On Tuesday, the Los Angeles education system was brought to its knees. Approximately 30,000 bus drivers, custodians, teachers’ assistants and other support staff began a three-day strike; 35,000 teachers joined them. Then campuses reopened Friday, and a few hours after classes ended, Mayor Karen Bass called a press conference to announce that a deal for a new contract with significant pay increases had been struck.
Members of the Service Employees International Union Local 99 must approve the agreement negotiated with the Los Angeles Unified School District, but this seems like a formality. Labor peace is restored… but only until the next upheaval. Everyone is shaking hands and smiling for the cameras, but don’t be fooled—there are clear winners and losers, as well as other takeaways and lessons learned.
Kids Lost Big
There are 420,000 K-12 LAUSD students, and not one got a semblance of a regular education last week. While many probably enjoyed three days off, the shutdown came at an awful time. Numerous students are still behind after a year of Zoom school during the COVID-19 pandemic and every day of instruction matters. Plus, public schools will be closed this Friday for Cesar Chavez Day, and next week is spring break. This means that students got two days of classes last week, go four times this week, and then have six days off (Disclosure: I have a kid in an LAUSD school). Good luck establishing any learning consistency, particularly for those having the most trouble.
This is not to say the labor action was unwarranted, but just don’t pretend that there was no impact on students or the parents who had to stay home from work to care for them. As the adults fought, the kids suffered.
The Union Scores
SEIU claimed it was striking not for a new contract, but to protest unfair labor practices perpetrated by the district. Uh, yeah, that may be technically true, but it’s like saying Citizen Kane was really about a sled.
Just consider the agreement announced Friday—it is about money, not labor practices, and the union scored. Before the strike, the union wanted a 30 percent raise for employees who it claimed made an average of $25,000, with many working part-time. SEIU ended up with almost everything it wanted, via a staggered series of pay increases, bonuses, and expanded healthcare. The minimum wage will rise to $22.52 an hour and, according to the union, the average salary will increase to nearly $33,000.
I don’t know what SEIU Executive Director Max Arias’ home looks like, but I have to assume that on Saturday morning it was full of empty champagne bottles from people celebrating Friday night. Many Angelenos had never heard of Arias before this began—now they know his name.
A Blow for District Leadership
This was the first major test for LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who took over in February 2022. His public comments after the settlement was sunny, but few would give him a high grade for how he handled this situation. Some observers thought that contrary to early public stances, the district had sufficient money for raises for employees who worked throughout the pandemic. A related assertion is that if Carvalho had offered more in the past, then a strike might have been averted. Now, some are pointing to the settlement and saying that if the union was going to get nearly everything it asked for, then why not offer that before the kids lost three school days?
Superintendent of LAUSD may be the single hardest job in the region, and the punches come from everywhere, all the time. The learning curve is steep and you need political allies. Let’s see what Carvalho learns from this.
The PR War
Money matters during strikes, but so does public sentiment. The SEIU walkout serves as a reminder that, in Los Angeles, the union almost always wins the PR war, and that goes double when lower-paid workers hit the picket lines. We saw that when janitors went on strike in 2000, and again in 2019 when teachers walked out. For all the complexities and multiple layers that any negotiation requires, it’s hard to overcome the stark visual impact of low-paid workers holding aloft signs and asserting that they can’t afford to live in a very expensive city.
A W for the Mayor
The mayor of Los Angeles officially has as much control over the local school system as you or I do, and that is not an exaggeration. Some past leaders sought to use the office as a bully pulpit to influence what happens, but LAUSD is its own beast, and most of its budget comes from the state.
Still, Bass notches a big win for helping settle this dispute. I don’t know what happened behind closed doors, or how much carrot and stick were utilized, but the woman known for coalition building was the one speaking first at the Friday press conference. She also got there after keeping her role during negotiations lowkey. Another win.
Missing School Board
Carvalho is not the only person in LAUSD with power. There is also a seven-member school board. Again, I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but Board members curiously did not make much of a public impression during the walkout.
The S Word
Campuses might have been able to stay open without SEIU workers. But teachers agreeing to honor the picket lines made that impossible. This was cast as United Teachers Los Angeles acting in sympathy with SEIU. I don’t doubt that teachers wanted their co-workers to get more money, but from an overall union perspective, another S word mattered more: strategy.
The union representing 35,000 teachers, school nurses and others is in the midst of its own negotiations with LAUSD, and its leaders know that the more SEIU gets, the more it is likely to receive. The bar is now set really high, and Carvalho has seen firsthand what a strike looks like, and what it takes to reach an agreement. In all likelihood, UTLA also gets paid big time.
Politicians Did the Look-at-Me!
The purple-clad union workers took to the picket lines on a cold and wet Tuesday morning, then had other rallies. The TV cameras were there, and so was a cascade of politicians from across Los Angeles, grinning and marching and chanting. They got some press and also took to social media to show the world that they walked.
Take this with a grain of salt the size of a campaign mailer.
Sure, many pols have agendas that are in line with the union demands, and of course, everyone wants these employees to make a living wage. But a lot of the tweets and Instagram posts seemed to be more about the elected official than the cafeteria worker who was earning less than $20 an hour. I’m purposely not mentioning anyone by name, because no one deserves additional attention, but they should realize that the public recognizes opportunism.
Maybe next time the politicians can step up and help bridge the divide before a walkout takes place. But that probably won’t happen—a tweet showing the hard work of being at the bargaining table earns fewer likes than one on the picket lines.
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