LA Unified School District closure imminent: Teachers poised to protest over demands

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Thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District employees plan to strike as soon as Wednesday, in a move Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told parents would likely force the nation's second-largest school system to shut down for days without access to even remote classes.

About 30,000 workers who are members of SEIU Local 99, which represents bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria employees, campus security and teaching assistants, are asking for the district to "use the district’s $4.9 billion in reserves to invest in staff, students, and communities" to pay for a 30% raise and $2 per hour equity wage increase. The district's 35,000 teachers. represented by United Teachers Los Angeles, are expected to join.

“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,” Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias said in a statement.

The school district has offered, in part, more than a 15% raise, retention bonuses and to bring its minimum wage up to $20, Carvalho wrote in a letter to parents on Monday evening.

If the union and the district don't come to an agreement and schools close, more than 600,000 students and their families would be affected by the "tremendous upheaval," Carvalho said. The closures would hit when students are struggling to make up for time lost to the pandemic and end-of-year tests loom.

"The truth is, we are between a rock and a hard place," he wrote in the letter to parents.

"A strike would impact our students right now, but accepting all of our labor partners’ demands would mean future program cutbacks, possible job losses, or even bankruptcy," he wrote. "We simply cannot fund ongoing expenses with one-time funds such as federal pandemic aid."

Can we recover? Half of nation's students fell behind a year after COVID school closures.

How should parents plan?

"If this strike does occur, despite our best efforts to avoid it, the most likely outcome is that we will have to close schools until the strike ends," the school district said in an automated call to parents, obtained by USA TODAY.

"We want to apologize to you," the call began. "You do not deserve this, and our students especially do not deserve this."

"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," the recorded message continued. "We are committed to continue good faith bargaining with our labor partners around the clock to reach an agreement and prevent a strike."

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Los Angeles teachers and other school workers plan to strike Wednesday, demanding the district tap into its reserves to boost pay, among other changes.
Los Angeles teachers and other school workers plan to strike Wednesday, demanding the district tap into its reserves to boost pay, among other changes.

Strikes rebound after a decline

Teachers in a number of school districts across the country have gone on strike over the last year. Just this week, teachers from across Texas gathered at the state Capitol, demanding better pay and working conditions.

And in 2022, the number of workers involved in major strikes surged to 120,600 over the prior year, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Economic Policy Institute. Still, it's a significant decline from pre-pandemic levels in 2018 and 2019, EPI said.

Other federal data show that in addition to a shortage of teachers in some regions, custodians and bus drivers, among other school workers, have been in short supply. One survey last summer found that close to a third of the nation’s school districts had vacancies in transportation or custodial staff.

That's only added to teachers' stress and feelings of burnout.

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Who will be on strike?

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted that she would join striking workers Wednesday.

"On Wed March 15, I'll be joining @utlanow & tens of thousands of LAUSD education workers will in calling on LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to use the district’s $4.9 billion in reserves to invest in staff, students, and communities," she said.

SEIU Local 99 voted to strike in February, in part "to protest the district’s unfair practices, including threats, interrogation, and surveillance of members who participated in last month’s strike vote," the union said on its website.

The teachers union said it would join in solidarity.

"SEIU Local 99 and UTLA members work side by side in LA schools every day and share a vision for using the district’s historic level of reserves to invest in LA schools through higher pay to attract and retain experienced staff, smaller class sizes, cleaner schools, and access to the counselors, special education assistants, nurses, psychologists, food service workers, custodians, librarians, and others necessary for student success," the teachers union said.

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District, teachers, at odds

The Los Angeles teachers union's last strike was in 2019. The six-day protest was their first in decades and led to a 6% raise for teachers, added nurses and school counselors and changed how the school system handles class sizes.

2019 Los Angeles teachers' strike: Here's what happened 

The union was excoriated earlier in the pandemic for holding firm that it was not safe for teachers and students to work in person. Other California districts began to return to in-person teaching, in some cases well before Los Angeles students.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz told Los Angeles Magazine that, despite the months students spent at home, trying to learn online, "there is no such thing as learning loss. Our kids didn’t lose anything.

"It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival."

Then, earlier this school year, the teachers union voted to boycott optional learning days that were added to the calendar. United Teachers of Los Angeles in a press release has referred to the district’s so-called "acceleration days" as a “$122 million stunt” that “prioritizes optics over student needs."

How much time do kids spend in school? It depends on where they live.

Contributing: Alia Wong, USA TODAY 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LA Unified strike nears; teachers plan to join other workers in protest