How LA Education Workers Waged a Successful Joint Strike Across Two Unions

Bosses have long known the power of solidarity strikes — and thus try to make such strikes illegal. But United Teachers Los Angeles president Cecily Myart-Cruz explains in Jacobin that her union and SEIU Local 99 recently pulled such a strike off and won.

United Teachers of Los Angeles and SEIU 99 members rally at Grand Park in a historic show of solidarity on March 15, 2023, in Los Angeles, CA. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On March 15 at 4:30 p.m., a massive crowd clad in deep purple and bright red blanketed the streets of downtown Los Angeles and spilled out of the subway exit. Some attendees even showed up in hand-stitched half-purple, half-red shirts split down the middle with the purple logo of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99 on the left and the United Teachers Los Angeles’s (UTLA) red logo on the right.

Tens of thousands of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) education workers stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands of parents, students, and allies. It felt as if the entire city had come together to loudly make one particular demand: LAUSD must use the district’s $5.2 billion it held in reserves to invest in staff, students, and communities rather than continue to sit on the reserves at a time when those staff, students, and communities suffered without the funding.

When Local 99 announced the dates of their three-day unfair labor practice strike at the rally, UTLA pledged to stand in solidarity with their schools’ nonteaching workers. That meant tens of thousands of LA educators agreed to voluntarily withhold their labor by not crossing picket lines — marking the first time the two unions joined together in a strike.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Workers require significant encouragement and motivational fuel to increase pressure on employers and sustain their energy. UTLA’s previous contract struggle was a long-fought process and included a six-day strike in 2019 that forced the district to agree to demands such as wage and health care improvements, new resources for immigrant families, a call for a moratorium on charter schools, increased green spaces on campus, and an end to discriminatory searches of students — demands that many union members and observers never thought it possible to win. Significant engagement from our communities allowed us to hold the line for a groundbreaking contract, and we needed to replicate that momentum with Local 99 if we were going to win.

Historically, “secondary boycotts,” the legal term for sympathy strikes, have been an extremely effective tool of labor solidarity — a tool so powerful that employer-minded Congresses and courts have repeatedly outlawed them, most infamously in the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendments, to break apart the bonds workers form to advance their interests. Solidarity strikes between two unions are thus extremely uncommon in the labor movement. In fact, the last major joint strike took place over four years ago, between the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73. But LAUSD education workers’ perfect storm of bread-and-butter demands, contract demands that spoke to the “common good” of the entire working class, bargaining delays, and unfair labor practices combined to make the unthinkable a reality in Los Angeles.

Conditions were dire for the city’s education workers. Since 2019, the impacts of COVID-19, record-high inflation, rising rents, and stagnant wages have caused an unprecedented educator shortage in the city and beyond. According to the Guardian, in the first half of 2022, the Los Angeles metro area had the highest rental prices in the United States, at a median price of $4,664 a month for a single-family home. Between 2018 and 2021, the cost of basic necessities in LA increased by more than 20 percent.

Local 99 members were made even more precarious by the cost-of-living crisis. Composed of special education assistants, food workers, custodians, bus drivers, and other non-educator staff, most of whom are women of color, a large percentage of these workers live well below the poverty line. With the average education worker in their union making just $25,000, these workers were making thousands of dollars below the baseline of surviving in Los Angeles.

A third of Local 99 members reported that while working for LAUSD, they either had been unhoused or in danger of becoming unhoused, and 24 percent reported that they regularly did not have enough to eat — a horrific and unacceptable reality when our school district is the second-largest employer in our city and is sitting on billions of dollars in reserves.

Local 99 finally reached their breaking point this year, receiving constant disrespect from the district while attempting to bargain a contract that was years overdue. The union set a strike authorization vote.

We at UTLA knew we had to stand with the colleagues we see at work every day, the most financially insecure workers at LAUSD, and show a unified front. The process of getting thirty-five thousand UTLA members ready to strike for their counterparts required intense member education on the working conditions Local 99 members were experiencing. We held in-person and online meetings, sent weekly emails, shared videos, told stories, and asked our members to talk in person with their colleagues. We also emphasized the gravity of our possible shared action: UTLA joining Local 99 would double the number of people on the picket line, resulting in approximately sixty thousand workers on strike.

Not long after Local 99’s strike authorization vote, our board voted unanimously to support Local 99 members and join them in a solidarity strike.

On March 15, our “United for LA Schools Rally” drew nearly sixty thousand. The strike dates were announced for March 21–23, and those tens of thousands of LAUSD workers gathered on the picket line the following week to denounce the district’s egregious and illegal behaviors. Teachers represented by UTLA and teaching assistants represented by Local 99 danced alongside parents and community members as we continued three rainy days on the strike line.

The day after the three-day unfair labor practice strike came to a close, Local 99 reached a tentative agreement with the district. The wins were massive: a 30 percent raise, an increased average annual salary base from $25,000 to $33,000, fully paid health care benefits, and expanded hours to secure the staffing our schools need to improve student services.

Three weeks later, UTLA’s bargaining team, after thirty-three bargaining sessions over a year, finally reached its own tentative agreement that would provide significant improvements for teachers and students. These included a 21 percent salary increase (the highest increase our union has seen in thirty-four years), smaller class sizes, and increased hiring to combat staffing shortages.

We also won a number of “common good” items aimed to go beyond our own members to improve life for the rest of Los Angeles’s working class, such as increased housing support for low-income families and students experiencing homelessness and services for immigrant families, none of which would be possible if either union were left to fight on their own. But we needed to fight for bare minimum demands like a commitment from the district to have lead-free water in our schools.

Both of our unions used a multitude of tactics over the years to win a fair contract our schools deserve, but by far the most effective was our inter-union solidarity. Our joint strike was a testament to the importance of mass worker power.

To ratify these historic wins, it took whole communities to defeat the institutional forces who push us to accept the bare minimum. One of the difficulties we had was organizing the sheer number of worksites — over nine hundred for UTLA and over twelve hundred for Local 99. We used site representatives and contract action teams to organize members and push conversations between UTLA and Local 99 members at their job. We organized community and coalition partners around the horrible working conditions of Local 99 members. We worked directly and collaboratively with Local 99 every step of the way on escalating tactics to build solidarity between the unions.

And finally, UTLA terminated our contract weeks in advance to take away a frivolous legal argument from LAUSD that our “sympathy strikes” somehow violated the no-strike provision in our expired contract. We wanted to cover all our bases and remove any obstacles or district tactics in our way of standing with Local 99.

Workers elsewhere can learn from the example of UTLA and Local 99. It’s a hot time for organizing. This summer could see a number of strikes across the country. But we need this momentum to last, which will require unity. Whether it’s educators in California, bus drivers in Georgia, or UPS drivers across the country, we need to seize this moment and push the ruling class to respect worker power.

The ongoing strike by entertainment writers across the country is a moment to deepen support and engage in direct action. Thousands of entertainment writers, and some of their industry counterparts, are refusing to allow Hollywood studios and TV production companies to use artificial intelligence to better abuse and exploit their workers. So far, the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) members have shown their support alongside the writers, joining picket lines and closing down production after production. But Hollywood is willing to lose more money in order to break these unions. How other workers respond will make the difference.

There’s only one way out of the abyss of inequitable working conditions that workers across the country face: standing together for future generations of workers. With an economic downturn and eroding of labor rights, workers across the country have to continue the fight. How successful we are in standing up against capitalism will depend on how wholeheartedly we throw our support behind the worker organizations and leaders who are leading the charge.