LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Thousands of service employees and teachers braved the rain and began picketing Tuesday at the Van Nuys Bus Yard, with more picket lines and rallies scheduled for Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools and the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in Los Angeles, the start of a three-day planned walkout.
With labor talks at a standstill and no new negotiations scheduled, LAUSD campuses were closed Tuesday and likely through Thursday as service workers begin a planned strike -- leaving more than 400,000 students without classes.
Rep. Adam Schiff was in attendance at a Tuesday morning news conference, showing his support for the thousands of workers in their fight for better wages.
"One out of three of the folks we're talking about today, supporting today, are at risk of homelessness… if we want to attack the problem, the epidemic, the chronic problem of people living without housing… we have to start paying them a decent wage. What SEIU is asking for is reasonable… $36,000 a year - even that is a struggle. It costs about $1,700 to rent a one-bedroom apartment… for the people we are talking about… they have to spend about 85% of their income just to put a roof over their heads… it leaves $3,600 a year to pay for everything else… to pay for food, medicine, every other necessity in life. You can't live on that… no one should have to live on that."
The 30,000 workers represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 99 -- including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and others -- started picketing at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. The roughly 30,000 members of the powerful teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, will honor the picket line.
LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said at a late-afternoon news conference Monday that he had hoped on that day to have "a transparent, honest conversation" that might result in an agreement to stave off the planned three-day strike, but it never happened.
"We remain ready to return to negotiations with SEIU 99 so we can provide an equitable contact to our hardworking employees and get our students back in the classrooms," Carvalho wrote in a statement posted to social media Tuesday.
The statement continued to say, "I understand our employees’ frustration that has been brewing, not just for a couple of years, but probably for decades. And it’s on the basis of recognizing historic inequities that we have put on the table [in] a historic proposal."
"We were never in the same room, or even in the same building," he said.
Carvalho also said he was still holding out hope that some talks can take place overnight or Tuesday -- potentially reaching a deal that will prevent the work stoppage from continuing for the entire three days.
In the meantime, the district does plan to offer food distribution for families on Tuesday morning, from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at designated sites. Information is available on the district's website.
There was briefly a glimmer of hope Monday afternoon that labor talks might resume and a strike potentially averted. But those hopes were quickly dashed.
"This afternoon, SEIU Local 99 had agreed to enter a confidential mediation process with LAUSD to try and address our differences," union Executive Director Max Arias said in a statement late Monday afternoon.
"Unfortunately, LAUSD broke that confidentiality by sharing it with the media before our bargaining team, which makes all decisions, had a chance to discuss how to proceed. This is yet another example of the school district's continued disrespect of school workers. We are ready to strike.
"We want to be clear that we are not in negotiations with LAUSD. We continue to be engaged in the impasse process with the state."
Plans for the last-ditch negotiating session Monday were first reported by the Los Angeles Times, with LAUSD Board of Education President Jackie Goldberg telling the paper there were plans for 11th-hour discussions with the union.
Shortly after The Times published its story, the union issued its statement saying it was not involved with any negotiations, instead continuing with the "impasse process with the state."
Union leaders have scheduled a news conference for 7 a.m. Tuesday at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, 701 S. Catalina St., followed by a 1 p.m. rally at LAUSD headquarters, 333 S. Beaudry Ave.
The LAUSD on Friday filed a legal challenge with the state Public Employment Relations Board seeking an injunction that would halt the strike, claiming the union's proposed walkout was illegal. Over the weekend, however, the PERB denied the district's request for injunctive relief because it did not find "the extraordinary remedy of seeking injunctive relief to be met at this juncture," according to the LAUSD.
But, according to the district, the PERB did direct its Office of General Counsel to expedite the processing of the district's underlying unfair practice charge against SEIU Local 99, which alleged that the union and its members were engaging in an unlawful three-day strike.
The union has repeatedly accused the district of engaging in unfair labor practices, saying union members have been subjected to harassment and intimidation tactics during an earlier strike-authorization vote and as the possible walkout neared. Carvalho acknowledged those accusations, but said there is a process for investigating such claims, and "it takes time." He said the union was using those allegations as an "expedited way of creating a strike opportunity."
There was some back-and-forth between the district and union over the weekend, but with no results.
"Even as the school district filed charges, they presented SEIU Local 99 with an updated contract offer," the union said Saturday, referencing the PERB complaint filed the day prior. "Members of our bargaining team had not even had time to review it or consult with other members before the district shared it publicly with the media. We will not negotiate publicly," adding, "LAUSD does not seem to be acting in good faith."
Carvalho said LAUSD officials were prepared to talk and even potentially sweeten their most recent compensation and benefits offer, but union officials said they are waiting for a state mediator to schedule new talks.
Meanwhile, the district had a series of 90-minute Zoom webinars on Sunday and Monday for students and their families to learn more about what is happening.
The strike will be the first major labor disruption for the district since UTLA teachers went on strike for six days in 2019. That dispute ended in part to intervention by then-Mayor Eric Garcetti, who helped spur labor talks at City Hall and broker a deal between the district and union.
Zach Seidl, a spokesman for Mayor Karen Bass, said Friday that Bass is "closely monitoring the situation and is engaged with all parties involved."
District officials said last week that Carvalho had made the SEIU Local 99 "one of the strongest offers ever proposed by a Los Angeles Unified superintendent."
According to the district, the offer included a 5% wage increase retroactive to July 2021, another 5% increase retroactive to July 2022 and another 5% increase effective July 2023, along with a 4% bonus in 2022-23 and a 5% bonus in 2023-24.
On Monday, Carvalho said the district sweetened the offer to a 23% increase, along with a 3% "cash-in-hand bonus."
The union, which says many of its workers are earning "poverty wages" of $25,000 per school year, has been pushing for a 30% pay raise, with an additional boost for the lowest-paid workers.
SEIU workers have been working without a contract since June 2020. The union declared an impasse in negotiations in December, leading to the appointment of a state mediator.
In addition to salary demands, union officials have also alleged staffing shortages caused by an "over-reliance on a low-wage, part-time workforce." The union alleged shortages including:
- Insufficient teacher assistants, special education assistants and other instructional support to address learning loss and achievement gaps;
- Substandard cleaning and disinfecting at school campuses because of a lack of custodial staff;
- Jeopardized campus safety due to campus aides and playground supervisors being overburdened, and,
- Limited enrichment, after-school and parental engagement programs due to reduced work hours and lack of health care benefits for after-school workers and community representatives.
The unions have repeatedly said the district is sitting on a projected $4.9 billion reserve fund for 2022-23 that should be invested in workers and efforts to improve education through reduced class sizes and full staffing of all campuses. Carvalho has disputed that figure, saying an independent auditor that reviewed the district's books found no such surplus.
The district on Friday announced the creation of a website that will "provide resources for families during the work stoppage period" from Tuesday through Thursday. According to the district, the site has information on "learning activities, Grab & Go food locations, tutoring services, enrichment activities and cultural opportunities across Los Angeles and Los Angeles County park locations that will provide free youth programs."
In addition to the park programs, the Los Angeles Zoo will be offering free admission for students. The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County will also offer students free admission as long as the strike persists.