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BREAKING: Talks resume as Los Angeles school strike enters second day

Los Angeles mayor, Karen Bass, pushes negotiations. Walkout in nation's second-largest school district could last three days

By Carolyn Jones And Kate Sequeira - EdSource

The strike that shut down California’s largest school district carried into its second day on Wednesday, as bus drivers, custodians and other essential workers in Los Angeles Unified continued their protest over low wages while families struggled to find activities for their children.

However, negotiations between the union and district resumed with the help of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. While both sides said they were eager to reach a resolution, there were no announcements of progress.

The strike resulted in another day of canceled classes for the district’s 420,000 students. The teachers union, which is also in contract negotiations with the district, joined their Local 99 colleagues on the picket lines. The strikers say they will return to work Friday if nothing changes.

Meanwhile, union members continued protesting. At Liberty Avenue Elementary in South Gate Wednesday morning, members of both Local 99 and the teachers union chanted, played makeshift drums, rang bells and blew whistles to garner support from passing motorists.

“I feel that this is a short-term loss for long-term gains,” said Maria Robledo, who teaches third grade at the school, adding that the strike is a sacrifice for everyone.

Administrators stood at the door of the school’s childcare center, several yards from the picketers, greeting a handful of families as they trickled in. The district has opened dozens of child care centers during the strike, although on Tuesday only 1,353 students showed up and attendance on Wednesday appeared light, as well, with rain as a possible discouragement. The district also distributed more than 124,000 meals to students and families who rely on schools for food.

Later in the morning, hundreds of striking union members gathered at the district’s Region East office in Lincoln Heights, where a surge of rain created a shin-deep muddy river. Special education assistant Jennifer Vivas said she hoped the union and district will reach an agreement soon, in part because of the disruption the strike has caused for families.

“Regardless of the outcome, it will better the schools, better our kids’ education,” said Vivas, who works at Pacific Boulevard Elementary in Huntington Park. “I hope that they understand, and they see a change.”

Local 99, whose members earn a median salary of $25,000 annually, is asking for a 30% raise plus an additional $2 per hour for lower-paid workers. The district offered a 23% raise plus a one-time 3% bonus for workers who were hired before 2020-21.

“Show us the money,” Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of the teachers union, said at a rally downtown Tuesday near the district headquarters. “We are tired of you coming to our schools for a phony photo-op when our schools are not clean because you don’t staff our schools.”

Credit: Kate Sequeira / EdSource: SEIU Local 99 and UTLA members and their allies gather outside LAUSD’s Region East office in Lincoln Heights to rally in favor of the worker union’s demands on March 22, 2023.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district is open to continuing negotiations.

“I understand our employees’ frustration that has been brewing, not just for a couple of years, but probably for decades,” he said Tuesday. “And it is on the basis of recognizing historic inequities that we have put on the table a historic proposal. This offer addresses the needs and concerns from the union, while also remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the district in a financially stable position.”

Credit: Kate Sequeira / EdSource SEIU Local 99 executive director Max Arias speaks at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Local 99 executive director Max Arias said Tuesday that he was frustrated at the district’s claim that it could not afford raises for union members, some of whom are among the lowest paid in the district.

“The district first has to stop disrespecting us,” Arias said at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown. “Start respecting them. Respecting them means treating them well, but it also means paying them a living wage.”

Jose Avilez, a fourth grade teacher at Hillery T. Broadous Elementary, said district workers need higher salaries just to meet basic expenses in Los Angeles.

“The cost of living in Los Angeles has gone up, so that’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s unfortunate (because) after the pandemic we know the students are suffering, but we’re also suffering. We have a lot on our shoulders financially … We want our fair share. The money is out there. We want to serve the kids, but we also want a fair contract.”

Parents said the strike is taking a toll.

Monica Arrazola, who’s children attend Hollywood High School and Le Conte Middle School in Hollywood, said she’s frustrated by the strike, which she feels puts students in the middle and has particularly impacted the district’s immigrant population. Exams are nearing, and the strike is taking away valuable learning time, she added.

“I know perfectly well that we all need a salary, and I’m very thankful for all of the personnel who are at the schools,” she said in Spanish. “The cause of all of this is the union that is profiting off the education of our children, that is using our children to reach its objective.”

Arrazola works nights and her husband works during the day, which has freed them of the worry of having to find childcare as the strike continues. Arrazola said she had considered going to one of the district’s distribution centers to pick up meals for the next few days but ultimately was unable to, though she hopes to soon. For now, her kids are completing the assignments the district put up on the platform Schoology and are finishing up ongoing school projects.

Union workers, many of whom are also parents, said a few days’ inconvenience is worth the longer-term goal of higher wages.

Sara Herbert, a cafeteria worker at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus, said she works 6.5 hours a day for $16.91 an hour, and it takes two biweekly checks to cover her monthly rent.

“I enjoy my job, but I think we deserve better pay and better health benefits,” said Herbert, who has worked for the district for 29 years and has a daughter who attends a L.A. Unified high school. “We are here for the kids and we do the best that we can.”

Gledys Guzman, who works as a special education aide for Woodlawn Avenue Elementary in Bell, believed that higher wages would lead to more vacant positions being filled. It’s been difficult to live on a Los Angeles Unified salary, she said. She switched from working as a general teachers’ assistant to one in special education because that guaranteed two more hours of work a day and an hourly wage $2 higher. She now earns $19 an hour and works six-hour days.

“I love working with kids and that’s why I’m staying, but come on,” she said. “LAUSD would rather put money in something else.”

At the Expo Center in Exposition Park on Tuesday, nearly 30 students spent their day between school work, arts and crafts, dodgeball and other activities. Giggles echoed across the arts room as the younger children glued colorful construction paper strands in the shape of a bow, while squeaks filled the gym upstairs as the upper elementary schoolers played ball.

Most of the students were already enrolled in the existing after-school program, according to facility director Laronica Southerland.

It wasn’t difficult to adapt quickly for the strike, after staff had made similar adjustments during the pandemic and the 2019 teachers strike, Southerland said.

“From 2019 when they first went on strike to now, we’ve had a little practice,” she said, chuckling. “It’s just how we can support each other’s programs.”

Randy Flores, a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps, also contributed to this article.


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