‘Heroes to Zeroes’: L.A. School Staff Plans Strike Vote

Custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers rallied outside the district’s headquarters Tuesday

A member of SEIU 99, the union for Los Angeles Unified’s bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other non-teaching staff, gathered outside the district headquarters for Tuesday’s rally. (Linda Jacobson)

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The staff members who keep Los Angeles schools running — and prepared them to reopen during the pandemic — say they are on the verge of walking off the job. They held a rally Tuesday in front of the district’s headquarters as a step toward authorizing a strike.

As Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and the school board met inside the downtown building, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and classroom assistants — arriving on buses from across the district — waved placards and chanted, “no justice, no peace.”

“I installed air filters to make sure students and staff would be able to breathe clean air in their classrooms while they were there working and studying,” SEIU 99 President Conrado Guerrero said from the flatbed of a truck. “We’ve gone from heroes to zeroes.” 

Edna Logan, who works as part of the buildings and ground staff at Manual Arts High School, addressed the crowd. Some restrooms on the campus, she said, have been closed for two years because the toilets don’t work. (Linda Jacobson)

The two sides have been bargaining since 2020, when the pandemic interrupted negotiations. The 30,000-member SEIU 99 says the district is offering no raise for the 2020-21 school year, a 5% raise for 2021-22 and a 4% increase for 2022-23. Amounting to about $1,000 additional per year for most workers, that’s insufficient, said Max Arias, the union’s executive director. 

“These were the essential workers” in the district, he said. A strike authorization vote would take place in January.

Arias wants minimum wages for members increased from $18.50 per hour to $24. The union’s demands also include more eight-hour days and paid training for bus drivers and those in other positions. “We’re at an impasse,” he said. 

In a statement, the district said, “Los Angeles Unified continues to engage in respectful negotiations with our labor partners. We are committed to compensating our employees fairly in this current economic environment, while also preserving our ability to provide services to our students in a sustainable manner that promotes lasting student achievement.”

The rally took place after school as the district’s board met inside the building. (Linda Jacobson)

Talk of a strike is the latest conflict the district has faced with one of its labor unions. United Teachers Los Angeles opposed Carvalho’s original plan to spread four learning “acceleration days” for students throughout the school year. The district rescheduled them for winter and spring break, even though students are now less likely to participate because they’re on vacation. About 15% of the district’s more than 420,000 students have signed up for the first two days, Dec. 19-20, according to the district.

SEIU 99 wanted the district to stick to the original schedule because it would have provided members additional work. 

The teachers union isn’t close to a strike vote yet, but members are increasing pressure on the district. Earlier this month, they held rallies at multiple locations.

The union went on a six-day strike in January 2019, with many of the same demands it is making now, such as smaller class sizes, less standardized testing and more nurses, librarians and counselors. The union wants a 20% raise and argues that the district has over $3 billion in budget reserves to cover it.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz, left, with SEIU Executive Director Max Arias (Linda Jacobson)

But on Tuesday, teachers union members were on hand to support SEIU 99 members. 

“We’ve been negotiating for seven months. They’ve been negotiating for three years,” said UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz. “It’s about solidarity.”

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