‘A Grain of Salt’: LAUSD Parents Question Leaders’ Sincerity as Strike Approaches

As families scramble to prepare for a scheduled three-day strike called by LAUSD’s service workers union, leaders claim to be fighting for students

Caption: Thousands of SEIU Local 99 and UTLA members gathered for a rally at Grand Park on Wednesday. (Will Callan)

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Updated March 20

They sympathize with the workers. Some plan to join them on the picket line at LA Unified schools. 

But when it comes to union and district leaders, LAUSD parents are skeptical and angry.

SEIU Local 99, LAUSD’s 30,000-member union representing employees like custodians, bus drivers, and special education assistants, plans to strike next Tuesday through Thursday. In solidarity, United Teachers Los Angeles has asked its 35,000 members not to cross picket lines.

All district schools would shut down, affecting 420,000 students and their families.

Leaders from both unions say they are fighting for students. Better pay and working conditions, they reason, translate to a healthier learning environment. District leaders say the same. Closing schools during the work stoppage will keep students safe, they say, while refusing the unions’ full demands will safeguard the district’s financial health.

And then there are the families caught in the middle.  

“Anytime someone says, we are for the students, or students are first priority, and it’s all about the kids, I just have to take it with a grain of salt,” said Paul Robak, chair of LAUSD’s Parent Advisory Committee. “Because clearly, the ones who would lose most in any work slowdown of any union in the school district are the students.” 

The three-day strike would be the latest in four years of major disruptions across LAUSD, beginning with the six-day teachers strike in January 2019 and rolling through more than a year of fully remote schooling, during which enrollment sagged and chronic absenteeism spiked

Parents sympathize with Local 99’s members. With an average salary of $25,000 a year, they struggle to make it in LA, and many are parents themselves. But they are also exhausted and fear the consequences a strike could have for their children and the district as a whole, especially after the pandemic kept district schools closed for a long time, and students’ academics and mental health suffered.   

They blame union and district leaders for the shutdown.

“It’s both the district’s fault and their labor partners’. They put parents in the middle of it,” said Christie Pesicka, a leader in the groups California Students United and United Parents LA.

Diana Guillen, chair of LAUSD’s District English Learner Advisory, said a strike “violates kids’ rights” on the heels of the pandemic. “I think it’s an ethical failing from the unions,” she said, speaking in Spanish. 

Parents’ immediate concerns, however, are more basic. Where will working parents send their young children? How will students who depend on school-provided meals eat? After years of academic setbacks, how will students avoid further losses?

At a Wednesday press conference, LAUSD superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district is partnering with community organizations to make food available at 60 locations across the city and to provide childcare. As for academics, students will receive homework packets to keep them occupied. 

The LA Times reported community groups and agencies, from the Boys and Girls Club of the Los Angeles Harbor to the LA County Department of Parks and Recreation, are preparing for an influx of students during the day.

Some students, whose parents fully support the striking workers, will spend at least part of the week on the picket line.

“When the teachers originally went on strike a couple years ago, I was all for it. My kids were out there marching,” said Yazmin Arevalo, whose 4th grader attends Gates Elementary in Lincoln Heights. “I would do it again…because they deserve it. If they haven’t been able to come to an agreement, then why not?” 

But she added other parents at Gates Elementary, who also supported teachers in 2019, felt betrayed when many of their children languished through remote schooling. This time, they’re wary of supporting striking workers. 

Based on recent messaging alone, Carvalho’s chief concern is the safety and wellbeing of students.

“We should not be depriving our students of an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to feel safe, or an opportunity to receive social and emotional support — and food,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference.

But that evening, at a massive joint rally held by Local 99 and UTLA that filled up Grand Park in front of Los Angeles City Hall, union members demonstrated their commitment to students in a way Carvalho, on his own, could never match. 

Among the thousands of rally participants, there were children everywhere. 

They clambered over playground structures, and held their parents’ hands as they threaded clusters of attendees. Some wore UTLA red, others SEIU purple. When UTLA president Cecily Myart-Cruz shouted over the loudspeaker, asking parents in the crowd to identify themselves, a wave of hands shot up. Local 99 often points out 43% of its members have school-age children.

Attending the rally was Jesus Flores, a special education assistant at 75th Street Elementary who’s worked in the district for 18 years. He spends six hours a day on the district’s clock and picks up extra work as an Uber driver. 

Flores has three kids, ages five, six, and eight, all at LAUSD schools. He considers striking a short-term sacrifice that’s in their long-term interest.

“At the end of the day, I’ll be thinking about my kids’ future,” he said. 

Next week, he and his wife, also a special ed assistant with the district, will be switching off on childcare duty. But he said he hopes the union and district will come together before Tuesday to work out a deal. 

“Let’s hope it doesn’t happen,” he said of the strike. Missing that pay “really does take a toll.”

The district meeting Local 99’s demands would mean a 30% wage increase for Flores and other union members, among other benefits.

So far, the district’s core offer includes three 5% wage increases, the first two retroactive, respectively, to July 1, 2021 and July 1, 2022, and the third to take effect July 1, 2023.

UTLA, which is further behind in negotiations, is asking for a 20% raise over two years, part of its sweeping “Beyond Recovery” platform.

Local 99’s scheduled three-day strike is what’s known as an unfair practice charge strike, meant to protest allegations of harassment by district officials. 

The union’s other weapon is an economic strike, which would last indefinitely, but is only legal once the state-facilitated negotiation process has been exhausted.

At the district’s Wednesday press event, Carvalho and board president Jackie Goldberg urged union leaders to meet them at the negotiating table before Tuesday, where they would be ready “24/7” to hash out an agreement that goes beyond what has already been offered. 

“I’m ready, willing, available to meet nonstop, day and night, with our labor leaders to avoid a strike by finding a solution where everyone is a winner, beginning with our kids,” Carvalho said. 

“We have more resources to put on the table. There is time.”

Information for families — including where they can pick up meals for their children during the work stoppage — can be found at this LAUSD website: https://achieve.lausd.net/schoolupdates

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