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The massive Los Angeles public school worker strike, explained

Unions are protesting low wages and “unfair” working conditions during the three-day strike.

Protesters wearing rain gear and carrying umbrellas carry signs that read “increase educator salaries” and “strike for our students.”
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) workers and supporters picket outside Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools on the first day of a strike over a new contract on March 21, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. 
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Los Angeles public school staff — including bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers — have commenced their third day of striking over wages and labor practices they say are unfair. The city’s public school teachers are striking in solidarity with school service workers, resulting in closures impacting more than 565,000 students in the nation’s second-largest school district.

Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents some 30,000 of the workers going on strike, has been negotiating with the Los Angeles Unified School District for nearly a year, seeking significant raises and improved health care benefits, as well as more full-time work to address staffing shortages. As of Thursday morning, they had yet to reach an agreement, but Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass stepped in to help facilitate the discussion.

In December, after the district rejected the union’s proposals, the state was brought in to help mediate in a confidential process. The union has accused the district of subjecting workers to “surveillance, intimidation, and harassment” over the course of the negotiation process and during the strike vote. It has also claimed that the district broke its commitment to confidentiality during the mediation process by sharing details with the media. In February, 96 percent of the union voted in support of a strike.

According to the union, the average staffer’s salary is $25,000, which qualifies as “extremely low income” under federal guidelines for a single-person household and under the poverty line for a family of four. That average includes full- and part-time workers; many union members are only part-time workers due to the lack of full-time positions.

“We shouldn’t be paying them poverty wages ... how can you possibly live in LA on $25,000 a year?” US Senate candidate and current Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told Fox11 ahead of the strike, adding that he would be joining school staff on the picket line.

The district tried to stop the unions from going on strike by filing a legal challenge Friday with the Public Employment Relations Board, the state agency that oversees public employee relations, which denied the district’s petition on the basis that it did not find that the “extraordinary remedy” of an injunction was warranted at that point.

To limit the burden on families, students are being provided with three days worth of meals at locations throughout the district, and student supervision is available at some schools between 8 am and 6 pm. But superintendent Alberto Carvalho has framed the strike as a disruption that will put students who fell behind during the pandemic at a further disadvantage.

Union representatives have argued that striking is necessary to get the district to answer for its “misleading statements in the media and threats against workers who are exercising their right to take action.”

What Los Angeles school workers want

The district said that it offered a 23 percent increase and a 3 percent “cash-in-hand” bonus in a last-minute bid to avert the Monday strike. The district has framed that offer as “historically generous” and as exceeding local, state, and national comparisons, with further room for negotiation. That’s still significantly less than what the union has been asking for. The district has nevertheless accused the union of refusing to come to the negotiating table, and Carvalho said in a statement that it’s “deeply surprising and disappointing that there is an unwillingness to do so.”

Workers are seeking a 30 percent wage increase and at least a $2 hourly equity wage adjustment. The district offered an average of less than 4 percent annual raises and did not provide any raises in 2020, according to the union.

They’re also claiming that the district overly relies on part-time employees, in part because workers cannot survive on the wages they’re being paid at schools alone and have to take multiple jobs. They want the district to staff up, increase the number of full-time hours available, and pay them for “unassigned days” when the district closes schools due to a high level of absenteeism, usually on religious holidays. Additionally, they’re asking for paid days for training and professional development and the ability to cash out on vacation pay. The union says the district wants to be able to “cut our hours at any time or not pay us for all hours we work.”

And they’re asking for access to health care benefits for community reps, teacher assistants, and other workers who work less than four hours a day, which includes more than 5,000 employees. They are not currently covered and would not be under the district’s latest proposal.

It’s not clear how much more the district can offer, especially given declining registration numbers and the fact that the teacher’s union is also in the middle of contract negotiations with the district. The district is sitting on a $5 billion surplus, which Carvalho has hailed as evidence of fiscal prudence, but he’s also argued raising wages too much could put the district “into a bankruptcy position.”

Update, March 23, 2023, 9:22 a.m: Updated to reflect that a contract has not yet been reached at the outset of the third day of the strike and that the Los Angeles mayor’s office has gotten involved.