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Demonstrations, protests mark first day of LA school strike

Max Arias, Executive Director of the SEIU Local 99 union speaks to members of the press and community at a demonstration outside of Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Koreatown. Behind him is Cecily Myart-Cruz, the president of the UTLA teachers union, and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).
Sequoia Carrillo
/
NPR
Max Arias, Executive Director of the SEIU Local 99 union speaks to members of the press and community at a demonstration outside of Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Koreatown. Behind him is Cecily Myart-Cruz, the president of the UTLA teachers union, and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).

Updated March 21, 2023 at 3:36 PM ET

Hundreds of thousands of students were out of school today in Los Angeles as the country's second largest district ground to a halt. The union representing bus drivers, maintenance workers and other support staff began a three-day walkout, and the union representing the city's teachers joined the strike in solidarity.

The protests began early as drivers and supporters gathered before dawn at the Van Nuys school bus depot.

"I love that everybody came out, even in the rain, to support this," said Maria Betancourt, a bus driver. "We need everybody to come out."

The strike comes after more than a year of negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and its superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, over pay and health benefits.

"We understand the plight, the frustration and the realities faced by our workforce members," Carvalho said Monday evening. "We're willing to work with them, but the way we find a solution is by having a partner at the table to actually negotiate possible results."

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99 represents traditional service employees like custodians and cafeteria workers, along with more specialized positions such as special education assistants. Despite the critical roles these workers play in the operation of a school, the union says the average salary of its members in the district is $25,000 per year, with many of these employees working part time.

The SEIU is demanding a 30% increase in base salary over four years. The district administration has agreed to a 23% raise over a five year period, along with bonuses, but the union has not responded to the past three offers.

Many of its members feel a lack of respect from the district's leadership. "I don't think they want to listen to us ... to our needs," said Betancourt.

A few hours later, the union's Executive Director Max Arias, echoed those concerns at a demonstration outside Robert F Kennedy Community School in Koreatown. "If LAUSD truly values and is serious about reaching an agreement," he said, "they must show workers the respect they deserve."

Yolanda Mimes Reed, a special education assistant who attended the rally in Koreatown, says she works four jobs in order to afford to live in Los Angeles. "I work for in-home support services, I do hair, and I also have an online boutique," she said.

To her, the pay increase in the union's demands would make a huge difference. "It means being out of below the poverty line. And it means letting go of one of those jobs so I don't have to be working all the time. I can spend some time with my family."

The majority of LAUSD's 420,000 students are from families who live at or below the poverty line, and depend on schools for far more than just classroom instruction. District officials are working with the city and local volunteers to provide students with breakfasts and lunches, as well as to help families with child care for working parents during the planned three-day walkout.

This is the second strike in the school district in four years. In 2019, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, or UTLA, went on strike for six days before reaching an agreement. The union says it is standing in solidarity with SEIU this week, while also continuing its own contract negotiations with the district.

Among the teachers' demands is a similar wage increase and a cap on class sizes. So far, the district has not given much – citing concerns over its finances.

Carvalho, the former Miami-Dade superintendent who came to Los Angeles 13 months ago, says the district, with its $14.8 billion operating budget – is existing in a financial bubble right now. Enrollment is declining, it's hard to keep teachers' positions filled, and in a few years the padding of COVID relief money will be rolled back.

Carvalho says he's fighting to protect the district's financial security. union leaders say they're protecting their members who, in many cases, struggle to make ends meet despite working jobs that clearly keep LAUSD running.

And, stuck in the middle are the students and parents who'll be scrambling today.

Produced by: Liz Baker

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.