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Hundreds of thousands of students stayed home as a labor strike starts in LA


Hundreds of thousands of students stayed home today as a labor strike shut down Los Angeles public schools. The union for support staff, people like custodians and bus drivers, began a planned three-day walkout. And the teachers in the nation's second-largest school district joined them in support. At the center of this disagreement are demands for wage increases, better benefits and fewer staffing shortages. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo takes us around Los Angeles today to the demonstrations and protests.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: The first day of the strike started dark and early, at 4:30 a.m. outside the Van Nuys school bus depot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If we don't get it...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If we don't get it...

CARRILLO: Even though the sun wasn't up yet and the sky was dumping rain, hundreds of bus drivers and supporters walked up and down the sidewalk, chanting for fair treatment. For many, like Maria Betancourt, they start every morning at this time at this very depot.

MARIA BETANCOURT: I love that everybody came out even in the rain, to support this cause. You know, we need everybody to come out.

CARRILLO: Betancourt and the other members of Service Employees International Union Local 99 came out despite the weather because to them, this is important. They feel their demands for higher pay, increased staffing and health benefits are the bare minimum. They're asking for a 30% raise spread out over four years, among other things. The district has offered 23% over five years with additional bonuses. But the union says that's not enough. The yearslong fight for a new contract has left them feeling disrespected.

BETANCOURT: I don't think that they're - they want to listen to us, our needs.

CARRILLO: A few hours later, the union's executive director, Max Arias, echoed those same concerns at a demonstration outside Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown.

MAX ARIAS: If LAUSD truly values and is serious about reaching an agreement, they must show workers the respect they deserve.


ARIAS: We've had enough of empty promises.

CARRILLO: Workers are especially livid today because last night both parties agreed to mediation, a confidential process meant to finalize an agreement. But before the union could get their team into the room, they found out that the superintendent's office had disclosed the news of negotiations to the media. The union then backed out, and the strike went ahead as planned this morning. Arias says the move soured an already tenuous situation.

ARIAS: The district needs to work to rebuild the trust. But we're here, right? The goal is to find - to get a good contract, not to strike.

CARRILLO: Ninety-six percent of members voted to approve the strike. One of those members was Yolanda Mimes Read, a special education assistant who says she works four jobs in order to afford to live in LA.

YOLANDA MIMES REED: I work for in-home supportive services. I do hair. And I also have an online boutique.

CARRILLO: To her, this raise would mean everything.

MIMES REED: 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 spend all my time working. I can spend some time with my family.

CARRILLO: Since many of the union's workers are part time, it leaves them in precarious positions during the off season.

MIMES REED: During the summers, managers don't want to hear that you don't got pay to pay rent, that you don't make money. They don't want to hear that. So you get the notices, and you get evicted, and you go a couple of - maybe sometimes a couple of months without a place to stay, staying with family and friends until you find a new place. And then the cycle repeated itself - for three years for me.

CARRILLO: Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says he's sympathetic to the position many workers have been stuck in and hopes that there's still room for a resolution.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: We are much closer than we've ever been before, but being that close is not enough. And I believe there's enough goodwill to bring us to the table and to see through towards a solution that considers the employees, considers the students but also acknowledges the fiscal reality ahead.

CARRILLO: Carvalho says the district's finances cannot survive such an increase.

CARVALHO: So we have to be cautious in the way we use the resources, not overcommitting, possibly putting the district in a bankruptcy position that not only is it not prudent. It is illegal in the state of California.

CARRILLO: For now, students and parents face the unfortunate reality of two more days with schools closed. Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.