A massive walkout led by the lowest-paid workers in Los Angeles Unified and supported by teachers shut down district campuses Tuesday amid a ferocious morning storm, sending parents scrambling over childcare and meals and he brought thousands of pickets to the streets demanding raises.
The strike, which will last until Thursday, capped a months-long escalation of labor tensions in the nation’s second-largest school district of 420,000 students. Bus drivers, janitors, special education aides, cafeteria workers, Service Employees International Union Local 99 members, are asking for a 30% pay increase, plus $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid employees.
The latest efforts to avert the strike failed Monday night and no new talks are scheduled. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho pleaded with employees to return to the bargaining table on Tuesday, calling the district’s offer of a 23% pay increase and a 3% bonus “historic.”
But frustrated union members went ahead with the strike, which is technically a protest over the school district’s alleged unfair labor practices. The walkout disrupted family schedules as thousands of parents searched for daycare, missed work and lined up in city centers to receive six-meal takeaway food packages to help their school-age children through Thursday. Some parents lamented that the school closure was harming their children’s emotional health and academic progress, while others said they supported the strike.
Max Arias, executive director of Local 99, said the decision to quit was a “last resort” for its 30,000 members, many of whom must take second or third jobs to survive, after nearly a year of negotiation over better salaries. The union’s goal has been to increase the average annual salary of members from $25,000 to $36,000.
“We’ve had enough empty promises,” said Arias of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown. “If LAUSD really values and is serious about reaching an agreement, it needs to show workers the respect they deserve.”
In the dark of 5 a.m., when bus drivers typically start their day, hundreds of district employees joined the picket line at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Van Nuys bus yard, marching in ponchos to the rain and balancing with posters and umbrellas. Beginning at 6:30 a.m., picketers congregated at schools across the 700-square-mile district.
Veronica De La Paz, 46, works as a campus aide and parent representative at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School. She is limited to six hours a day between the two jobs, although she would like to work more.
Her earnings of $1,100 every two weeks make it difficult for her and her husband, who works in a packing area for the garment district. She calculates the cheapest food options for her family and refuses to buy new clothes for her son, a first grader in Hobart.
“In less than a week, it was gone, this last check. And I’m looking forward to the next one,” she said. “It feels very bad to feel like this, when you have to choose not to buy a simple toy for your child.”
Alejandra Sánchez, a special education aide, joined about 20 other picketers in front of Eagle Rock Junior/Senior High School, holding a “Respect Us! pay us!” sign.
Sanchez said her job isn’t easy, working with students who often have unpredictable behavior. Hourly pay is low, from around $19 to $24 for six hours a day. But she said the job is rewarding.
“I love my job and the students,” said Sánchez, 45. “And it’s sad to have to get up today in the rain to fight for respect because the district doesn’t understand what I and so many others do.”
The walkout was 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 picket lines.
Danny Armstrong, a drama professor at the Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences in Granada Hills, said he would have to buckle down to forego pay for three days, likely eating ramen to survive. But he attended a union rally at district headquarters Tuesday, bringing his daughter Honey, a 16-year-old Valley Academy junior, to support the staff members who keep schools running.
“It breaks my heart that the district’s message to our kids is ‘Hey, we’re not going to pay your caregivers,’ so we don’t really care about you,” Armstrong said.
Honey said the civics exercise taught her an important lesson: “If you want a good education, you’re going to fight for it,” she said.
By midafternoon, thousands of local UTLA and SEIU members clad in red, draped in purple, surrounded LAUSD headquarters. Sounding rattles and bells, they called Carvalho to “negotiate”. Some had signs depicting the superintendent as a “Miami Vice”-type character, a reference to his previous work as leader of the Miami-Dade school district.
Over the weekend, the district offered Local 99 members a 23% cumulative increase, starting at 2% retroactive to the 2020-21 school year and ending at 5% in 2024-25. The package would also include a one-time 3% bonus for those who have been on the job since 2020-21, along with expanded hours, more full-time positions and better eligibility for health care benefits.
At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Carvalho said district leaders had “incredible respect” for the workers and the bid recognized they made “enormous sacrifices” for the families they serve. But he said union wage demands, along with increases for other union and non-union employees, would exceed what the district can afford in the long run. The union argues that the district’s reserves are large enough to afford the wage increases.
Because the wage bargaining process is still ongoing, Local 99 called the strike to protest alleged unfair labor practices. Although district officials have denied wrongdoing or are still reviewing more than a dozen complaints filed with state labor regulators by Local 99, Carvalho has nevertheless vowed to investigate the complaints.
Mixed feelings of parents
For many parents, the strike aroused mixed feelings. About a dozen parents spoke at Tuesday’s school board meeting, calling for an end to the strike.
“It does have an impact on education,” said María Nieto. “I invite the union to please respect the rights of our children, as well as I ask for respect for what they are demanding. And I invite you as the executive board to sit down and negotiate as soon as possible to stop all of this.”
Silvia Flores said her son, a sixth grader at King Middle School in Los Feliz, was an only child who missed his friends and had a hard time coping at home without going to school. She “she got depressed during the pandemic when campuses were closed. And now with the strike he gets frustrated because he doesn’t go to school,” Flores said.
Some parents praised their schools for making sure their children had study materials during the strike, but others said their teachers failed to prepare schoolwork. No homework provided during the strike will count toward a student’s grade, district officials said.
child care issues
The closure of more than 1,000 schools forced many working parents to fight for the care of their children. The school district and city and county recreation centers are providing limited space at more than 200 sites during the strike. By the end of the day, some 1,353 students attended these programs, below the potential capacity of about 15,000, district officials reported.
Some sites were packed, including the Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center in Fairfax, where volunteers were constantly distributing packaged meals throughout the morning.
Others were nearly empty, and some parents said they had no idea care was available. Nail technician Baasansuren Altanchimeg, 27, said she had to take time off work Tuesday to care for her two young children, a hardship for her due to losing wages. Other parents said they brought young children with them to work.
In the Florence-Firestone neighborhood of South Los Angeles, Cynthia Salazar walked to Parmelee Avenue Elementary School to enroll her 8-year-old son in the site’s daycare program, one of three students at the time.
“Schools closed. For me? It’s a big problem,” Salazar said.
Coordinator Christine Ferreira of United Teachers LA said the school had worked hard to let parents know that strike care would be available, but she was concerned if word had gotten out.
The Rosecrans Recreation Center in Gardena, however, drew about 20 students who took shelter from the rain Tuesday afternoon. Some young academics huddled around a laptop; others munched on snacks or quietly played Jenga at a nearby table.
But the center is home to an after-school program that serves students from the nearby elementary school, King said, “so it’s been an easy transition.”
Many families and officials were also concerned about the meals the district typically provides for students. Distribution sites were set up throughout the county and volunteers filled bags with oranges, apples, carrots, cereal, frozen pizza and other items. For many of the district’s families, approximately 80% of whom are low-income, meals are essential.
Roxana Tynan, whose daughter attends Eagle Rock, joined the strikers Tuesday and said she was aware most parents couldn’t afford flexible hours to protest, but thought any short-term pain caused by closed campuses was worth the long-term gains.
“Of course, we want our children to go to school,” he said. But, she added, “we’re going to continue to lose teachers and staff like special education aides, custodians and others if we don’t pay better. This is the best for our children.”
Times staff writers Brittny Mejia, Sonja Sharp, Debbie Truong and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.