Los Angeles school workers authorize strike if talks collapse

Los Angeles school workers authorize strike if talks collapse

  • US News
  • February 12, 2023
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Members of the union, which represents most of the non-teaching workers at Los Angeles schools — cafeteria workers, janitors and teaching assistants — have voted overwhelmingly to allow their leaders to call a strike if negotiations fail to reach an agreement.

The 30,000 workers represented by Local 99 of Service Employees International Union include bus drivers, campus security assistants and gardeners – all vital to the operation of the country’s second-largest school system.

The union is seeking a 30 percent wage increase plus a “fair wage adjustment” of $2 an hour for all – which would particularly benefit hourly workers, who earn the lowest wages. The union is negotiating pay terms dating back to the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Ballots were counted on Saturday and the result came as no surprise – a vote to authorize a strike is a common pressure tactic – and approval does not mean there will be a strike. But the union leadership now has strong support for calling a strike at its discretion.

The size of the “yes” vote – 96% – should send an unmistakable signal of worker dissatisfaction to the LA Unified Board of Education and Supt. Alberto Carvalho.

“Working families can’t wait for a living wage,” said Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias. “Students cannot wait for clean, safe, and supportive schools. We won’t wait anymore. The workers have made it clear that they no longer want empty promises.”

Arias accused LA Unified of treating its members with “blatant disrespect.”

“After almost a year of negotiations, LAUSD has made no effort to truly lift essential workers out of poverty and address the serious staffing shortages in our schools,” he said. “In addition, workers were monitored, intimidated and harassed by the school district throughout the negotiation process and strike voting.”

Local 99 has filed “dozens of unfair labor practice charges” with state regulators, Arias said, “to protest the LAUSD’s unlawful interference in workers’ right to vote and participate in union activities.”

The school district did not address those specific allegations Saturday but issued a statement.

“Los Angeles Unified is committed to fair and equitable negotiations that balance inflationary pressures for all employees who serve our students and schools,” the statement said. “We hope to reach an agreement at the negotiating table that benefits our dedicated workforce and avoids disrupting the significant improvements we are making in teaching and social-emotional support for students, especially in the wake of the pandemic.”

Local 99 had declared an impasse in the negotiations. The next step under California labor laws is arbitration, which is scheduled to begin on February 21. Members will vote to authorize the strike from Jan. 23 to Friday.

The teachers union has pledged to support a Local 99 strike. The members have also not reached a contractual solution, but their negotiations are not that far advanced. Even so, teachers’ union leaders have been particularly vocal in blaming the district for sitting on billions of dollars in reserves that could be used for additional hiring and higher wages.

In a recent interview, Carvalho addressed claims related to district reserves.

“We’re not sitting on $5 billion worth of reserves,” Carvalho said. “And saying that gives false hope – period. I stand by it.”

Carvalho also said the district is actively recruiting and has done well in a tight job market, adding 2,100 teachers for the current school year.

While teachers’ union members have highlighted their struggles to make ends meet in expensive Southern California, Local 99 workers generally earn significantly less, with wages well below the state’s “very low-income” threshold.

The median annual salary for the teaching assistant unit, including special education, is $27,531. The average for the unit, which includes bus drivers, janitors, and hospitality workers, is $31,825. Teacher assistants earn an average of $22,657. Those in the unit, which includes extracurricular program staff, earn an average of $14,576.

About 24,000 Local 99 members work less than eight hours a day and about 6,000 have eight-hour jobs. Many union members live in households with school-age students, including many in LA Unified.

“This over-reliance on low-wage part-time workers makes it difficult for the school district to retain and hire workers, leading to serious staffing shortages,” a union spokeswoman said.

More than 10,000 Local 99 members do not receive health insurance through the school district.

A challenge for the union is to secure meaningful pay increases for work that is typically not well paid and continues to be poorly paid in other school systems. It was common for Local 99 members to have side jobs and to rely on other family members for employment.

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