Last-minute talks fail, massive LAUSD strike and school shutdowns set for Tuesday

United Teachers of Los Angeles and SEIU 99 members hold a joint rally at Grand Park in a historic show of solidarity.
United Teachers of Los Angeles and Service Employees Union International Local 99 members held a joint rally at Grand Park last week in a show of solidarity. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Last-minute efforts failed to avert a Tuesday strike that will shut down Los Angeles public schools and lead to a disruption of learning, vital meal services and the daily lives of some 420,000 children and their families in the nation's second-largest school system.

L.A. schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho called the walkout an unnecessary harm to students that will compound the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2019 teachers strike, when six school days were lost.

Union leaders called the strike an unfortunate but necessary step to uplift workers and ultimately students as well.

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There had been hope of averting the walkout based on informal conversations over the weekend and the resumption Monday afternoon of mediation between the school district and the union that is leading the strike, Local 99 of Service Employees International Union.

But these talks never really got off the ground, Carvalho said Monday.

"We engaged in the process throughout the weekend — Saturday, had some meaningful conversation, Sunday," he said. "Today, despite our invitation for a transparent, honest conversation that perhaps would result in a meaningful solution that would avoid a strike, we were never able to be in the same room or at the same table to address these issues."

"Members of my team and I, we literally sat in a car for two-and-a-half hours waiting for a location to drive to ... meet and, for a whole host of reasons, some of which are foreign to me, that never took place," he said.

Previously, union leaders had, in effect, ruled out talks before the strike, saying that they were waiting for the next formal step in the negotiations process — setting up a fact-finding panel, which would take some time.

But the union also said it was willing to resume talks if the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to meet its demand for a 30% salary increase plus $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid workers.

The district offer

District officials increased their offer in a series of moves over several days. By Saturday, the offer was, according to the district, a cumulative 23% raise, starting with 2% retroactive as of the 2020-21 school year and ending with 5% in 2024-25. The package also includes a one-time 3% bonus for those who have worked since 2020-21, along with expanded hours, more full-time positions and improved eligibility for healthcare.

The district estimates the cost of expanding health benefits at about $20,000 per year per employee.

Union Executive Director Max Arias said a primary goal of the union has been to raise the average annual wage of members from $25,000 to $36,000.

The union, which represents some of the district's lowest-paid workers, includes bus drivers, teacher aides, special education assistants, security aides, custodians and food-service workers.

United Teachers Los Angeles — which represents teachers, nurses, therapists, counselors and librarians — has urged its members to go on strike in support of Local 99.

"You’re supporting the cafeteria lady with her hairnet that serves you food," San Fernando Valley UTLA leader Scott Mandel wrote in a letter to colleagues. "You’re supporting the custodian who cleans your room. You’re supporting the classroom aide that helps you with that unruly student."

"We’re teachers," he added. "We don’t put up with injustice; we promote supporting our fellow people."

UTLA also is negotiating a contract and had lengthy bargaining sessions on Friday and Saturday.

Ongoing talks

Arias characterized the Monday interchange with the district as a part of the mediation and fact-finding process overseen by the state labor regulators. While that process could lead to a settlement, it did not prevent the strike, which is a protest over alleged unfair labor practices. The union accuses the school system of impeding the rights of workers to engage in legally protected union-related activities.

“We want to be clear that we are not in negotiations with LAUSD," Arias said. "We continue to be engaged in the impasse process with the state.”

The union statement noted that members had voted overwhelmingly in support of letting its leaders call a strike at their discretion.

"During the strike vote and contract bargaining process, the district subjected workers to surveillance, intimidation and harassment," the union alleged. And it is these issues that justify the three-day job action, the union said.

Arias described the Monday meeting as part of "a confidential mediation process with LAUSD to try and address our differences."

"Unfortunately, LAUSD broke that confidentiality by sharing it with the media before our bargaining team, which makes all decisions, had a chance to discuss how to proceed. This is yet another example of the school district's continued disrespect of school workers. We are ready to strike."

School board President Jackie Goldberg, a longtime champion of labor, took responsibility for telling the media that mediation efforts were taking place Monday.

"I was proud that they were coming to the table for mediation and I wanted to congratulate them," she said of her Monday afternoon disclosure to The Times. "I had no idea that they thought it was a secret. Nobody told me that it was a secret. ... I was overjoyed and feeling optimistic."

District officials have generally denied wrongdoing in the unfair practice cases filed by Local 99, but Carvalho pledged that the allegations would be investigated.

Separately, the school district had filed a legal challenge with state labor regulators alleging that the strike is illegal. But the Public Employment Relations Board did not issue a ruling by the end of business on Monday, even though an official there said review of the case would be "expedited."

In the meantime, the strike is on.

If it lasts the scheduled three days, the cost in lost attendance money will be about $100 million, the district said. Some of that funding will be made up by not paying striking employees.

Pickets will be stationed at locations such as bus depots as early as 4 a.m. and at schools as early as 6:30 a.m. A massive rally is planned for school district headquarters starting at noon.

Day-care options, sports cancellations

Parents will be scrambling for child care.

The district has set up limited supervision on a first come, first served basis at 154 schools, with a combined capacity of about 12,000 — compared with the district enrollment of more than 422,000.

Sites at city and county parks and recreation centers can accommodate another 3,000 or so. The county is first come, first served. The city has set up a reservation system. The district will try to display online which sites fill up to help parents.

The hours of operation are slightly different for the district, the city and the county.

With fierce spring storms looming, many parents predicted morning chaos at first come, first served locations.

Meanwhile, the reservation-based city program filled up quickly at sites in Tarzana, Highland Park and Baldwin Hills. Some sites in low-income areas still had space to spare on Tuesday. Capacity is about 100 per site.

Groups, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, are pitching in as well, reaching out first to families they already serve. Westside Nannies, a child-care concierge service based in Beverly Hills, announced it would temporarily waive registration fees for working parents of modest means.

The strike will lead to the cancellation of more than 100 scheduled games across the three-day span in the Los Angeles City Section, according to the local high school athletics governing body. Practices will also be shut down and individual schools will have the responsibility of rescheduling canceled games.

Meal distribution

On Tuesday from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. the school system will hand out up to six prepackaged meals at 24 designated sites — to cover breakfast and lunch for each of the three days. But the total number of meals is only about 360,000.

"Despite the feeding stations that we have lined up and the child-supervision sites, I do expect for some issues to occur," Carvalho said. "There may be some sites that may see too many parents attempting to drop off children at that one site. They have capacity issues.

"We're asking parents to locate the closest site and identify also two or three other alternatives to that. We'll get through this. We will get through this."

Times staff writers Luca Evans and Sonja Sharp contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.