‘I Just Hope It Doesn’t Go Longer’ — Scenes from Day 1 of the L.A. Strike

Teachers, service workers and parents discuss goals and anxieties as a walkout led by SEIU Local 99 closes all district schools

Teachers union members gather at Cienega Elementary School on Tuesday morning. (Will Callan)

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March 24 Update: LAUSD announced a new agreement with SEIU Friday that includes a 30% bump in wages and retroactive pay. See the full details

Judging from the rain and official rhetoric, it was a dark Tuesday morning in Los Angeles.

Officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District were predicting a rough three days for 420,000 students and their families as the district buckled in for a strike led by SEIU Local 99, which represents custodians, bus drivers, special ed assistants and other support staff. With members of United Teachers Los Angeles joining in solidarity, all schools were shut down.

Nearly 80% of district parents work for a living, and about 22% of families live below the poverty level. To support these families in particular, the district partnered with the city and county of Los Angeles to run food distribution sites and staff recreation centers for child care. 

But despite the gloom, a range of positive attitudes were on display: joy, good humor, conviction, hope. Local 99 and teachers union members huddled under tents against the rain at nearly 500 schools and sites across the district, according to Local 99. 

The 74 visited a handful of them and has these sketches to share. 

Susan Miller Dorsey Senior High School, 6:46 a.m.

Strikers arrive slowly at Susan Miller Dorsey High School, still shaking off their sleep.

A squad of teachers union members wrestles a cover onto the extendable frame of a lawn tent. 

Special education teacher Stacia Trimmer, whose 15 years with the district have done little to blunt her Brooklyn accent, works hand in hand with special ed assistants, one of the units represented by Local 99. 

“They work hard, and they love the children,” she says.

The theme of the strike is respect, and Trimmer wonders whether everyone in the district, including teachers like herself, could better appreciate the contributions of Local 99’s members. 

“Maybe we’re all guilty of it,” she says. “Maybe we don’t speak to them enough.” 

Another teacher puts on Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” and Trimmer starts dancing.

The choice of music down the block, at the Local 99 tent, is a bit more subtle: Bob Marley’s “Duppy Conqueror.” Don’t try to show off… For I will cut you off

Fourteen strikers from both unions are gathered under two tents. 

Local 99 member and special ed assistant Stephanie Smiley has been with the district for 29 years. As a school system veteran, she’s in a relatively comfortable position, though she would be making more if she were paid for 40 hours a week. As it stands, her contract calls for only 30.

“I’m here fighting for the ones who need help,” she says.

Special ed assistant Stephanie Smiley. (Will Callan)

She also feels the pressure of short-staffing, saying she sometimes works on the de facto security detail at Dorsey, monitoring the cafeteria and recess areas for “potential altercations.”

There’s a collective gasp from the strikers when a commuter in a gray Prius rams the curb, and sigh of relief when the motorist drives off, apparently unharmed. It’s about 7:20, almost an hour into the scheduled picket. 

The wind and rain are picking up.

Baldwin Hills Recreation Center, 8 a.m.

Volunteers in yellow vests and rain gear stand under tents in the Baldwin Hills Rec Center parking loop. Stacked around them are boxes of food meant to tide families over for the next three days.

Jake Varner, a 23-year-old substitute teacher, says there was a steady stream of cars right when they opened at 7:30. By now, traffic has slowed.

He’s working with Luis Clarke, a community member, and Lauren Brooks, a senior at King Drew Magnet High School. 

“My mom signed me up,” Brooks says. “‘ ‘Cause they’re on strike, I didn’t have anything else to do.” 

A man pulls up in a white Jeep. “Two kids,” he says. The volunteers hand a sack of fruit through the window and place boxes in his trunk — 12 meals total for the three-day strike.

Among some staples (cereal, applesauce, pizza), his kids might be pleased to find a strawberry creamsicle and mango sorbet. 

Clarke, who says he’s a mentor for kids in the community, suspects it was God who brought the three volunteers together, pointing out that both Varner and Brooks love science and want to be doctors.

“Who did that?” he asks. “Who orchestrated this? We didn’t even know we was going to be on the same team.”

Grand View Blvd. Elementary School, 8:43 a.m.

Car horns are honking. Music is blaring. There’s talk among the picketers of moving down to Venice High School, a mile away. But Grand View Elementary, where a large crowd has gathered, isn’t lacking for action.

Local 99 member Carlton Van Vactor, a health care assistant at Grand View, cradles a to-go cup of coffee at his chest.

He says if there’s one thing he’s fighting for, it’s better staffing. 

As a health care assistant, he works with some of Grand View’s highest-needs students. They have breathing devices, feeding tubes.

While feeding one student through a tube attached to his belly, which can take up to an hour, he has to keep an eye on another student who “bites, scratches, throws tantrums, everything” — someone whom, in other schools, a special ed assistant would attend to.

“I do a job probably for about three people right now,” he says. With the district since 1989, he makes $26 an hour, working seven hours a day.

Carlton Van Vactor, a health care assistant at Grand View Elementary School. (Will Callan)

Los Angeles Public Library, Mar Vista Branch, 3:09 p.m.

Many on the picket line are district parents or grandparents. Some say they were lucky to have found child care for the three days of no school.

Other parents might depend on local resources. In addition to local recreation centers and parks, L.A.’s libraries made space for kids in the event of a strike. 

It’s starting to rain again, and outside the Mar Vista Branch of the L.A. Public Library, Marianne Justus hurries in with her mother and two young sons. Her oldest is a first-grader at Short Ave. Elementary School.

“I lucked out,” she says. Her mom, who lives in Newport Beach, drove up to help Justus and her husband with the kids Tuesday, and is taking her oldest back down to Newport for Wednesday and Thursday.

Parent Marianne Justus brings her kids to the library Tuesday afternoon. (Will Callan)

While her family can bear three days with no school, she fears a longer work stoppage. Remote schooling — especially for her oldest son, who needs speech therapy — was “horrendous.” 

“Most kids are still trying to catch up, and kids with special needs are really trying to catch up,” she says. 

“I totally understand why they’re striking,” she says. “They need higher pay. I just hope it doesn’t go longer than three days.”

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