Labor dispute could leave LAUSD campuses deserted for days

Hosted by

Teachers from UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles) and SEIU 99 (Service Employees International Union) workers at a solidarity rally in Downtown Los Angeles, March 15, 2023. UTLA are supporting underpaid SEIU 99 members who want the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) to provide them with a fair contract. Photo by Ted Soqui/SIPA USA via Reuters Connect.

Update 3/21/23, 10 AM PT: Today tens of thousands of LAUSD support staff -- represented by SEIU Local 99 -- walked off their jobs. Teachers represented by UTLA joined in solidarity. Campuses are closed for some 400,000 students. A big question is where they'll spend the next three days.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is on the verge of a three-day shutdown as SEIU Local 99 — which represents nearly 30,000 LAUSD employees, including custodians, cafeteria workers, teachers aides, and others — prepares to strike. 

KCRW talks to educators, parents, students, LAUSD School Board President Jackie Goldberg, and SEIU Local 99 Political Director Lester Garcia about how the strike will impact the district.

Nena Martinez is a part-time cafeteria worker at Roscoe Elementary in Sun Valley. She’s been working for LAUSD since 2016, makes $16.91 an hour, and raises her 10-year-old son alone. Martinez says she pays her bills in installments and is forced to decide between buying her son food and other necessities like clothes.

“I'm not making ends meet,” says Martinez. “I'm literally left with nothing. And that's what I tell a lot of people because they're like, ‘Oh, get on welfare.’ And then I'm like, ‘They already told me I make too much. So I can't even get that.’” 

SEIU Local 99 has spent months pushing for higher pay and improved working conditions. It's asking the district for a 30% wage increase. The district has countered with an offer that includes a 15% wage increase and bonuses. 

If a strike occurs, thousands of educators part of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) are expected to join in solidarity. 

Amber Schwinmann is a special education teacher at Germain Academy for Academic Achievement. She says her student aides are critical to day-to-day life in the classroom. 

“They're co-teaching while I'm teaching a small group. I rely on them while my students are on the yard at recess and lunch. They're helping my kids access their food because they can’t open it. They’re helping them make choices if they want to go to the cafeteria. … If I lose my aides because they can't afford to work for LAUSD, my students also won't be able to make progress.” 

The strike has left parents and students scrambling to make arrangements if campuses close. 

“I will definitely have to look for somebody to take care of him because I don't have someone at my disposal since I work from home,” says Sara Flores, a parent with a young son at Madison Elementary School in South Gate. Flores says she supports the strike, despite the difficulties she and her son could face. 

Meanwhile, students such as Admari Ibarra are also bracing for the closures. The 16-year-old supports the strike, even if it means she has to take care of her siblings while she misses class. 

“I think that it's a good movement because they should be getting better pay. It does suck that they're working harder, or just the same as the teachers, and they deal with the same kids, nothing different. And they still get paid less," Ibarra explains. 

Some parents, like Alfonso Vasquez, understand why workers will go on strike. But he says, “It affects everybody as a domino straight to the floor, starting from the smallest cookie to the biggest bear.”

Others, like Willy Coria, are frustrated with the action. He says kids will be the ones who suffer as a result of the strike. “What are we supposed to do? We give up this money, we give up everything that we do, we work hard to try to give our kids a better education. … What's going to happen?”

The players on each side

LAUSD President Jackie Goldberg says the district is anxious to make a deal and avert a strike. 

“There are discussions informally going on. There are formal negotiations going on. And I'm not totally optimistic, but cautiously optimistic. We've been working with the city and county to identify places to keep our kids safe and fed. So we are preparing for a strike if there is one, and we're prepared to not have a strike and have good negotiations go round the clock.”

LAUSD has coordinated with The Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation to provide 16 sites for kids to drop in for food and day care as part of Parks and Rec’s Every Body Plays program to aid parents who may need help during the possible strike.

The SEIU’s allegations of unfair labor practices and union busting, along with unsafe working conditions, were important to Goldberg, who has historically been pro-union.

“I don't support any unfair labor practices of any type. I have never crossed a picket line in my entire life. I was president of my union,” she notes. “So I understand what they're feeling and what they're going on. I have a deep understanding of everything that they're going on.”

Lester Garcia, political director for SEIU Local 99, says that the union has been attempting to resolve the impasse between both sides for months. In the meantime, Garcia says there have been dozens of instances of workers on LAUSD campuses being intimidated or disrespected. It’s for that reason the union is trying to negotiate for the right for an employee to file a grievance against a supervisor. 

“Workers are seeking the ability to be able to have that representation,” explains Garcia. “To be able to say that when they are being harassed, that it's not okay, and to have … an accountability system to make sure that those people who are practicing these intimidation tactics do not in the future.”

Garcia recognizes the timing of the strike comes three years after the start of the pandemic, a turbulent period for parents and students who had to adapt to at-home learning and COVID protocols.

“Our members lived through the pandemic too,” points out Garcia. “In order to deal with the issue at hand, which was the pandemic, [they] set aside contract negotiations, wages, benefits and raises, and those sorts of things. And then now, when they come back to the table, they're met with hostility from LAUSD.”

Goldberg says the LAUSD’s concessions, like offering health insurance to part time SEIU members “should have happened before now,” and she remains all in on reaching an agreement.

“We want to talk, we believe there are solutions. We know there are solutions, we just have to get everybody together. And I'm hopeful that that's going to happen.”

SEIU’S Garcia wants an agreement too. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of members of his union voted to authorize a strike if their demands were not met.

“If [the District] is willing to address the issues being raised by our members, then I think that we can find a pathway moving forward. But as far as today goes, LAUSD workers will be striking tomorrow.”