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Bass enters fray as LAUSD strike reaches third and last day with schools closed


As the Los Angeles Unified School District strike that shut down campuses enters its final day Thursday, with the possibility of future strikes a reality, Mayor Karen Bass stepped in to mediate, but few details were available.

In a Wednesday update, posted on social media, Los Angeles school officials revealed few details, and progress was not enough to prevent the third day of the strike from going ahead. But the talks remained crucial because the underlying issues of the strike have not been resolved and could lead to another strike.

“District officials have been in discussions with SEIU Local 99 leadership with the assistance and support of Mayor Karen Bass,” the update said. “We continue to do everything we can to reach an agreement that honors the hard work of our employees, corrects historical inequities, maintains the District’s financial stability, and gets students back in the classroom. We are hopeful these conversations will continue and we look forward to updating our school community on a resolution.”

Protesters picket outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on March 21, 2023, the first day of a three-day strike.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The march was led by local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which represents the lowest-paid workers in the school system and whose members include bus drivers, teacher aides, special education aides, janitors and food service workers. United Teachers Los Angeles urged its members to join the strike, a solidarity action that led to campus closures.

Max Arias, the executive director of Local 99, expressed optimism Wednesday even as plans moved forward to continue the strike through Thursday.

“We are grateful that the mayor has stepped in to provide leadership in an effort to find a way out of our current stalemate,” Arias said in a statement. “Education workers have always been eager to bargain as long as we are treated with respect and dealt with fairly, and with the mayor’s leadership we believe that is possible.”

The stakes are high for students and workers, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.

“This is a lose-lose situation,” Noguera said. “Children are losing their education. Unfortunately, the disruption is occurring just as many were getting used to being in school again” after campuses closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The district is losing money every day that schools are closed, which means they will have even less to bargain with. The workers are losing because they are so underpaid and because their action may further weaken the district they depend on for their livelihood.”

The negotiation process

The union has defined the strike as a three-day protest of unfair labor practices, usually involving allegations that an employer has interfered in legally protected union-related activities.

Blanca Gallegos, the union spokeswoman, said the violations include illegal messages from district officials, such as alleged threats of dismissal or retaliation against workers for voting to support or participating in a strike. The union also alleged that the district changed job classifications “for no reason” and gave bargaining team members “poor job performance” because they were bargaining.

District officials have denied wrongdoing or are still reviewing more than a dozen complaints filed with state labor regulators.

In a typical strike, workers begin their strike when negotiations fail and end it when an agreement is reached.

Formal negotiations between Local 99 and the district have been contentious but are following a step-by-step process governed by the state. The union has declared a “deadlock”, meaning that talks are at a standstill between the two parties. After that, a mediator steps in, a process that has already occurred but has also failed to reach an agreement.

The next step is the investigation, in which experts will attempt to determine what the district can afford and assess the costs of each party’s contract proposals. That step has not started.

Arias, in his statement on Wednesday, used the words “current impasse” and therefore appeared to be referring to the formal bargaining process and not the ongoing labor action.

But Gallegos later added more details, suggesting that the dispute over contractual issues and unfair practices was on the table to be resolved.

“Mayor Karen Bass is hosting the meeting in an effort to find a way out of our impasse with LAUSD, including resolving contract issues and unfair labor practices,” Gallegos said.

He cautioned against assuming there would be an immediate resolution.

“There is no timetable for how long these talks can take,” he said.

Gallegos did not rule out a return to picketing later “if the demands of the workers are not met.”

A crowd of protesters;  lots of red and purple dresses.  A picket sign reads "On strike for our students."

Los Angeles Unified school employees and supporters picket the district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles on March 21, 2023.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

“The workers are ready and they will not back down,” he said, “so we will continue that process and (if) it comes to moving forward with more actions like this, then (we will).”

The union wants a general wage increase of 30% plus an addition of $2 per hour for the lowest paid workers.

The district has offered a 23% pay raise and a 3% bonus than the Los Angeles superintendent of schools. Alberto Carvalho has called it “historic”. Only workers on the job since the 2020-21 school year would receive the full pay increase.

Day two of pickets

For rank and file union members, day two brought more pickets and rallies.

Bus drivers along with other strikers and supporters began protesting before dawn at the district’s Gardena bus yard, chanting, “Don’t cross” and holding signs reading, “Equal Pay NOW!” and “Fair wages NOW!” Crowds of picketers converged under often rainy skies on campuses across the 700-square-mile school system and attended larger rallies later that day.

A seated man in a purple polo shirt poses near the office windows with a view of the city

Max Arias, head of SEIU Local 99, at the union offices in Los Angeles on March 20, 2023.

(Casa Cristina / Los Angeles Times)

The walkout has been supported by United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents 35,000 teachers, counselors, therapists, nurses and librarians, many of whom did not work in solidarity and joined the pickets. Striking workers lose their wages for time away from work.

Armando Franco, an AP World History teacher who has taught at South Gate High School since 1994, described his fellow Local 99 coworkers as “the most crucial workforce in LAUSD.”

“Without them there are many things that would not happen,” Franco said, adding that it is “shameful” to know that his teammates are suffering.

As cars passing by South Gate High honked in support of the picketers, Franco said he hopes the show of solidarity between teachers and support staff helps everyone, “especially the working class.”

“Ultimately, unions are the only mechanism teachers have to ensure that there are fair and just working conditions,” Franco said.

While a three-day strike isn’t ideal, he said, the lost school days will be worth it if the union can achieve not only wage increases, but also victories that include more full-time staff dedicated to cleaning schools, feeding students , provide After School Programming and support for students with special needs.

“If you think about it, three days in the life of a student is pretty insignificant, but those three days will have a significant impact on their lives if we get what we’re asking for,” Franco said.

Carvalho has disputed the claim that missed school days are unimportant or a necessary sacrifice. At a briefing this week, he said every school day is important and workers can get the best contract the district can afford without going on strike.

Times staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.

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