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Editorial: A strike that shuts down schools is bad for Los Angeles

A cafeteria worker amid bins of food
An LAUSD cafeteria worker makes food bags at James A. Garfield High School for distribution among local families during the pandemic.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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Contract negotiations between the union representing cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other low-wage workers at Los Angeles Unified and district officials have stalled after nearly a year, and now the 30,000 SEIU Local 99 employees are planning a three-day strike beginning Tuesday. If they do, it could shut down all schools because teachers plan to walk out in solidarity.

That would have disastrous consequences on students in the second-largest school district at a time when they’re still struggling to overcome pandemic setbacks. District and union officials must see to it that this doesn’t happen.

Negotiations for a new contract began in April 2022 but have broken down amid complaints by union officials of unfair labor practices such as intimidation and surveillance of workers and assertions by LAUSD leaders that they are offering significantly higher wages and better health benefits and working conditions. LAUSD proposed a wage increase of slightly more than 15% over three years, as well as equity raises for employees making less than $30 an hour. The district is also offering one-time 9% retention bonuses, probably in response to an attrition rate of about 7,000 workers each year.

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But the union says that’s not enough to afford food and shelter in one of the most expensive cities in the country. The union is pressing for a 30% pay increase for its members who are mostly part-time workers — including custodians, bus drivers, teacher assistants, after-school program workers, gardeners and special education assistants — who it says earn an average of $25,000 a year. About 1 in 10 Local 99 workers report having been homeless while working for LAUSD, according to a poll conducted by the union last year.

It’s unacceptable that LAUSD employees who keep the schools running should be unable to afford basic needs. Supt. Alberto Carvalho acknowledges that these workers’ wages are low in comparison with the cost of living in Southern California but says that the district’s budget, with pandemic funding ending, is tighter than union officials say.

The failure by UC to reach an agreement with nearly 50,000 academic workers on pay increases and other benefits tarnishes a higher education system long seen as the best in the country.

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The budget is likely to get tighter as student enrollment shrinks further. LAUSD projects declining enrollment for the next few years, which affects the amount of state funding it gets. The district has shrunk from an all-time high of 746,831 students 20 years ago to slightly more than 420,000 students.

Carvalho says if the teachers walk out then all schools must close because it’s impossible to guarantee that students would receive instruction and remain safe. However, the district is planning to open 60 food distribution sites and places where up to 10,000 LAUSD students can get dropped off to be supervised during walkout days. In addition, the district has prepared packets of homework for students to complete during strike days. That’s not ideal.

Clearly, there are budgetary concerns affecting what the district can offer workers. But keeping the students in class should be the top priority, not just for district officials but for teachers, workers and union leaders. When LAUSD teachers walked out during a strike in 2019, then-Mayor Eric Garcetti stepped in to help broker a deal because he understood how important a functioning school system is to students, families and the workforce and economy of this entire city.

We hope that both district and union officials have the same understanding now.

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