LOS ANGELES (CN) — Tuesday morning in Los Angeles saw unusually miserable weather conditions: cold, wind and driving rain, slashing sideways into rush hour traffic. Not that it dampened the spirits of tens of thousands of school employees picketing outside of nearly every public school in the city.
"We are the union!" a man in UTLA red sang into a megaphone outside Ramon Cortines School for the Visual and Performing Arts. A dozen or so teachers wearing red underneath thin plastic ponchos answered with a well-rehearsed rejoinder: "We are the union." "Mighty mighty union." "Mighty mighty union."
Most of the workers and activists gathered under the school's overhang, where a folding table struggled under the weight of countless donuts, coffee containers, tamales and assorted snacks. Nearby, a man handed out copies of a socialist newspaper.
Similar scenes played out at other schools: teachers wearing red, service workers in purple, donuts, coffee, sideways rain. Around 65,000 teachers, bus drivers, janitors, cafeteria workers and other school staff stayed home from work, canceling class for more than 420,000 students in the country's second-largest school district.
"I’m sad for them," said Bobby Gabriel, a special education teacher who was outside Florence Nightingale Middle School in Cypress Park on Tuesday morning. "This poses a safety issue for kids who can’t be at school, be with their friends." But, he added, "That’s the point — to make it a little uncomfortable. The squeaky wheel gets the grease."
Both LA Unified School District and the city offered programs with various forms of supervision for students, especially the younger ones. Other sites offered free "grab-n-go" meals to replace the free school meals that many low-income families rely on.
SEIU Local 99, the union that represents service workers in Los Angeles, are on strike — technically speaking, it is an unfair practices strike.
"Some of our members are asked to do more than their job without getting a pay difference," said Maria Preciado, a special education assistant and SEIU Local 99 representative outside Robert F. Kennedy Community School. "Sometimes, people are asked to do several jobs."
But the central issue in the labor dispute is undoubtedly money.
"The cost of living has gone up," Preciado said. "Even going to the grocery store. Where you used to pay $100, now you pay $200."
Local 99 leaders have asked for a 30% across-the-board raises for all service employees, with an additional raise for the lowest earners. On Monday night, LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district had upped its offer to a 23% raise, plus a one-time 3% bonus, as well as full health care benefits to all SEIU members, including part-time employees, and their families.
"I understand our employees' frustration that has been brewing, not just for a couple of years, but probably for decades," Carvalho said in a written message posted to Twitter on Tuesday morning, after the strike began. "And it is on the basis of recognizing historic inequities that we have put on the table a historic proposal. This offer addresses the needs and concerns from the union, while also remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the district in a financially stable position."
"That was the first time we'd heard that offer — on the TV!" said one SEIU Local 99 member outside Florence Nightingale Middle School. Labor leaders have criticized Carvalho for not taking negotiations seriously until the week before the strike. Much of their messaging has centered on "respect," which they think the superintendent hasn't shown them. They also point to the district's coffers, flush with Covid-relief money and other federal funds, amounting to some $4.8 billion.
Carvalho has expressed dismay at the union's unwillingness to negotiate in that final week before the strike. He has said the reserve money has already been earmarked for programs and construction projects, and that it would be illegal to spend it on wages. He says the unions' messaging is giving its members "false hope."
The teachers union, UTLA, is not technically on strike themselves; rather, its members have joined the walkout in solidarity. They too, however, are in contract negotiations, and are demanding a 20% raise.
By the afternoon, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and thousands of school employees clogged the four-lane street abutting LAUSD's massive, cube-shaped headquarters just north of downtown. It was a carnival-like atmosphere, almost like you'd find outside a soccer match, with everyone wearing red or purple, and everywhere the sound of drums, whistles, cowbells, even a brass band playing songs like "Seven Nation Army." Among the dozens of handheld signs, many singled out Carvalho for opprobrium, comparing the Portuguese superintendent, who makes around $440,000 a year, to Mr. Burns, The Grinch, and to a clown.
"We got a message for the school board," UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz shouted to the crowd from a makeshift stage in the middle of the street. "Show us the money! You got 5 billion reasons to negotiate!"
"Our demand gets our members to the poverty line," SEIU local 99 executive director Max Arias told the crowd. "The district treats our members with no respect. They look at us as a service, a widget. But we are human beings. And you have to invest in human beings."
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