Two hours before dawn Tuesday, what should have been an empty sidewalk outside the LAUSD Van Nuys bus yard on Roscoe Boulevard was packed with people.
Dozens of drivers, who would normally be walking through the gates to their empty yellow school buses, marched back and forth in the rain under a jumble of umbrellas, in the glare of TV news lights. Holding signs demanding respect, they chanted: “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”
So far they haven’t gotten it, meaning a new contract with hefty raises and better working conditions, so they have in effect shut down the second largest public school system in the country.
Like many Los Angeles Unified School District parents who went through the six-day teacher strike in 2019, then months of Zoom home school after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, my first thought was : “Oh God, please not again.”
Service Employees International Union local 99, representing the least advertised and lowest paid public school workers — bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, groundskeepers, teacher aides — called a three-day strike this week at a time when that every minute of class time is precious
But you know what? I don’t blame the union one bit.
The average annual salary for school workers represented by Local 99 is around $25,000, well below the level considered “very low income” by the federal government. In other words, we pay these people poverty wages.
Three-quarters of the 30,000 local LAUSD workers they are women. One third are Latino; a fifth are black. They have been working without a contract since the last one expired in 2020. Most are forced to work less than eight hours a day. Ten thousand do not receive health insurance through the district. They want higher salaries, more full-time work, higher staffing levels, and not coincidentally, more of that aforementioned respect.
“This overreliance on a low-wage, part-time workforce makes it difficult for the school district to retain and recruit workers, leading to severe staff shortages,” a union spokeswoman told my colleague Howard Blume last month after that members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.
It felt like one more slap in the face last month when LAUSD superintendent. Alberto Carvalho responded to the vote by comparing the union’s action to a circus.
“Circus = a predictable performance with a known outcome, wishing for nothing more than applause, a coin, and the promise of an upcoming show.” the superintendent tweeted. “Let’s do the right thing, for once, without the circus, for the children, for the community, for decency.”
Is it so hard to do the right thing for once by the hardworking people who keep the bathrooms clean, change the light bulbs, make sure our kids get to and from school safely, mow the lawn, and help the teachers? in their classrooms?
Carvalho deleted his antagonistic tweet, but the union is not going to let him forget it. He is featured prominently in retweets online.
The district’s 25,000 teachers, who are in the midst of your own contract negotiations, they are staying home in solidarity with their essential but non-teaching colleagues, which is why the parents of LAUSD’s more than 400,000 students are fighting back once again.
“We appreciate the teachers who support our members, but part of our problem is the invisibility of our members, as human beings and what they do,” said SEIU Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias, who had just finished addressing at the strikers with a megaphone. “They are never in the conversation. This process has made them visible, and I think parents and the public now realize that these are the people who take care of the children and support the teachers, so that the children can receive an education.”
Dorvel Silva, a 60-year-old bus driver who lives in North Hollywood and gets by on about four hours of sleep a night, has carried children for 15 years. His 40-foot bus is usually packed with high school students. “We have a lot of responsibility,” he said. “We are dealing with children, traffic, parents, teachers. Trust me, it’s very stressful.”
The union is asking for a 30% wage increase for four years, plus an immediate $2 per hour wage increase. (That, the union says, would bring hourly minimum wage closer to $25 and annual wages closer to $36,000, which is, after all, poverty wage for a family of four.)
The district, by contrast, has offered a 5% pay increase retroactive to July 1, 2021, a second pay increase retroactive to July 1, 2022, and a third 5% pay increase that would take effect on July 1. Employees would also receive a one-time 4% bonus for the current year and a one-time 5% bonus next year. This would result, the district says, in a cumulative increase of 23%.
Last week, at a press conference, Carvalho said that his offer “does not represent the end of the road, we have more resources and we have indicated this to the union.”
I mentioned to Arias that I had been receiving emails from a Venice High School teacher about the appalling condition of the campus restrooms there, some of which, he said, are marked out of order when in fact they are just dirty and not working. . there is no one to clean them. Clogged toilets and flooded floors are commonplace, making daily life difficult, not to mention stinky.
Arias was not surprised.
“The district is 50% staffed with what it claims is the minimum standard of cleanliness,” he told me. “Right now, that is a crisis. You can’t increase your staff when a janitor who’s been working there for 20 years isn’t even making $20 an hour.”
Among the union’s demands is an increase in cleaning staff to at least the minimum standard.
Some schools are part of communities that can raise money from parents to supplement staffing. “But,” Arias said, “most communities can’t do that, so the bathrooms are closed.”
As I made my way back down the hill to my house in Venice around 6 am, traffic was remarkably light. Not a school bus in sight. Local 99 has made its point. Now, let’s get our kids back to school.