By Kimberley Heatherington | OSV News
(OSV News) — A three-day strike in the Los Angeles Unified School District — the largest school system in California and the second largest in the nation — ended March 23 as a tentative agreement was reached to deliver a significant raise for some LAUSD’s lowest-paid employees, classified as “school workers.”
School workers include bus drivers, custodians, gardeners, food service staff, special education assistants and teacher’s aides.
Represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99, 30,000-plus LAUSD school workers went on strike to demand higher wages, expanded health care benefits, improved working conditions and increased staffing. The union alleged that during the contract bargaining period and strike vote — which 96% of Local 99 membership favored — the school district surveilled, intimidated and harassed its members.
SEIU Local 99 members are reviewing details of the LAUSD deal, which requires SEIU member ratification. “Our struggle was heard around the country,” the union said in a public statement. Union votes on the deal take place between April 3 – 7.
“Catholic social teaching calls for every worker to receive a living wage, capable of supporting a family,” Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, told OSV News. “Too many support workers in the L.A. Unified School District do not earn a living wage. The Catholic Labor Network congratulates them on their successful strike and tentative agreement.”
The deal ultimately reached for LAUSD school workers offers a raise of 30%, as well as hourly, retroactive and ongoing wage increases. Additional hours and health care will be offered to part-time workers, and an investment of $3 million will be made in an SEIU member Education and Professional Development Fund. Separate agreements will address respectful treatment, a bus bidding process, terms for mandatory overtime and formation of a Joint Labor Management Committee.
Classes were canceled district-wide when LAUSD’s more than 35,000 educators — represented by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) — walked out in solidarity with the school workers, leaving parents scrambling for child supervision and meal alternatives. State regulators from the California Public Employment Relations Board declared the strike by SEIU and UTLA possibly illegal, paving the way for a formal hearing at a later date.
Prior to the new agreement, school workers made on average $25,000 per year, working almost full-time. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers $66,750 per year for a one-person household as the “low income” threshold in LA County.
The point was repeatedly made in the media that school workers earn in one year less than the sum earned in a month by LAUSD Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, whose 2022-2026 contract guarantees an annual salary of $440,000.
The Los Angeles Unified School District boasts $5 billion in budgetary reserves, only a portion of which is restricted — but until the dual walkout, negotiations with SEIU Local 99 for higher wages had stalled for over a year.
“I’m sure they call the surplus a ‘rainy day fund,'” John Carr, founder of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University told OSV News. “And their workers are in for the severe thunderstorm of hurt.”
Carr served for over 20 years as director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he directed the USCCB’s public policy and advocacy efforts for domestic and international issues.
“In some ways,” Carr observed, “this a parable about why Catholic social teaching is important, and why it’s wise. Every part of it — the dignity of work; the rights of workers; a decent wage; and even the use of a strike. This was a three-day strike to call attention to something that was really wrong.”
Food scarcity is a persistent issue for SEIU Local 99 members; 24% report not having enough to eat. One in three have either been homeless or at high risk of becoming so while working for LAUSD. The teachers who showed solidarity with the school workers also face salary challenges; 28% of UTLA members hold a second job, and there are no Los Angeles neighborhoods where a first-year teacher can afford to live.
“This is at the heart of the Catholic tradition, which is: Work is an expression of our dignity,” Carr explained. “And driving kids to school — that’s dignity. Taking care of kids; cleaning classrooms? That’s the dignity of work in action. Because work is so important, workers are — and they have to make enough to be able to support their family. And this was clearly a case where that failed in fundamental respects.”
“The tradition is clear,” Carr said, quoting Catholic teaching from papal encyclicals. “This is Leo XIII (in ‘Rerum Novarum’): ‘Remuneration must be enough to support the wage earner in reasonable and frugal comfort.’ John XXIII (in ‘Mater et Magistra’): ‘Workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life, and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.’ There’s no one who thinks twenty-five 25 grand a year in Los Angeles meets that criteria.”
Carr also was struck by the solidarity of parents with the school workers.
“The parents who were most inconvenienced by this, are supporting the workers,” Carr noted. “One woman said, ‘Why should the woman who prepares my kid’s lunch not have enough to feed her kids when she goes home? I stand with the workers.'”
The evidence of parental support wasn’t simply anecdotal; it was also reflected in Jan. 3 – Feb. 12 public opinion polling done by Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.
“Angeleno Opinions on LAUSD” surveyed 2,008 adults living in Los Angeles County, and was conducted face-to-face, by telephone, and online in a variety of languages.
“The major take-away for us is just how aligned Angelinos are about support for their teachers,” Brianne Gilbert, managing director at the center and a senior lecturer in urban and environmental studies and political science, told OSV News prior to the strike settlement.
“When you look at the numbers overall — and look at them by demographic breakdown — it’s not a question of whether or not people are supportive of the teachers going on strike; it’s to what degree they’re supportive,” Gilbert explained. “There’s not a single demographic that is less than 50% in LA County in terms of their support.”
Most demographics reported support in excess of 70%, Gilbert said; the lowest group was 59% in support, recorded among county-wide respondents who identified as conservatives. A 2019 poll reflected similar outcomes.
Teachers, staff, parents and kids could be observed on the picket lines, Gilbert said. “There’s just this groundswell of support for some financial reform when it comes to payment for individuals employed by LAUSD.”
A mother herself, Gilbert said, “My kids are students within LAUSD. There’s just such a love for the teachers; the staff — you just want them to be treated fairly.”
The school workers, Carr said, are “the definition of essential workers — the guys who drive the bus; the people who clean the classrooms; the people who make the lunch. And yet, they’re at the bottom of the pyramid.”
Familiarity likely contributed to the eventual success of their strike. “Everybody knows the bus driver that took them to school. Everybody knows the lunch lady. Everybody knows the janitor,” Carr said. “This put a face on that.”