A massive three-day strike by school support staff and teachers recently shut down Los Angeles schools. They stand together to demand better wages and benefits for the school district’s most vulnerable workers.
Tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike March 21-23, 2023, for the first time in four years, shutting down the nation’s second-largest school district for three rain-soaked days. But this time the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) did not walk out in order to demand better working conditions for educators. Rather, they were engaging in a remarkable act of solidarity with their lesser-paid colleagues—the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s support staff of about 30,000 people who are in their own union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99. It was the first time that the two unions—the largest two in Los Angeles—went on strike together.
SEIU Local 99’s demands for the district to offer a 30 percent pay raise and health benefits may sound ambitious. But that’s only because the district’s campus aides, teaching assistants, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, gardeners, and other support staff make an average of only $25,000 a year with no benefits. In Southern California, where everything from housing costs, to health care, to groceries are far higher than the national average, this is an untenable wage. Although LAUSD is offering the workers a 23 percent salary raise along with a 3 percent bonus, the double-digit bump is not nearly enough to make ends meet relative to the appallingly low wages they currently earn.
On March 23, 2023, the third and final day of the three-day action, thousands of workers gathered in Los Angeles State Historic Park for a final joint rally. Among them was Maria, a campus aide at Eagle Rock High School, who spoke with me and preferred not to use her last name. She tells me, “we live paycheck to paycheck, and we have to work some days unpaid on top of it all.”
Suraya Duran, a community parent representative at Eagle Rock High School and member of SEIU Local 99, was also at the rally. She says, “These essential employees worked through the pandemic with no raise, no benefits, and the uncertainty of stable hours.” In contrast, Duran points out, “it’s egregious to hear that the [school] superintendent makes more than the president of the United States.” She’s referring to LAUSD’s latest head, Alberto Carvalho, who makes $440,000 annually, the most that’s ever been paid to a district superintendent in LA.
It’s not as if the district can’t afford to pay its lowest-paid workers a living wage. It currently has at its disposal a $4.9 billion reserve fund, of which about $2.3 billion has not been spoken for. The unions argue that this money can and should be used to meet worker demands for higher wages. “There is money. It’s whether they choose to invest in these workers. That’s the bottom line,” says Duran.
Superintendent Carvalho spun the strike to suggest the workers were letting down low-income students of color by walking out for three days. He released a statement on Twitter the day before the strike began, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly difficult for “kids who are English language learners, students in poverty and students with disabilities,” who “cannot afford to be out of school.”
But Duran, whose job involves liaising between a school and parents, points out that many of the support staff’s own children attend schools in LAUSD. She says that it is common for workers to juggle multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. “They come to the school during the day, and then they’re going to a graveyard shift.” She adds, “They deserve to have a wage that is comparable to today’s standards.”
Maria says, “I feel that we are underpaid, and we feel unappreciated by the district. We are the ones that get paid less, but we are the ones that make sure the campus is safe, and, most important, that the kids are safe.” The public generally considers educators as the only school workers worthy of compensation. The strike served to uplift the voices of support workers like Maria who often remain invisible, but whose jobs are essential to the functioning of schools.
UTLA secretary Arlene Inouye pointed out in an op-ed that “24 percent of SEIU 99 members report that they don’t have enough to eat. One in three report that they have been homeless or at high risk of becoming homeless while working for LAUSD.” This underscores the injustice of a district sitting on more than $2 billion while relying on severely underpaid workers to continue operations. If Carvalho is so concerned about children living in poverty, he could directly address some of that by meeting the wage demands of their parents who work in the district.
Instead, he ridiculed the unions in a now-deleted Tweet that SEIU Local 99 captured in a screen grab. “1,2,3…Circus = a predictable performance with a known outcome, desiring of nothing more than an applause, a coin, and a promise of a next show,” wrote Carvalho in February 2023 after the strike was announced. He added, “Let’s do right, for once, without circus, for kids, for community, for decency.”
But strikes serve the explicit purpose of moving the ramifications of closed-door negotiations out into the open for all to see. Perhaps it is the visibility of LAUSD’s refusal to meet the wage demands of its lowest-paid workers that Carvalho most objected to when he referred to the strike as a “circus.” The UTLA-SEIU joint strike served a powerful narrative purpose: to highlight the appalling working conditions of tens of thousands of workers in LA public schools and to warn the district that workers have each other’s backs.
Although SEIU workers and their UTLA colleagues returned to school campuses after their three-day walkout, the district has, as of this writing, remained firm on its lowball offer. However, the strike did prompt LA’s newly elected mayor Karen Bass, who initially remained on the sidelines, to get involved. Bass is now actively mediating between the district and unions.
Alejandra Sanchez, a special education assistant at Eagle Rock High School, has a message for the superintendent: “Mr. Carvahlo, we are not ‘clowning around’ as you implied [in your tweet]; we are here today as one, UTLA and SEIU, fighting together for a better future, for respect, better wages, and stable hours. Our work is not a joke.”
Highlighting the solidarity between teachers and support staff and their refusal to stay silent, one teacher at Sanchez’s school wore a rain poncho while picketing that sported the words, “Hey Carvalho, in our ‘circus,’ you’re the saddest clown.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.