Looming 3-Day School Strike Is Going to Bring Pain to Los Angeles

Cityside Column: L.A. Unified School District and a key union are hurtling toward a work stoppage that seems entirely avoidable but inevitable

If you want to know what the coming week is going to be like for a half million Los Angeles Unified School District students and employees, and hundreds of thousands of parents, then re-watch a short but pivotal scene in Rocky III. As Mr. T’s Clubber Lang prepares to enter the ring, a reporter asks his prediction for the fight. Lang turns to the camera, and with an icy glare and a sinister tone says, “Paaaain,” the word extended just a beat.

There is no better way to describe the impacts of a strike scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday. With the year-long Covid schools shutdown that hindered learning still fresh in mind and a 2019 teacher’s walkout not far in the rearview window, K-12 kids are about to see their education kneecapped again.

An 11th-hour save is possible, but for almost everyone, it looks like three days of paaaain.

Some things about the potential walkout make sense, including a legitimate salary ask for low-paid school support staff. Yet other things are bizarre, and every public comment and action has to be glimpsed through the lens of warring parties seeking to win over the general public. Beware of any remark proclaiming something like, “This is about the kids.” Students are the customer base, but this is adults scratching and clawing.

A labor dispute between the LAUSD, led by Supt. Alberto Carvalho, and the union SEIU Local 99, which represents approximately 30,000 district bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and other employees, has been bubbling for nearly a year, while dozens of negotiating sessions have failed to yield a resolution. Yet the strike dates were only set on Wednesday, and the sudden threat has families scrambling. Working parents have to find childcare or stay home from their job. The district is seeking to insure that food distribution services continue for kids who rely on schools for meals. With campuses closed, regional parks and libraries will try to pick up the slack. Older teens may be catching matinees of Cocaine Bear. (Disclosure: I have a kid in an LAUSD school.)

What’s this all about? There are some union allegations of unfair labor practices by the district but ultimately, this boils down to money. SEIU is seeking a 30 percent raise for a staff that, according to its website, has an average salary of $25,000 a year, with many employees working part-time. The district recently upped its offer, with a series of raises over several years that, according to a Los Angeles Times report, amounts to 19 percent, along with a one-time 5 percent bonus.

Statements from the sides portray the chasm between them.

“The truth is, we are between a rock and a hard place,” Carvalho emailed district parents on March 13. “Accepting all of our labor partners’ demands would mean future program cutbacks, job losses, or even bankruptcy.”

“SEIU Local 99 members know a strike will be a sacrifice but the school district has pushed workers to take this action,” countered union Executive Director Max Arias in a press release. “Families have been sacrificing for far too long on poverty wages.”

There is a tendency to compare this strike to the 2019 labor action, but they are strikingly different. During a six-day winter walkout, the teachers’ union won the public relations war, with many parents supporting red-clad instructors as they walked picket lines in rainstorms, and at rallies where participants banged the heck out of cowbells. But what many people failed to recognize was that the deal UTLA accepted was nearly identical to the one offered by LAUSD before classes ceased, raising a legitimate question as to what was gained and if it was needed. An L.A. Times story a year after the strike noted, “Teachers sacrificed about 3 percent of their pay when they walked out and settled for the same 6 percent the district offered before the strike.”

This time, the district is dealing with a union whose workers make far less money, and employees who not only showed up at schools during the 2019 strike but continued working during the pandemic. Despite Carvalho dropping the B word—bankruptcy—the district now spends more per student than before Covid-19, thanks to additional funding that has come in (though the district asserts it cannot rely on non-recurring federal pandemic aid).

There are other quirks. SEIU Local 99 and UTLA have not always been aligned, and the unions have sometimes endorsed different candidates in political races. But UTLA opting to strike in sympathy is what really puts teeth in the action—the district might be able to open schools if teachers showed up. Instead, campuses must close, and educational packets will come home with students on Monday, with no guarantee kids even crack them.

The UTLA play is savvy. The teachers union is in the midst of its own contract negotiations, and if the district is forced to meet most of SEIU’s pay increase demand, that sets a high bar for UTLA to secure better terms. Its brass operates strategically. After all, when looking back in 2021 on the teachers’ strike, union President Cecily Myart-Cruz told LAMag that kids weren’t really impacted, saying, “Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival…. They know the words ‘insurrection’ and ‘coup.’”

This is a pivotal moment for Carvalho, who after leading the Miami school district for 14 years accepted one of the hardest jobs in Los Angeles, and filled the shoes of Austin Beutner, who had navigated the district through the pandemic. Carvalho took over in February 2022, and reviews in his first year have been generally positive, though with caveats. His creating a four-year LAUSD strategic play is seen as a smart move. His social media usage has drawn questions, including when he tweeted a video of himself skydiving last July.

A key task for a superintendent is keeping labor relations smooth, and some observers have suggested that the SEIU situation never should have reached this point. Not coming to terms in the past, goes the thinking, means that ultimately the district will have to settle for closer to the union’s 30 percent demand than it might have six months ago.

Again, there is the potential for a save—Carvalho and Arias can seek the proverbial win-win, as no one will smell pretty if schools close. This could also be the place where politicians rush to the rescue—on Friday, Karen Bass’ office issued a statement reading, “The Mayor is closely monitoring the situation and is engaged with all parties involved.” Good luck trying to get any sense from those tea leaves.

The ultimate result is an unsettled time, with paaaain in the immediate forecast. Then again, a strike might deliver good times to a small minority of those impacted, as students may get a three-day vacation about a week before spring break. On Saturday I spoke to an LAUSD 12th grader who said that if schools close, they are going to Big Bear to snowboard. “Lines will be really short,” the student said.

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