(CN) — Los Angeles Unified — the second largest school district in the nation — is bracing for a three-day shutdown beginning Tuesday, with its two biggest unions set to go on strike.
District officials had hoped to avoid the walkout with last-minute negotiations, but LAUD Superintendent Alberto Carvhalo said at press conference Monday afternoon that union leaders weren't willing to come to the table.
"I made myself available today," Carvalho said, "hoping that in fact we would be able to have a conversation. For a whole host of reasons, some of which I don’t even understand, we were never in the same room. We were never even in the same building."
He added: "Tomorrow will be a difficult day."
SEIU Local 99 represents about 30,000 bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers, teaching assistants, security aides and other service employees. The service workers are being joined by UTLA, which represents roughly 35,000 counselors, therapists, librarians and nurses as well as teachers, in a sympathy strike.
"This strike is about respect for essential workers who have been treated as a second-class workforce by LAUSD for far too long," SEIU Local 99 executive director Max Arias said in a statement last week.
"Denying education staff livable wages and refusing to invest in our students has devastated our public schools and pushed inequality to perilous levels," said UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz, in a statement last week. "Until Superintendent Carvahlo and the district cut the charades and come to the table with tangible proposals, we will continue our unified escalation.”
Schools in Los Angeles do far more than just teach — many function as public aid centers, providing food and child care to thousands of low-income families. And so the impending walkout has sent the city government, as well as nonprofits and community groups, scrambling to fill the gap. The city's Parks and Recreation department is offering programs for first through fifth grade kids at 30 different locations, though capacity is somewhat limited. Some of the district's schools will be open for "supervision" but few expect any real academic learning to take place.
"There are those that say that kids won’t necessarily be hurt by this strike," Carvalho said Monday. "For me, one day out of school is one day too many. Two days out of school is two days too many. Three days is too much."
Local 99 leaders have asked for a 30% raise for all its members, and additional increases for those with the lowest incomes. Carvalho said that the district's latest offer was a 23% raise, with a 3% one-time bonus. That would take most employees to an hourly wage of more than $20, well above the minimum for the state and county. The district is also prepared to offer full health care benefits to all SEIU members — even part-time employees — and their families, a fairly generous perk.
Carvalho has called that offer "historic," and suggested that it would be better than any school district in the country.
"I believe this strike could’ve been avoided," Carvalho said, "but it could not be avoided without parties speaking to one another."
The teacher's union, meanwhile, is also seeking a raise — they're asking for 20% over the next two years. The district has offered a 5% raise per year, plus one-time bonuses of 4% and 5% for this year and next, respectively. Technically speaking, UTLA isn't actually going on strike themselves, though most of its members will not be showing up to work in solidarity with the service employees. Unlike SEIU leaders, UTLA leaders are not an impasse with LAUSD, and negotiations remain ongoing.
Both unions have accused the district of waiting until the last minute to seriously negotiate. They say the district is sitting on $4.9 billion in reserves and can afford to be a little generous with its employees. Carvalho called that claim "categorically untrue" and said it would inspire "false hope" among workers, explaining that most of that money was from the federal government and is already earmarked for various programs and services. Though it currently boasts a budget surplus, LAUSD has stated that it's long-term financial outlook is bad, thanks to a steadily declining enrollment, the product of a slowing birthrate and a city that's become unaffordable for many young families.
UTLA has a long history of feuding with the superintendent. John Deasy's three-year tenure from 2011 to 2014 was marked by bitter relations with the union, culminating in his early dismissal by the elected school board, the majority of which had been elected with union backing. Austin Beutner, who served from 2018 to 2021, was given similar treatment. Carvalho, hired away from Miami in 2022 and given a four-year contract (with a base salary of $440,000), has been at pains to strike a conciliatory note with the teachers. But he's been criticized for seeking out the spotlight and for his rather exuberant Twitter presence.
One tweet in particular got him in trouble. In February, after SEIU Local 99 members voted to authorize a strike, Carvalho tweeted, "1,2,3... Circus = a predictable performance with a known outcome, desiring of nothing more than an applause, a coin, and a promise of a next show." Though he later deleted the tweet, the unions were quick to take umbrage, telling their members that it was a blatant sign of disrespect.
SEIU Local 99 used to be frequently at odds with UTLA — it was, for the most part, a supporter of Deasy and clashed with UTLA over programs like Breakfast in the Classroom, which employs cafeteria workers but which teachers said disrupted learning. But Tuesday's strike is sign of how close the two unions have become over the last eight years, united by their growing support of progressive causes.
It's been a tumultuous five years for LA Unified. The 2018-19 school year was interrupted by a 9-day teacher's strike. Covid hit in 2020, closing in-person instruction for nearly two years, with classes taking place remotely over Zoom. Schools reopened in the fall of 2021, but many students struggled to make up for lost time.
This school year, LAUSD has been forced to deal a cyberattack, chronic absenteeism and a series of teen opioid overdoses. Now, they'll have to contend with a strike — barring a last-minute deal or intervention by the California Public Employment Relations Board.
The district has asked the board for an injunction to halt or delay the strike, but that request was denied. LAUSD has also filed an unfair labor practice charge against SEIU Local 99 and has called the strike "illegal," saying that the official justification of the strike doesn't match its leaders true intentions.
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