LAUSD strike ends with classes to resume Friday but no settlement for low-wage workers

Los Angeles, California March 23, 2023-Protestors stand on a hill with Downtown L.A. in the background as members of the Service Employees International Union Local 99 picket at Los Angeles Historic State Park Thursday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
With downtown Los Angeles as their backdrop, members of Service Employees International Union Local 99 protest at Los Angeles State Historic Park on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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A sweeping three-day strike that shut down Los Angeles public schools — led by support staff and backed by teachers — ended Thursday, clearing the way for students to return to class, but the unsettled labor dispute continues to threaten the stability of the nation's second-largest school district.

Local 99 of Service Employees International Union — which represents 30,000 gardeners, custodians, teacher aides, special education assistants, bus drivers, food service workers and others — claimed success in bringing the plight of some of the school district's lowest-paid workers to broad public attention. The strike shuttered campuses, which will reopen Friday, and roiled family schedules as parents scrambled to find day care and secure meals normally provided at school.

At the muddy grounds of Los Angeles State Historic Park near downtown, a sea of union members clad in red and purple celebrated the end of their strike as they banged drums and buckets and sounded noisemakers amid blaring music.

At right, a woman speaks via megaphone, and at left, a man wears a suit, tie and red cape, with devil horns and a pitchfork.
Protesters express themselves as members of Service Employees International Union Local 99 picket at Los Angeles State Historic Park in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

"When we fight we win!" they chanted, along with teachers and family members who joined them in support.

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.

Mayor Karen Bass had stepped in Wednesday to help mediate talks and was expected to continue those efforts. Bass' aim has been to help the parties reach an agreement "to reopen schools and guarantee fair treatment of all LAUSD workers," according to a statement on her public schedule.

Neither the L.A. Unified School District nor the union have revealed details of the talks since Bass arrived.

Local 99 expressed hopes that the mayor would make a difference. "We are hopeful that under her leadership we can have productive talks," said spokesperson Blanca Gallegos.

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.

Vonita Rogers rallies on the last day of a scheduled three-day strike in front of Avalon Gardens Elementary School.
Vonita Rogers, a special education job developer at Banneker Career Transition Center, rallies on Thursday, the last day of a scheduled three-day strike, in front of Avalon Gardens Elementary School in Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

District workers said they were eager for a settlement, because forgoing pay during the three-day walkout worsens already precarious financial situations. And some are uncertain they could withstand another strike.

Veronica De La Paz, a campus aide and parent representative at Hobart Elementary, is already planning leaner meals to prepare for a smaller paycheck in two weeks. Maybe potatoes and pico de gallo, eggs with salsa verde; or stretching chicken adobo to two meals, using the sauce for enchiladas the next day, she said.

Her hourly wages of about $17 and her husband's minimum wages from a packaging job in the garment district amount to about $4,000 each month. But the couple live paycheck to paycheck — she had only $60 left in her bank account Wednesday night before her biweekly paycheck arrived Thursday. After spending money for rent, food, utilities and clothes for her fast-growing 7-year-old, she said, there is no money for savings, a car, much less Disneyland — her son's dream — or spring break travels.

De La Paz said the walkout was worth it to send a message to Carvalho and other district leaders.

"Your employees need better wages and opportunities," she said. "We're going to fight for our rights. We deserve as human beings to be able to afford housing and food."

She added, however, that she would not be able to weather another strike in the event of a failure to reach a settlement.

"Honestly, I don't think I could survive," she said. "I love where I work, but if we can't make it I would have to move on."

Erika Rioverde, a campus representative at Parmelee Avenue Elementary, also said the walkout was worth it — but another strike might force her to look for another job.

With an hourly wage of about $15, more than half of her family's monthly income goes to the $1,100 monthly rent. Since losing her second job at a child-care facility, Rioverde said, she can no longer afford such meals as ribs.

Raindrops cover a sign that partially reads "Respect, Pay."
Raindrops cover a sign during a protest on Wednesday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Some enrichment opportunities for her two children, ages 7 and 13, are out of the question. A STEM program and visits to the Natural History Museum are out of reach, as is a county soccer league — she said she can't pay the $45-per-child fee or purchase the shin guards, cleats and other equipment.

"I'm hoping they will settle," Rioverde said. "If [Carvalho] really cares, would he dare have the schools shut down again? People in my position will start looking for other jobs even though I love what I do."

Silvia Gallegos, a cafeteria worker who joined the rally Thursday, said she makes ends meet — barely — by holding down a second job at Uber Eats. She earns $2,200 a month and pays $1,600 in rent — which would be unaffordable without her son helping out, she said. She is constantly exhausted by her long days and joined the walkout "to make a difference."

Early Thursday, strikers again took to the picket line when bus drivers would typically begin their routes, but instead carried signs that read "ON STRIKE" and "Respect us, pay us!" At the BD Bus Yard near the Fashion District, marchers shouted, "We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!" while at other school locations across the 700-square-mile school system, picketers chanted, danced and sang as they demanded better from the district.

A crowd of protesters, many carrying umbrellas or dressed in raincoats, walk together; some raise their fists.
Teachers and SEIU workers and their supporters demonstrate outside LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Although the walkout was 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.

UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz fired up the crowd at the park rally Thursday, telling them they had "put LAUSD on notice" that every worker deserved dignity and a living wage.

"You braved some hail and you braved the hellish rains and we took the fight to every corner of this Los Angeles," she called out. "Our unity has shifted the power dynamic in LAUSD. We have changed the narrative and now everybody knows who runs L.A.!"

David Smith, an economics professor at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, said L.A. Unified has been in a "precarious negotiating position" because of its $4.9-billion ending balance while inflation and high housing costs pummel workers.

“Politically, the optics are not good when taxpayers see those kinds of dollars sitting in the bank," he said. "As Los Angeles residents contend with higher costs of living and inflation, it makes it difficult to be sympathetic to the school district. Not to mention schoolteachers and workers are generally paid the lowest wages among professional workers.”

He added that the strike had an impact beyond workers. The district's 422,000 students were losing learning opportunities on the heels of the prolonged pandemic. Their parents had to scramble for child care. Meals had to be arranged. Businesses that supply schools could go unpaid, he said.

L.A. Unified officials have acknowledged the size of the ending balance, but said most of that money is already committed to future salaries and programs or consists of one-time funds that should not be spent for ongoing salaries. All the same, officials said, the district expects to agree to sizable raises.

The union 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.

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

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

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.