our current impasse," Arias said in a statement. "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."

The stakes are high for students and workers, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.

"This is a lose-lose situation," Noguera said. "The kids are losing out on their education. Sadly, the disruption is occurring just as many were getting used to being in school again" after campuses were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. "The district is losing money each day schools remain closed, which means they’ll have even less to negotiate with. The workers are losing both because they are grossly underpaid and because their action may further weaken the district which they rely upon for their livelihoods."

The negotiation process

The union has defined the walkout as a three-day protest of unfair labor practices, which typically involve allegations that an employer has interfered in legally protected, union-related activity.

Gallegos, the union spokesperson, said violations include illegal messaging from district officials, such as alleged threats of termination or retaliation against workers for voting to support a walkout or participating in one. The union also alleged that the district changed job classifications “for no reason” and gave "poor job performances” to bargaining team members because they were negotiating.

District officials have either denied wrongdoing or are still reviewing more than a dozen allegations filed with state labor regulators.

In a typical strike, workers begin their walkout when negotiations fail and end it when a deal is reached.

The formal negotiations between Local 99 and the district have been contentious but are following a step-by-step state-regulated process. The union has declared an "impasse," which means talks are at a standstill between the two sides. After that, a mediator steps in — a process that has already occurred but also has failed to lead to an agreement.

The next step is fact-finding, in which experts will try to determine what the district can afford and assess the costs of the contract proposals from each side. That step has not begun.

Arias, in his statement Wednesday, used the words "current impasse" and therefore seemed to be referring to the formal negotiation process and not the ongoing job action.

Gallegos later added more detail, suggesting that the dispute over contract issues and unfair practices was on the table to be resolved.

"Mayor Karen Bass is hosting the meeting in an effort to find a path past our impasse with LAUSD, including resolving issues of the contract and the unfair labor practices," Gallegos said.

She cautioned against presuming there would be an immediate resolution.

"There is no timeline to how long these talks may take," she said.

Gallegos did not rule out a return to the picket lines later “if the workers’ demands are not met.”

A crowd of protesters; many wearing red and purple. A picket sign says "On Strike For Our Students."
Los Angeles Unified school employees and supporters picket in front of district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“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.”

A seated man in a purple polo shirt poses near office windows with a city view
Max Arias, head of SEIU Local 99, at the union's offices in Los Angeles on Monday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Times staff writers Grace Toohey and Julia Wick contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.