LOS ANGELES (CNS) - An overwhelming majority of the Los Angeles Unified School District's more than 30,000 cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and other essential school workers have voted to authorize a strike if necessary to resolve stalled contract negotiations, officials with Service Employees International Union Local 99 announced.
Employees cast their votes from Jan 23 to Feb. 10 at hundreds of schools, special education centers, early education centers, bus yards and nutrition centers as well as online. The votes were counted Saturday with 96% authorizing a strike and related actions, if necessary, union officials said.
"Workers have sent a clear message to the school District that we demand respect," said Edna Logan, an LAUSD custodian and member of the SEIU Local 99 bargaining team. "During the pandemic we disinfected schools and kept our communities fed. This is a reminder that we're still essential. LAUSD needs to value our work and respect our rights."
District officials said they are still hopeful a strike can be avoided.
"Los Angeles Unified is committed to fair and equitable negotiations that offset the pressures of inflation for all employees who serve our students and schools," the District said in a statement to ABC7. "We are hopeful that we will reach an agreement at the negotiating table that is beneficial to our dedicated workforce and avoids disrupting the significant improvements we are making in instruction and social emotional support for students, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic."
The affected employees, most of whom earn an average salary of 25,000 a year, have been working without a contract since June 2020.
Union and District representatives began negotiations in April 2022 but in December, SEIU Local 99 declared that negotiations had reached an impasse and a state mediator was appointed.
The first mediation session is scheduled for February 21, union officials said.
The union is asking for equitable wage increases, more full-time work, respectful treatment and increased staffing levels for improved student services but claim that so far, the District's response has been unsatisfactory.
The District's latest wage offer includes 5% wage increases each year for three years of the four-year contract, with no increase at all during the first year, according to media reports. The union said that at current levels of inflation, this would amount to a pay cut.
The District proposal also includes an additional $2 an hour for special education assistants and one-time bonuses of 4% and 5% during the third and fourth years of the contract, respectively.
"After nearly a year of bargaining, LAUSD has shown no effort to truly move essential workers out of poverty and address dire staffing shortages in our schools," Max Arias, SEIU Local 99 executive director, said. "Furthermore, throughout the bargaining process and the strike vote, workers have been subjected to harassment by the school District for speaking out and exercising their rights. It's this blatant disrespect that is driving workers to take strong action to improve their livelihoods and conditions for students in our schools."
Union officials said their concerns include the District's "overreliance on a low-wage, part-time workforce," which is making it difficult to retain and recruit sufficient staff for student services and has resulted in serious staffing shortages.
The union said these shortages include:
-- insufficient teacher assistants, special education assistants and other instructional support to address learning loss and achievement gaps,
-- substandard cleaning and disinfecting at school campuses because of a lack of custodial staff,
-- jeopardized campus safety due to campus aides and playground supervisors being overburdened and
-- limited enrichment, after school and parental engagement programs due to reduced work hours and lack of health care benefits for after school workers and community representatives.