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Column: He helped LAUSD’s most ‘invisible’ workers strike, but Max Arias isn’t done


The latest Southern California storm did not dampen the spirits of more than 300 workers who gathered outside a Van Nuys school bus yard before dawn Tuesday, the first day of a planned three-day walkout.

Standing at the edges of the picket line at 4:30 am, Max Arias smiled.

“I feel inspired by them,” said Arias, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 99. He wore Adidas sneakers, blue jeans and a black hooded jacket that kept his silver-rimmed glasses dry from the cold rain pouring down on the picketers. “Once you know you have power, it’s not easy to take it away. They have closed the district!”

The union’s 30,000 members — bus drivers, mechanics, custodians, food workers and others in the Los Angeles Unified School District — are asking for a 30% pay increase for four years, plus $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid employees . They earn an average of $25,000 a year in a city with astronomically high rents.

The teachers’ union is on strike in solidarity, closing schools for 420,000 students. It is the first time that the two unions have gone on strike together.

Arias grabbed a small sign that read “Respect Us” and slipped through the crowd. Sometimes he would lead songs. Sometimes he joined them. Sometimes he would jump out of line to hug people or offer support. “Are you trying this?” Arias joked, impressed by a chant leader who said she wasn’t trying hard enough. “I would hate to see you do it!”

This week’s historic strike is the culmination of a years-long strategy that Arias describes as “internal organizing”: making workers realize they have far more power than they ever imagined.

“You are asking, you are not demanding,” he said. “You can get to incremental change, but you’re never going to get serious change unless you can somehow impact the system.”

Max Arias, director of SEIU Local 99, leads a bargaining meeting at the union’s Koreatown offices.

(Casa Cristina / Los Angeles Times)

Arias, 51, grew up hopping from country to country after her parents fled El Salvador for finding themselves on the wrong side of the government. His plan was always to help improve his homeland. He fell into union organizing in the US by accident, finding that his greatest satisfaction was not raising his own voice but helping others find theirs.

“Max is working hard to focus workers on this campaign,” said Henry Perez, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, a Boyle Heights-based nonprofit. “He is giving them a name and recognition and bringing them out of the shadows and showing them as the backbone of the district that deserves equity.”

“Most people, as they move up, they isolate themselves,” said Pamela Stevenson, who first worked with Arias in Oakland helping to organize health care workers and is now her chief of staff. “But he wants to be out in public and meet everyone. He doesn’t want to delegate”.

“He’s someone to watch,” said bus driver Marvin Vega. “He speaks loudly and with conviction.”

“He supports us,” said María Betancourt, another bus driver. “Max has made us believe in ourselves, and he has made others believe in us too.”

The day before the strike began, I met with Arias at the Local 99 headquarters in Koreatown. His large office has beautiful views of the Hollywood sign and Wilshire Boulevard, but it remains sparsely decorated because the union moved there only three months ago. A plaque on his desk read: “He’s on, Motherf-ers.”

Arias took a sip from a cup of coffee that grew cold as we chatted for the next hour. Outside, Local 99 employees and staff carried banners, signs and wooden stakes for the days ahead.

I asked him how he felt.

“Workers are empowered,” he said. Her voice was soft but resonant. “You fall in love with what the workers do and how they are. And you can’t stand to see how they they are,” referring to LAUSD officials who he says treat Local 99 members as little better than “help.”

Tears welled up in her red eyes. She had hardly slept in five days.

“I’m sorry, I’m emotional,” Arias said. “When I was young, they told me not to talk about what we were doing, because we were always in hiding.”

People stand together.  Some hold picket signs.  A woman gestures with her hand as she speaks.

UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz, center, flanked by Max Arias, right, executive director of SEIU 99, speaks at a news conference Tuesday, the first day of a three-day strike, in front of the Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Los Angeles.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The picket signs are on the floor of an elevator.

On Monday, the signs were in place for a three-day LAUSD strike in Los Angeles.

(Casa Cristina / Los Angeles Times)

He is the son of two economists radicalized by the poverty they saw in rural El Salvador during the 1960s and 1970s. As a child, Arias moved with his father from London to Nicaragua, from Belize to Mexico City before join her mother and stepfather in New Orleans. There, he wrote letters to death row inmates with the help of a family friend, Sister Helen Prejean.

“We were exiled for fighting against injustice and not just for staying there,” Arias said of her upbringing. “This was a revolution. It was real. They were life and death implications.”

He joined his father in El Salvador after graduating from high school in Florida, teaching English as a Second Language while studying engineering. But the pay was not good, so Arias returned to Florida, where he worked at Radio Shack for four years while he waited for the opportunity to “go back to El Salvador and keep fighting.”

A Salvadoran exile suggested that he intern for an SEIU campaign in Michigan.

“Do they really pay people to do that?” Arias remembers responding.

He was soon hired as an organizer in Chicago, then moved to California to work as the deputy director of collective bargaining for the hospital division of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. In Oakland, he led what was until this week the biggest walkout of his career.

At two nursing homes in 2010, about 80 caregivers (janitors, nursing assistants, and other lower-level employees) went on strike for five days about working conditions. Subsequently, 38 workers were laid off.

“They got discouraged, but we kept organizing and pushing and reminding people, ‘The fight is long,’” Arias said. Workers finally got their jobs back, along with lost wages, after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that his dismissal was illegal.

By then, Arias was CEO of Local 99, with a more existential challenge.

“Our members were a group of workers who were just endlessly exploited and oppressed,” he said. “It’s just an oppression that’s been entrenched for years and years. They had been students (in LAUSD schools), now they are parents in the system and they thought they couldn’t strike.”

His bottom-up strategy emboldened members, who in 2018 brought contract negotiations to the brink of a strike, and backed down when the district gave them a raise.

That confrontation led to improved relations between the district and the union. Local 99 members continued to work on campuses during the pandemic even after their contract expired in 2020 and classrooms were closed.

However, once the schools reopened, Local 99 members felt that the district’s leadership put them back in place.

“They were called heroes,” Arias said, “and then they became zeros.”

Arias and her team began visiting workers on their campuses in the spring of 2022, arguing that they needed a bold petition and the threat of a strike to stop being “invisible.” In February, 96% of Local 99 members voted to give union leaders the discretion to call a strike.

The official reason for the strike is not contract negotiations, but rather the union’s allegations that LAUSD has impeded workers’ rights to engage in legally protected union-related activities.

Last weekend, the district, according to its leaders, offered a cumulative 23% raise and a one-time 3% bonus for those who have been on the job since the 2020-21 school year, along with expanded hours, more full-time positions, and improved eligibility for health care benefits .

“We have an opportunity right now to drive, not incremental change, but transformational change,” Arias said. “And in the process and in the fight to do it, create agency for our members.”

A man in a purple shirt sits by a window.

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

(Casa Cristina / Los Angeles Times)

“It has just outrage,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz, who said she and her union were “proud” to support Local 99. The way Arias and her union were able to “build power and creating change in a real way (for themselves)… gives me the creeps.”

Kelly Gonez, a board member for LAUSD, whose district includes most of the eastern San Fernando Valley, praised Arias for her “pragmatic, open and honest approach,” despite being on the opposite side of the table. talks.

“While we are currently in negotiations, it is easy to fall into conflicting positions, but there is a history of partnership with LA Unified under Max’s leadership,” Gonez said.

I asked Arias as our interview wrapped up what was next after the three-day strike. He did not rule out the possibility of more work stoppages if LAUSD officials do not comply with the union’s demands.

“My dad always taught me, ‘Don’t expect to see a turning point in your life, necessarily,’” he said. “’He Just Works For It.’”

That was the Arias I saw the next morning at the Van Nuys bus station. SEIU’s communications team had to drag him off the picket line to do TV interviews under a tent, then another over the phone in a car.

“I’m done talking to the press,” he said. “I want to talk to people.”

Someone passed him a megaphone. She returned to the picket line, which suddenly fell silent.

“This is what power looks like!” Arias proclaimed. “This is his force!”

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