Los Angeles Schools Close as Workers Begin Three-Day Strike

LOS ANGELES — Classes were canceled for more than 420,000 Los Angeles students on Tuesday as school employees and teachers kicked off a three-day strike, facing off against the administrators in the school district, the second largest in the nation.

As rain fell before dawn, the work stoppage began with bus drivers walking a picket line outside a Los Angeles Unified School District lot where they normally would be starting their routes. Other workers planned to protest outside campuses and district facilities during the school day.

On Monday afternoon, school district leaders had pushed for continued negotiations that could prevent the closure of hundreds of schools as they tried to bargain with the union that represents 30,000 teachers’ assistants, bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers. The employees are seeking a 30 percent pay increase, and union leaders say their members are paid not much more than the minimum wage as living costs surge in Southern California.

Alberto M. Carvalho, the district superintendent, had for days publicly lamented the consequences a strike would impose on students and families ensnarled in a dispute that was not theirs. On Monday, he appealed to union members by pointing out the classroom hours lost during the Covid-19 school closures.

“We do not need to debate or litigate the fact that during the pandemic, kids lost a lot of ground,” Mr. Carvalho said on Twitter, adding that “they cannot afford to be out of school.”

But a few hours later, the standoff was certain. Campuses would close. Picket lines would be drawn. And parents and guardians, many of whom felt blindsided by the news, were scrambling to find child care, the sudden stress reminiscent of the pandemic lockdowns.

“Only one teacher told me about the strike by sending me a message — but I didn’t hear anyone else say anything,” said Maria Gomez, 39, whose two daughters attend Charles H. Kim Elementary School in Koreatown.

The district and individual schools made continuous efforts over the last week to notify parents about a possible strike, but many of their announcements had not reached their audience.

Ms. Gomez, who cleans homes for a living, said she was not sure what she would do with her children, ages 6 and 8, or whether they could tag along with her to work. She worried about keeping them busy, as well as their ability to obtain school lunches, which the district normally offers for free when campuses are open.

Over the last week, the district had hustled to put together contingency plans, setting up supervision sites where students could be dropped off for the day, as well as locations where families could pick up three days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches for students.

Labor Organizing and Union Drives

Still, several parents dropping off their children on Monday at Ramona Elementary School in East Hollywood found themselves casually skimming fliers that were handed out, only to become shocked to read that schools were likely to close — a reaction that played out across the county.

Around that same time, the district had gotten word that Service Employees International Union Local 99, the labor group representing support workers, wanted to meet. Leaders hoped that a strike could be averted at the 11th hour, the school board president, Jackie Goldberg, said.

But Ms. Goldberg said things fell through when it took a while to find a mediator and the union allotted just two hours for conciliation.

“I was disappointed,” she said. “You’re not going to solve a contract of any size in two hours.”

The strike is one of the first major challenges for Mr. Carvalho, who became the Los Angeles superintendent in February 2022 after having previously served as the head of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 75 percent of students and families live at or below the federal poverty level, closing schools could be detrimental for students still working to bridge the learning gaps incurred during in-person school closures throughout the pandemic, Mr. Carvalho said in an interview.

“They depend on schools for stability, routine, for safety, for protection, but also for food in addition to good education,” he said.

But Max Arias, executive director of the union, assailed the superintendent and his salary of $440,000.

“I don’t think he has the moral authority to walk around blaming our members for the schools being closed or the learning loss that may happen,” Mr. Arias said.

He noted that the last contract expired in 2020, during the early days of the pandemic when his workers were on the front lines helping to feed students at lunch pickup sites even as schools were closed.

The union remains steadfast in its demand for a 30 percent overall raise; an additional $2-an-hour increase for the lowest-paid workers; and other increases in compensation. Local 99 said its workers made an average salary of $25,000 a year. The district has said that the figure includes part-time as well as full-time employees. The union declared an impasse in December.

A counterproposal from the district, announced by Mr. Carvalho at a news conference on Monday, included a 23 percent recurring increase and a 3 percent cash-in-hand bonus.

When the district publicly announced what was supposed to be a confidential mediation on Monday, the union declared it was ready to strike.

The union must first exhaust all of the bargaining steps required before it may legally protest over wages. This strike is technically in protest of unfair negotiating tactics by the school district.

Los Angeles Unified, however, believes the union has put economic issues front and center and unsuccessfully asked the state to block the planned strike.

In 2019, the union that represents about 35,000 Los Angeles Unified teachers held a six-day strike. At that time, Local 99 conducted rolling sympathy strikes so that the schools could remain open to students, although they acted more like drop-off sites and classes were not held. The teachers’ union, which is also currently negotiating its contract, walked out on Tuesday in solidarity with the support workers. Both unions have fought with the district over acceleration days, which are intended to give students extra support but cut into scheduled school vacations.

At a time when support for organized labor is at a high, strikes by teachers and education workers have become increasingly common. Add to that high inflation rates and competitive pay in the private sector, and public employees have felt the need for drastic change.

“No one wants to see kids out of school,” said Maura Contreras, a special education assistant at an elementary school. “But we now must take this step.”

Ms. Contreras, 45, said some of her co-workers hold down several jobs to make ends meet. Her own salary barely helps pay for her three-bedroom apartment, she said. She splits the $2,800 rent with her husband and her father, who both work as gardeners.

“There have to be changes in pay,” she said. “We are unseen by the district.”

For Griselda Perez, a parent volunteer at Hollenbeck Middle School on the Eastside, the strike is a teachable moment.

“When there’s no resources, and your voice is not heard, you have to strike,” Ms. Perez told her sons, 9 and 11. “We have to go through hard things in order to understand, and make changes.”

Ms. Perez, 51, has gotten to know the cafeteria workers, custodians, teacher assistants and other support staff. She was appalled at how little they get paid.

“They are seen as second-class citizens,” Ms. Perez added. “They take care of our schools and they’re taking care of our kids. Their work should be valued more.”

Joanna Hong and Ana Facio-Krajcer contributed reporting from Los Angeles.

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