In Los Angeles, 60,000 Education Workers Just Went on Strike and Won Big

Two major education worker unions just walked off the job for three days in Los Angeles, grinding the school district to a halt. Their actions resulted in a 30 percent raise.

Sixty thousand workers went on strike in Los Angeles to protest unfair labor practices. (Courtesy of Eric Kelly)

Last Tuesday, SEIU Local 99 — the union representing service workers and support staff including bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and teaching assistants in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) — went on strike to protest unfair labor practices by the district. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) joined them in solidarity, shutting down schools and bringing the total number of striking workers to over sixty thousand. Picket lines and rallies lasted from Tuesday through Thursday of last week, with workers returning to schools on Friday after the planned three-day strike.

On Friday, after stonewalling the union for months and allowing members to continue working on an expired contract, the school district reached a tentative agreement with SEIU 99. The tentative agreement includes a raise of 30 percent, retroactive pay of $4,000 to $8,000, a $1,000 one-time bonus, and full health care benefits for more classes of workers, including teacher assistants, community representatives, and after-school workers. Members will vote on the tentative agreement, which would increase the average salary of SEIU 99 members from $25,000 to $33,000 per year, later this week. Members of UTLA are still in bargaining with the district.

During the strike, many SEIU 99 members told Jacobin that they work two or or three jobs to make ends meet. They find it difficult to afford living near their work — or to afford housing at all, with one in three members of SEIU 99 reporting being either homeless or at risk of being unhoused while working for LAUSD. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is more than $2,800 a month. Nearly a quarter of SEIU members report that they have recently faced hunger.

While both unions are in bargaining with the school district for higher pay and better working conditions, the strike was actually triggered not by contract negotiations but by charges of unfair labor practices, with SEIU 99 alleging harassment and surveillance of union members. The union filed unfair labor practice charges with the Public Employment Relations Board, which, in turn, made a strike legally possible.

Even though the strike was triggered by unfair labor practices, it prompted the district to increase its offer to SEIU 99. The resulting tentative agreement gives the union the entire raise it was asking for. “Instead of demeaning us, give us more money,” an SEIU worker named Lucy told Jacobin at a rally in front of LAUSD headquarters last Tuesday. “There shouldn’t even be negotiating. Just give us the raise.” It appears that workers like Lucy were successful, thanks to the massive two-union strike.

UTLA members joined the strike to show solidarity with SEIU 99, but also to register their own dissatisfaction with the district, which has $5 billion in reserves and yet is playing hardball with the teachers’ union in contract negotiations. “There’s no reason to have that much money in surplus,” Chrissy Offutt Kundig, a special education teacher in UTLA, told Jacobin during the strike. “I’m not an accountant, but I’m not a fucking idiot.”

A slew of local and state politicians expressed support for the SEIU 99 and UTLA strike last week. Even former LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner, who faced off against UTLA during the 2019 teachers’ strike, went on Fox 11 to say that with record revenue, the district ought to be able to afford to increase wages for workers. He mentioned that SEIU 99 workers helped the City of Los Angeles out during the pandemic. Los Angeles schools continued to feed children who relied on school meals even when instruction had moved online.

Los Angeles city councilmember Hugo Soto-Martínez said in council chambers that LAUSD was using anti-union tactics to “muddy the waters” and confuse the public. “I’ve been on the other side and had to push elected officials to express support for our actions in the union,” Soto-Martínez told Jacobin. “I don’t want to be one of those elected officials. I want to be standing alongside the workers every time.”

Before being elected to City Council last year, Soto-Martínez was an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 11. “Because of my own experience, I understand that the union had no choice but to strike due to the anti-union tactics that were deployed against them,” Soto-Martinez continued. “Historically, SEIU 99 and UTLA haven’t always collaborated like this, so the solidarity they are showing in this strike is pretty unprecedented, and really inspiring.”

While it was more in vogue to publicly support the strike than oppose it, a few members of the Los Angeles power structure bucked the trend. For example Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association and member of the powerful private LA28 Olympics Organizing Committee, tweeted that UTLA does not care about kids and that “the entire strike was theater.”

The Circus Comes to Town

UTLA led a six-day walkout in 2019, protesting large class sizes, the district’s funding of charter schools, and a lack of resources and support provided to teachers and students. The strike was successful in wringing more concessions from the district.

This is Alberto Carvalho’s first year as LAUSD superintendent, having moved here from Miami. As a condition of his relocation, Carvalho negotiated a 26 percent raise over Beutner’s salary. He is paid $440,000 — more than President Joe Biden. In the fall, UTLA and Superintendent Carvalho clashed for the first time over the latter’s attempt to add four days to the academic calendar without discussing it with the union. The union organized walkouts to protest the policy, and the district backed off.

Carvalho emerged as the main villain of last week’s strike, with strikers frequently telling him to go back to Florida. An ill-conceived tweet describing the strike as a “circus” gave way to a circus theme, with strikers widely portraying Carvalho as a clown. One popular chant went, “Hey Carvalho, you’re the clown! LA is a union town!” School board members have indicated that they will address Carvalho’s use of social media.

Roger Jones, a custodian who makes $19.80 an hour, told Jacobin that he’s made that wage for five years. “Seems like the district’s been slacking,” he said. Sabrina Jones, an assistant teacher, said that Carvalho has been dishonest with the public about what the district has been offering in terms of a raise. She makes $18.30 an hour.

Celia Cordova started as a yard supervisor and is now a special education assistant. “The superintendent is not taking inflation into consideration,” she told Jacobin. “I make $23 an hour, and I only work thirty hours a week. I can go be a cashier or work at McDonald’s and make more money than I do now.”

Kathina Cormier, a preschool teacher and member of UTLA, expressed solidarity with members of SEIU 99. “I want them to be able to live and take care of their families. I want what’s best for them.” UTLA members hope that striking in solidarity with SEIU 99 has demonstrated their power to the district. “LAUSD drags their feet until we do things like this and take action. Talking gets us nowhere. We want our 20 percent raise,” Cormier said.

Jessie Lomeli, an IT support technician in SEIU, noted that in addition to paying workers better, the district should also be putting its $5 billion reserves to use in upgrading facilities. He said that his school in the San Fernando Valley just flooded from heavy rains in Los Angeles and that the air conditioning and heating at the school are unreliable. UTLA has been advocating for an upgrade to the school’s technology and infrastructure and has urged the district to provide students equitable access to Wi-Fi and green spaces.

Students Deserve — a coalition of LAUSD students pushing the school district to implement its approved Black Student Achievement Plan, eliminate Los Angeles School Police, and fund more mental health resources at schools — held a block party on the second day of the strike in front of LAUSD headquarters. There were speeches, raps, and dances.

“I’m out here to support my mentors and people who have paved a positive way for me,” said student James Winfrey. “The system that I grew up in brought me down, and I have a lot of trauma. This is something positive to support our community. These people feel unimportant, so we’re here to show our people love as students.”

Guisela Gutierrez, a mental health consultant with the district for seventeen years, told Jacobin that the district is looking into cutting resources for psychiatric workers, even though caseloads have grown exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UTLA, the ideal ratio for psychiatric workers (PSW’s) to students is one social worker to 250 students. As of right now, some schools currently have one worker serving 1,000 students. UTLA’s Beyond Recovery platform, which spells out its bargaining demands, articulates the union’s perspective that this and other shortcomings harm both staff and students.

Union president Cecily Myart-Cruz has criticized the district for “hoarding resources” while 86 percent of the student body lives in poverty. Myart-Cruz, who was overwhelmingly reelected as UTLA’s president earlier this year, believes that the union’s demands should not stop at conditions inside schools, but should also extend to the hardships students and their families face outside of the classroom. Consequently the union has made housing security a central tenet of its platform, demanding that the district “push for targeted Section 8 housing vouchers to support LAUSD families” and “convert vacant LAUSD property into housing for low-income families.”

On the final day of the strike, workers held a massive rally at LA State Historic Park, with music and chanting echoing throughout the day. Trixie Navarro, a special education assistant and member of SEIU 99, brought her two kids. She told Jacobin that she makes under $20 an hour and also works at Uber Eats and Amazon Flex. “I can’t survive with that amount,” she said, adding that her own kids were out of school for the duration of the strike.

As with the 2019 UTLA strike, LAUSD workers flexed their muscles and ground the 420,000-student school system to a halt. The resulting tentative agreement for SEIU 99 is already momentous. Now UTLA members are hoping that the district, having once again seen the full extent of their power, as well as the strength of the solidarity between the unions, will give Los Angeles teachers what they’re asking for.