Los Angeles teachers, other workers plan three-day strike as labor woes explode

Los Angeles, CA - December 05, 2022: UTLA members, students, parents and community leaders rally in front of LAUSD headquarters on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Members of United Teachers Los Angeles rally Dec. 5 in front of L.A. Unified headquarters. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles teachers union plans to join an anticipated three-day strike — possibly within two weeks — with thousands of L.A. Unified's non-teaching workers, actions that would likely shut down schools amid an explosion of labor discontent.

The labor action would be led by Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents 30,000 cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and others. Local 99 would be joined by United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents about 35,000 teachers, counselors, therapists, nurses and librarians.

Local 99 has reached an impasse with the district in months-long negotiations for an across-the-board 30% raise and more for the lowest earners. It will announce the timing of its three-day walkout during a rally Wednesday with the teachers union. A settlement would avert a strike.

"Over three days we can show the district that we are fed-up with their disrespect and not afraid to take strong action to demand respect for our work," Local 99 stated in a Saturday email to members. "This is a lawful strike to protest the district’s unfair practices, including threats, interrogation and surveillance of members who participated in last month’s strike vote."

An unfair practice charge strike — of a specific duration — can take place without going through the steps of the traditional negotiation process, both unions say.

United Teachers Los Angeles is also in the throes of labor negotiations, seeking a 20% wage increase over two years and a long list of initiatives. On Friday, the union sent a letter to L.A. Unified Supt. Alberto Carvalho saying it was terminating its contract with the district, a legal maneuver that would allow its members to join Local 99's strike, according to information posted online by the union.

The joint rally with Local 99 is intended to demonstrate the force of union solidarity, ratcheting up pressure on the district. If Local 99 does not reach an agreement, teachers would stay home or picket alongside them, the union said in an online post.

"Terminating the contract takes away from LAUSD executing a frivolous legal argument that they raised in 2019 that terminating the contract must occur before ... UTLA as an organization can engage" in a strike, a union FAQ states. The union was referring to an attempt by L.A. Unified to delay or halt what became a six-day teachers strike in January 2019.

Local 99 had previously terminated its contract with the district, clearing the way for its walkout. Local 99 said in a statement that it was canceling its contract "to protest LAUSD’s harassment of workers who participated in union activities, including a vote to strike last month. The cancellation of the contract also ends a 'no-strike' provision, moving workers one step closer to a possible strike to protest the district’s unlawful practices."

While attention typically focuses on teachers because of their vital role and political clout, the contribution of Local 99 members also is essential. Students rely on the meals cooked and served by Local 99 members. Its members drive buses, provide supervision during breaks and before and after school, keep restrooms stocked and cleaned and help take care of students with disabilities. But many of the job categories are low-paying — in L.A. Unified and elsewhere.

The average annual pay for the unit with instructional aides, including those for special education, is $27,531. The average for the unit that includes bus drivers, custodians and food-service workers is $31,825. Teacher assistants on average make $22,657. Those in the unit that includes after-school program workers average $14,576.

The vast majority, about 24,000 Local 99 members, work fewer than eight hours a day. About 6,000 work eight-hour jobs. Many union members are part of households with school-age students, including many in L.A. Unified.

The teachers union was firm in telling members to support a Local 99 strike.

"You do not go into work," UTLA advised. "You should join the [Local 99] picket line at your school site. If there is not a picket line at your school site, you should join one at a nearby school. There will be rallies during the strike and everyone should plan on attending those as well."

In a statement Wednesday, L.A. Unified acknowledged the possibility of a strike: "SEIU Local 99 provided 10 days notice of their intent to end their contract with Los Angeles Unified. This action takes them one step closer to a strike, which would cause a significant disruption to instruction, and would adversely impact our entire system."

The district posted on social media that its offers to employees are fair. In a tweet, Carvalho said, "I deeply care about our dedicated staff and students' wellbeing. We must continue meeting with our labor partners to keep our schools open for students, who should always be our first priority. I’m hopeful that we can reach an agreement as soon as possible."

In touting the benefits of its wage proposal to Local 99, L.A. Unified said its minimum wage of $20 per hour would surpass by at least 25% what is required by Los Angeles County, as well as California.

"To reach a swift conclusion and come to an agreement that is fair to our hardworking staff while maintaining our ability to serve students, Los Angeles Unified presented a historic, comprehensive offer," the district stated.

The UTLA letter to the district accuses it of unreasonably clinging to a multibillion-dollar reserve and negotiating in bad faith. The letter says L.A. Unified has "barely budged in its position over such crucial issues as class size, staffing ratios, compensation, Special Education, the Black Student Achievement Plan, Community Schools, and more."

Teachers are seeking a 10% raise for each of the next two years. The district has offered a raise of 5% per year plus two one-time bonuses of 5%. Carvalho has indicated that there is room to offer more but suggested that the union must compromise on other issues.

The teachers union has a complex "Beyond Recovery" platform that goes well beyond salaries and benefits. UTLA is demanding a guaranteed continuation of programs to elevate Black students' education and efforts to provide low-income families with housing — although it's not clear which of these planks the union would be willing to strike over.

It's uncertain whether the district could keep campuses open if both unions walked out simultaneously. During the 2019 teachers strike, campuses remained open — providing food and supervision — but instruction was limited, and attendance was low.

"We are concerned about the devastating impact more missed learning would have on students and their families," said Ana Teresa Dahan, managing director of the local advocacy group GPSN. "And we also worry about what a strike does to the income of workers who are already barely making ends meet, if at all.

"We recognize that this is a critical moment for SEIU 99 — which is trying to lift their members out of poverty," she added. "We are hopeful the leaders on both sides have the will and a way to resolve this for the students, families and employees who have the most at stake in this situation."

Union leaders are optimistic that they will have strong parent support, as they did during the 2019 strike. But some parents are expressing concern.

“I think this is difficult," said Maria Sanchez, a parent at Marlton School, which serves students who are deaf or hard of hearing. "As it is, we’re having a hard time without enough bus drivers and teachers. This entire situation will only get harder.”

The unions and district "must put differences aside and act in the best interest of students to reach a fair agreement quickly," said Christie Pesicka, a spokesperson for a parents group that has been critical of the teachers union. "I fear more disruptions will be the final straw for many families — further exacerbating an already plummeting enrollment and educational crisis."

The next negotiation session between the district and teachers union is scheduled for Friday. A Local 99 spokesperson said it has no bargaining session scheduled, but the two sides remained involved "in the mediation/fact-finding process facilitated by the state of California."

"We are currently awaiting dates from the California Public Employment Relations Board to begin the fact-finding process," said Local 99 spokesperson Blanca Gallegos.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.