LOS ANGELES (CNS) - More than 400,000 students in the L.A. Unified School District returned to classes Friday following a three-day strike by service workers that shuttered the nation's second-largest school system and culminated in a massive labor rally at Los Angeles State Historic Park.
No new contract came out of the three-day walkout by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 99 -- but district officials issued a statement Friday saying talks were continuing.
"As students and employees return to schools today, Los Angeles Unified officials continue to be in conversation with SEIU Local 99 leaders," according to the district. "We remain hopeful that we will reach an equitable agreement that recognizes the hard work of our employees and maintains the financial stability of the district.
"We know that our students, families and employees are counting on us to reach a resolution."
Mayor Karen Bass has been facilitating discussions between the sides, but it remained unclear if the talks were materializing into actual contract negotiations.
Nevertheless, it will be back to school on Friday, as the union confirmed Wednesday night it would hold to its three-day strike strategy.
"Welcome back to school," LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tweeted Friday morning. "It's a great day of instruction and learning."
With students missing three days of school during the strike, the district on Friday extended the registration deadline for its next round of "Acceleration Days," which are extra days of instruction originally implemented to provide students a chance to catch up on learning loss that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic campus shutdowns.
The registration deadline for students is not March 29, with the Acceleration Days set for April 3-4, during the district's spring break.
The SEIU, which represents roughly 30,000 LAUSD service workers, walked off the job Tuesday amid stalled labor talks focused primarily on the union's demand for a 30% salary boost.
The service workers -- including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and others -- were joined in their walkout by about 30,000 members of the United Teachers Los Angeles union, which is engaged in labor talks of its own with the district, seeking a 20% pay hike for its members.
All those workers stayed off the job through Thursday -- when the SEIU strike climaxed with tens of thousands of union members and supporters descending on Los Angeles State Historic Park in a boisterous display of solidarity.
Meanwhile, according to Bass' office, the mayor "will continue to work privately with all parties to reach an agreement to reopen the schools and guarantee fair treatment of all LAUSD workers."
No other specifics were offered. However, Max Arias, president of SEIU Local 99, issued a statement Wednesday supporting the mayor's involvement.
"We are grateful that the mayor has stepped in to provide leadership in an effort to find a path out of our current impasse," Arias said. "Education workers have always been eager to negotiate as long as we are treated with respect and bargained with fairly, and with the mayor's leadership we believe that is possible."
Union leaders have repeatedly argued that its membership earns a median salary of about $25,000 a year, calling the salary "poverty wages."
"Let me be clear, the district has approximately between a $13 billion and $14 billion budget a year," Arias said during a rally Tuesday. "Out of that budget, it spends between 5% and 6% on payroll for 40% of the workforce. That's negligible."
Carvalho issued a statement Tuesday 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. But Carvalho has disputed that figure, saying no such reserve exists.
He has also said that most 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.
The strike is the first major labor disruption for the district since UTLA teachers went on strike for six days in 2019. That strike ended thanks in part to the involvement of then-Mayor Eric Garcetti.
The standoff between the district and SEIU has been riddled with accusations of unfair labor and bargaining practices.
The LAUSD last 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. But 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.
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.