Los Angeles Unified School District workers, parents and leaders alike rejoiced when a labor contract agreement was reached Friday, March 24, following a mammoth three-day strike that shut down America’s second-largest school system. But as the celebrations wind down and the school year rolls on, many uncertainties remain and challenges await.
In the coming weeks, members of SEIU Local 99 — the service workers union representing 30,000 bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides, cafeteria workers and special education assistants — must ratify what is still a tentative agreement. And the district must implement its new contract with the union.
But the road doesn’t end there.
The district must also get students and teachers back into their routines, reach a separate agreement with the teachers union, respond to three days of lost learning and tie up other loose ends.
And, in just one year, the district must reach a fresh agreement with SEIU Local 99, whose leaders have made it clear that they will be ready to strike again if their problems are not addressed.
So, in the aftermath of the historic strike and settlement, here are some questions that arise:
What do the agreement numbers actually mean for service workers? So many numbers were thrown around during the strike — around $4.9 billion residing in district reserves, a $25,000 average service worker salary, a $440,000 superintendent salary, a 30% pay raise demand and a 23% offer on the table — that it was hard to keep them all straight.
When the agreement was finally hammered out, even more numbers were thrown into the equation.
Here’s what its numbers mean in practice:
By Jan. 1 of next year SEIU members will have effectively received the 30% pay raise that labor leaders have been demanding from the outset of negotiations.
This is divided into a 6% retroactive raise for the 2021 school year, a 7% retroactive raise for the 2022 school and a 7% increase in July 2023. In January, workers will receive an additional $2-an-hour pay bump, which SEIU Executive Director Max Arias says reflects an average 10% raise for workers.
In addition, all SEIU members who worked in-person during the 2020 to 2021 school year will receive $1,000 in recognition of their sacrifices during the pandemic.
Other key numbers to bear in mind are the district’s promise to bring its minimum wage to $22.52 an hour and to invest $3 million in an education and professional development fund for SEIU members.
These figures will make a huge difference in the lives of service workers, many of whom work multiple jobs to make ends meet and one-in-three of whom have said they are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, according to a survey completed by the union.
“This is an equity-driven contract that will elevate potential, address homelessness and address poverty in our community,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho at a press conference on Friday.
Labor leaders were also excited by the agreement reached after their members sacrificed three days of pay and picketed through wind, rain and hail.
“SEIU Local 99’s Bargaining Committee is proud of the tentative agreement we reached with the District, which answers our core demands,” said Arias. “We emerged stronger than ever from this week’s strike and showed the entire nation that unions are the most powerful force for economic opportunity and equity.”
At week’s end, Carvalho also appeared pleased — and relieved — with the deal.
“When we started negotiating with SEIU, we promised to honor the dignity of our workforce, correct inequities impacting the lowest-wage earners, continue supporting critical student services and protect the District’s financial viability,” he posted on Twitter. “Promises made, promises delivered.”
Some parents, on the other hand, were frustrated by the whole affair and wish that the union had reached an agreement with the district instead of disrupting learning for three days. Prior to the strike, the district had offered a 23% raise over time and a one-time 3% retention bonus.
Parents walk their children to school at 135th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles on Friday, March 24, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer) How will the district address three days of lost classroom time? Around 420,000 students missed three days of classroom instruction during the strike.
Had they not just emerged from a highly disruptive pandemic, these days would likely just be a blip, said Pedro Noguera, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. But, piled atop more than two years fraught with an alarming rate of learning loss and missed socialization, they represent a more significant harm, he added.
María Sanchez, a South Los Angeles parent whose son is deaf, said she already had a hard time getting him to readjust to in-person schooling and is very worried about how the strike will set him back.
“As it is, it’s hard for me to get him on the school bus… I’m seeing changes in his behavior. He’s become more difficult, disruptive. He’s also communicating less with me and with his classmates,” she said. “I believe this is due to all the learning disruption.”
Fortunately, Carvalho already has a playbook for tackling this issue, spurred in part by standardized test results that showed LAUSD students lost approximately five years of academic ground during the pandemic.
A key part of his plan are two bonus “acceleration days” tacked on to each semester, that offer targeted learning support, the chance for students to raise their grades and engage in enrichment activities.
The first-ever set of days took place on Dec. 19 and 20 and had somewhat lackluster attendance of around 40,000 students. The second set of these days is just around the corner on April 3 and 4 and it will be interesting to see whether more families take advantage of them in the aftermath of the strike.
Other parts of Carvalho’s strategy to address learning loss include increased weekend, during school and after school tutoring as well as a new evening bus service to encourage more students to take advantage of after school programming.
UTLA and SEIU members picket at Avalon Gardens Steam Academy Elementary School in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 23, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer) What does this all mean for ongoing negotiations with the teachers union? In an email to its members on Friday, shortly after the district and SEIU announced they had reached a tentative agreement, UTLA touted its collective action with SEIU as a show of force and signaled that it’s prepared to ratchet up pressure on the district once more.
“Carvalho has been put on notice that he better move on our demands,” the memo stated. “If that movement is not enough to settle the contract that UTLA members deserve, we will move to the next round of this fight.”
UTLA is seeking a 20% salary increase over two years; lower class sizes; the hiring of additional nurses, librarians, counselors and other positions; and full funding of the Black Student Achievement Plan and the special education program, among other demands.
Chris Zepeda-Millán, chair of UCLA’s labor studies program, said “hands down” UTLA has the advantage at the moment.
Not only does UTLA have a larger war chest to sustain a longer strike than SEIU could, Zepeda-Millán said, there are more members of the school board endorsed by UTLA now than during the 2019 strike. And should UTLA reach the point of striking again, there’s a chance SEIU members will stage its own solidarity strike to return the favor to the teachers union for supporting it last week, he said.
“The district knows (the unions) can shut (schools) down pretty easily, and they just showed us,” Zepeda-Millán said. “That’s going to be on the back of both teams’ minds as they’re negotiating.”
What will this mean for the local and national labor movement? You can bet that workers in surrounding school districts, as well as other large urban districts throughout the country, will want more from their employers now, said Thomas Lentz, an adjunct professor at the USC Gould School of Law and a labor law attorney.
The union’s efforts last week were “transformational,” Lentz said, noting that even when it takes a while, walkouts — and the sacrifice of lost wages that go with them — “can have a return on investment.”
“I will be expecting the local unions will be ramping up their demands, and the members who hear about this will be increasing their expectations because they know it can be done,” he said.
Experts also took particular note of teachers and others who joined with the service workers, who rarely strike.
The fact that teachers walked off the job in solidarity with striking service workers gave them a lot more power and leverage, said UCLA education professor John Rogers. In addition, politicians at city, state and federal levels spoke out in support of the strike.
Caring for students is one of the most meaningful careers.
I stand with the bus drivers, custodians, teachers aides and others of @SEIULocal99.
No one can live on $25,000. We must invest in schools and pay fair wages.
It’s time to support those who support our kids. pic.twitter.com/V8K50OIh8g
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 21, 2023
“I think that each victory for organized labor sends a message to organized labor across the country in various different industry sectors,” Rogers said. “The most powerful messages will be sent to other similarly situated education workers, who will see the advantages of aligning with their teaching union and who will see that they can build power.”
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho addresses the media and families on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, at LAUSD’s iAttend Outreach Event at Compton Avenue Elementary STEAM Academy in Compton. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer) What’s next for Superintendent Carvalho? When Carvalho first arrived from Florida, a state where labor unions are relatively weaker, many wondered how he would fare in terms of navigating local school politics and unions here in L.A.
One action that angered district employees last month was a tweet the superintendent posted on Feb. 10, which read: “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. Let’s do right, for once, without circus, for kids, for community, for decency. @LASchools”
SEIU members, who took a strike authorization vote that week, were offended, believing the superintendent was effectively calling them clowns.
“For members it demonstrated blatant and continued disrespect for their work and their right to take action to improve their livelihoods,” SEIU Local 99 spokesperson Blanca Gallegos said in an email.
On Friday, a district spokesperson said in a statement that people misunderstood the tweet.
“The tweet was deleted because it was misinterpreted as related to the SEIU Local 99 strike authorization,” the statement read. “Consequently, because the tweet was wrongly inferred as a maligning of our own employees, we determined it necessary to remove.”
In a follow-up interview, LAUSD spokesperson Shannon Haber said Carvalho was referencing “one of the many national issues happening in our country” at the time, though she would not specify the issue.
Although Carvalho’s image may have taken a hit in recent weeks due to ongoing labor strife, Zepeda-Millán said, the superintendent can turn things around.
If Carvalho could settle negotiations with UTLA and get the unions to join him in advocating with the governor and state Legislature for greater longterm investments in public education, he could help lead a statewide campaign that could win him points, Zepeda-Millán said.
“Carvalho has a chance to say, ‘I’m going to do things differently this time and let’s show the state and the country that if we have well-paid teachers, smaller class sizes – what all the research says works – we could have great public schools again,’” he said.
To be sure, Carvalho still has the support of many parents.
United Parents Los Angeles, a group which oftentimes is at odds with the teachers union, said in a statement that it’s “rooting” for Carvalho.
“Carvalho has been a much-needed student and academic oriented leader that has done a lot of community outreach. Many families feel that their kids are represented for the first time in years,” the statement said.
The group went on to say that for the district to combat enrollment drops and retain students, it must prioritize smaller class sizes and support schools by “trim(ming) the fat and redirect(ing) that spending” responsibly.
The school district is scheduled to return to the bargaining table with UTLA on Tuesday, according to the teachers union. And in less than a year, it will meet again with SEIU representatives to negotiate its next contract.
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