LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The nation's second-largest school district ground to a halt Tuesday as 30,000 service workers -- joined in sympathy by about 30,000 teachers -- walked off the job to begin an anticipated three-day strike in demand of higher wages.
Despite persistent rain, picketing began in the pre-dawn hours at a Van Nuys bus yard, then spread to locations throughout the district, which closed all of its schools in response to the walkout, leaving more than 400,000 students without classes.
The 30,000 workers represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 99 -- including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and others -- started picketing at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. The roughly 30,000 members of the powerful teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, joined the service workers on the picket lines.
SEIU and UTLA officials held an early morning rally at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, with union leaders lashing out at LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, accusing him of "union busting" and trying to conduct labor negotiations in public rather than at the bargaining table. They also accused the district of woefully under-paying its service workers, saying those employees earn an average of $25,000 a year.
"Let me be clear, the district has approximately between a $13 billion and $14 billion budget a year," SEIU Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias told the crowd at the rally. "Out of that budget, it spends between 5% and 6% on payroll for 40% of the workforce. That's negligible."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, joined workers at the rally, saying the service workers should not be earning "poverty" wages.
"The median income of our bus drivers and our cafeteria workers and our school aides is $25,000 a year," he said. "Who can live on $25,000 a year? Those are poverty wages."
UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz had fiery words for Carvalho, accusing him of short-changing workers and refusing to bargain privately with workers, and saying the district had ample time to negotiate a fair deal but failed to do so.
"He makes more than the president of the United States of America at $440,000," she said. "Bargain with the members."
But Carvalho issued a statement Tuesday morning again saying he and the district remain prepared to return to negotiations at any time "so we can provide an equitable contract to our hardworking employees and get our students back in classrooms."
"I understand our employees' frustration that has been brewing, not just for a couple of years, but probably for decades," he said. "And it is on the basis of recognizing historic inequities that we have put on the table a historic proposal. This offer addresses the needs and concerns from the union, while also remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the district in a financially stable position."
According to the district, the LAUSD last week made an offer that included a 5% wage increase retroactive to July 2021, another 5% increase retroactive to July 2022 and another 5% increase effective July 2023, along with a 4% bonus in 2022-23 and a 5% bonus in 2023-24.
On Monday, Carvalho said the district sweetened the offer to an overall 23% salary increase, along with a 3% "cash-in-hand bonus."
The union, however, has been pushing for a 30% pay raise, with an additional boost for the lowest-paid workers.
SEIU workers have been working without a contract since June 2020. The union declared an impasse in negotiations in December, leading to the appointment of a state mediator.
In addition to salary demands, union officials have also alleged staffing shortages caused by an "over-reliance on a low-wage, part-time workforce." The union alleged shortages including:
-- 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.
The unions have repeatedly said the district is sitting on a projected $4.9 billion reserve fund for 2022-23 that should be invested in workers and efforts to improve education through reduced class sizes and full staffing of all campuses. Carvalho has disputed that figure, saying an independent auditor that reviewed the district's books found no such surplus. He has also said that much of the district's reserve funds are federal dollars restricted for student programs or other one-time funds that cannot be used to increase salaries.
As of Tuesday morning, there were no publicly announced plans for any negotiating sessions between the district and union, likely meaning the strike will continue for the anticipated three days.
There was a glimmer of hope Monday for potentially avoiding the walkout, with news of a planned last-minute bargaining session. But it was called off before it could even materialize.
"We were never in the same room, or even in the same building," Carvalho said.
Arias said in a statement that the union had "agreed to enter a confidential mediation process with LAUSD to try and address our differences" on Monday.
"Unfortunately, LAUSD broke that confidentiality by sharing it with the media before our bargaining team, which makes all decisions, had a chance to discuss how to proceed," Arias said. "This is yet another example of the school district's continued disrespect of school workers. We are ready to strike.
"We want to be clear that we are not in negotiations with LAUSD. We continue to be engaged in the impasse process with the state."
As the strike unfolded, the LAUSD offered free food distribution for families on Tuesday morning at designated sites, providing three days worth of meals.
The strike is the first major labor disruption for the district since UTLA teachers went on strike for six days in 2019. That dispute ended in part to intervention by then-Mayor Eric Garcetti, who helped spur labor talks at City Hall and broker a deal between the district and union.
Mayor Karen Bass' office issued a statement Friday saying she was closely monitoring the situation. On Tuesday, she issued a statement saying the city was providing resources at parks and other facilities to provide "safe places" for students unable to attend classes.
"I will make sure the wellbeing of L.A. students always comes first as I continue to work with all parties to reach an agreement to reopen the schools and guarantee fair treatment of all LAUSD workers," she said.
The district on Friday announced the creation of a website at achieve.lausd.net/schoolupdates which will "provide resources for families during the work stoppage period" from Tuesday through Thursday. According to the district, the site has information on "learning activities, Grab & Go food locations, tutoring services, enrichment activities and cultural opportunities across Los Angeles and Los Angeles County park locations that will provide free youth programs." The district also established a hotline at 213-443-1300, operating between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
In addition to the park programs, the Los Angeles Zoo will be offering free admission for students. The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County will also offer students free admission as long as the strike persists.
The standoff between the district and SEIU has been riddled with accusations of unfair labor and bargaining practices.
The LAUSD on Friday filed a legal challenge with the state Public Employment Relations Board seeking an injunction that would halt the strike, claiming the union's walkout was illegal. Over the weekend, however, the PERB denied the district's request for injunctive relief because it did not find "the extraordinary remedy of seeking injunctive relief to be met at this juncture," according to the LAUSD.
But, according to the district, the PERB did direct its Office of General Counsel to expedite the processing of the district's underlying unfair practice charge against SEIU Local 99, which alleged that the union and its members were engaging in an unlawful three-day strike.
The union has repeatedly accused the district of engaging in unfair labor practices, saying union members have been subjected to harassment and intimidation tactics during an earlier strike-authorization vote and as the possible walkout neared.
Carvalho on Monday acknowledged those accusations, but said there is a process for investigating such claims, and "it takes time." He said the union was using those allegations as an "expedited way of creating a strike opportunity."