Carmen Marchany knows that the three-day strike that has shut down Los Angeles public schools is another blow to her already shaky finances. But the special education aide still joined her colleagues on the picket outside South Gate High School Wednesday morning, holding signs and singing in the rain.
“Three days to lose is a lot,” said Marchany, whose husband died of COVID-19. “But I know the feeling of being uncomfortable.
“But we need to feel uncomfortable now so we can feel relief and a better future later,” he said. “It’s what we should do.”
Thousands of the lowest-paid workers in Los Angeles Unified — educational aides, like Marchany, as well as cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers and others — walked off the job Tuesday and are not being paid for the days lost. local 99 of Service Employees International Union is leading the strike over unfair labor practice allegations against the district.
The union has been demanding a 30% pay increase, plus $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid employees. These increases would increase the average annual salary of members from $25,000 to $36,000.
United Teachers Los Angeles joined the walkout in solidarity, forcing officials to close schools in the district of 420,000 students.
Tears rolled down Marchany’s cheeks as she shared the emotional and financial challenges of the strike.
“I heard a woman on the news last night say that it was inconvenient for her to continue the strike because she was having trouble finding childcare,” Marchany said. “Imagine struggling to provide, period.”
She said it has been difficult for her to support her family as her only source of income, especially with low wages and rising inflation.
Marchany often takes a “side hustle, but that shouldn’t be the case,” he said. “We love children, but we also love our children.”
Marchany believes it is important to champion a better future and appreciates the support of the community. One of her student’s parents asked her how they could help the strikers.
“She said ‘I want the school to feel your absence,’” Marchany said. “And that meant the world to me.”
There is no strike fund that members can apply to for financial assistance, but the union is working to “provide limited assistance, including prepared meals for striking workers and their families, and food pantry and community resources,” according to to Local 99.
Some members of the teachers’ union have come together to support their colleagues, beyond just joining them on the picket line, said Scott Mandel, a teacher at Pacoima Middle School.
Mandel, who serves as president of the East Los Angeles Valley teachers union, said 20 teachers at Lorne Street Elementary School in Northridge raised about $800 for their Local 99 members.
“This is what we do,” Mandel said Wednesday at Sun Valley Polytechnic Senior High School. “We stay together.”
Although the strike can become a burden, especially financially for many, Mandel considered it necessary.
“Missing three days of pay is inconvenient for me,” Mandel said. “But losing three days of pay for SEIU members is paying that month’s rent and putting food on your table. So how can I not be here sharing the load?
At one point in his life, Eric Hernandez, who has worked as a school janitor for 17 years, said he was forced to choose between sleeping or increasing stability.
He worked two jobs: managing buildings, grounds and custodial duties at James Monroe High School in North Hills, while taking night shifts at his Target neighborhood.
But lack of sleep “burned him out,” forcing him to leave Target and go back to his single salary — and the anxiety it induced.
At a large rally on Wednesday, he carried a 3-foot sign that read: “When poop hits the fan, I won’t be there to clean it up!” him as he marched with crowds of union members in Lake Balboa.
“It’s unbelievable, but my salary hasn’t really increased that much since I started,” said the 43-year-old. “The guys who start tomorrow only make a little less than me.”
Hernandez said she recently had to change her diet to cope with rising food prices. Every other day he eats “25 cent ramen and one egg” to keep costs down. She is taking a tougher approach during this three-day strike.
“I’m just cutting back on meals and not eating,” she said. “One meal a day should be fine.”
Hernandez pleaded with parents in the district who have been frustrated at having to reorganize their lives to accommodate the strike.
“We hope they fix this for us,” Hernández said. “We have staff and teachers here and we are all trying to get paid fairly.”
Amelia Mendoza, a Pacoima resident, took advantage of a much-appreciated trip of friends to the rain-soaked rally Wednesday afternoon at Lake Balboa. The trip saved Mendoza, a school climate advocate at the Valley Oaks Center for Enriched Studies in Sun Valley, valuable gas money.
“What has saved me is my tax refund,” he said. “It will help me pay the rent and the purchases and take care of my family. Without it, I would be in trouble.”
At 26, Mendoza is the sole breadwinner for a family of four, which includes her parents and a younger brother.
She said she is also trying to complete her psychology degree from Cal State Northridge, which prevents her from taking a second job.
“I’m just above the poverty line,” he said of his $34,000 annual salary.
Mendoza marched Wednesday because she said she loves helping out on campus — helping students talk through fights using conflict resolution or acclimating to the classroom after a prolonged illness, such as COVID-19.
He says it offers “a place for students to feel safe.” However, she feels on the edge financially.
“I don’t understand the priorities of this district,” he said. There are “thousands of janitors, bus drivers and lunch workers who need help to survive and it feels like we are being ignored.”
Some days, Mendoza skips lunch to cut costs or eats “99-cent ramen” while biking to work or taking the bus when gas prices soar.
“This is my life, just fighting to get by,” he said. “It is very difficult.”
Staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.