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Workers Strike Back: On the Ground of a Historic Moment for LA Schools

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By Hannah Swoboda, Workers Strike Back

Last Wednesday, Workers Strike Back joined tens of thousands of unionized Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) workers at a rally to announce a joint three-day strike, to take place this Tuesday through Thursday. School staff such as classroom assistants, bus drivers, special education assistants, and custodians are represented by SEIU 99. Teachers and other instructional and mental health staff are represented by UTLA. All of them are fed up with short staffing, low wages, and rising inflation. 

The workers are united around bold demands: SEIU is fighting for a 30% wage increase along with a $2 per hour raise for all workers, which would have a greater impact on the lowest-paid workers. UTLA is aiming for a 20% wage increase for teachers over two years. This overdue raise for all workers is necessary to attract and retain sufficient educators and staff to fill vacancies at schools. The unions are pointing to the district’s record $4.9 billion reserve fund as an obvious answer to the question of where this money could come from.

The powerful solidarity of both unions striking together brings much greater pressure to bear on the school district to meet the workers’ demands. The school district has already announced that all schools will have to shut down classes during the strike. This is an inspiring example of what’s possible when workers unite across their workplace. It’s also an important shift away from the dynamic of UTLA’s last contract battle in 2019, when they were the only union on strike and were not able to fully prevent classes from taking place.

What happens in LA is a national reference point for teachers and the labor movement as a whole: LAUSD is the second-biggest school district in the country! As many as 65,000 workers will be on strike this Tuesday. School districts nationally are facing severe staffing shortages, and LA schools are no exception. Now, workers everywhere are facing historic levels of inflation. As the cost of living rises and school staff wages don’t, many are leaving the education sector entirely. 

Workers Strike Back volunteers spoke to many union members at Wednesday’s rally who commented on how staff simply don’t make enough money to stay in the field. The average salary of school workers with LAUSD is approximately $25,000 annually—outrageously low in a city with one of the nation’s highest costs of living. Most are offered only part-time hours and no benefits.

“We don’t have teachers’ assistants or aides in my school,” Vanna Ngo, a first grade teacher at Limerick Elementary, told Workers Strike Back. “It’s not because people don’t want to do the job, it’s because they’d probably make more money at Costco or something.”

“We can’t teach anymore, it’s all behavior management in the classroom,” said another first grade teacher at a charter school, lamenting the classroom environments that have resulted from not having enough support staff. “How can we have more classroom aides when the pay isn’t fair?” she continued. Tyler Rosen, another UTLA member, added, “our superintendent got a 26% raise and now he makes more than the president of the United States.” (Hear more from Tyler in this video clip he recorded for Workers Strike Back!)

This state of public education doesn’t serve anyone but the bosses who have the freedom to decide their own exorbitant salaries. Meanwhile, teachers and staff don’t make enough to live, let alone to foster an ideal learning environment. SEIU and UTLA members are striking because they know collective action is the best tool workers have to make our schools serve the needs of our community, not the bosses like LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

In typical anti-union fashion, the school district and the corporate media have been placing blame for any and all inconvenience squarely on workers. The district sent an automated call to parents apologizing for the strike, saying “you do not deserve this,” and bemoaning the hardship this will create for families. The Los Angeles Times has said the strike is “bad for Los Angeles” and commented on how SEIU members “feed children who can’t hold a fork. But these LAUSD workers will strike,” as if striking is equivalent to taking food away from a disabled child. 

LA’s working families, on the other hand, widely understand that teachers and staff aren’t being selfish by taking action. Rather, they’re fighting for the benefit of students, parents, and workers everywhere. In a recent study, 79% of Los Angeles County residents with a child at home said they were supportive of teachers going on strike to meet their demands.

The school district will always use divide-and-conquer tactics to try to maintain the status quo, whether that means pitting parents against workers or trying to separate unions in contract negotiations. The way that UTLA has joined SEIU in their three-day strike in order to build momentum for the larger contract battles of both unions is incredibly powerful. Both unions need to stand firm against any attempts of the district to cut across this inspiring solidarity. SEIU and UTLA should keep mobilizing and escalating together, and refuse to accept any contract until members in both unions are satisfied with their contract offers. Joint action across unions and job sectors is what the bosses fear most, because it is a powerful tool for working people to fight for our interests.

It’s critical to widen out the struggle as much as possible. At the same time that SEIU and UTLA negotiate for contracts, educators at neighboring Centinela Valley Union High School District are fighting back against their school board’s plan to lay off 30% of the district’s workforce this year. All school workers across Los Angeles County should organize for a one-day sickout in solidarity with SEIU and UTLA’s struggle, to build the broader fight against short-staffing and poverty wages in education. 

An injury to one is an injury to all: we all have something at stake in this struggle. Short staffing and low wages are impacting workers far beyond the education sector. Workers across the Los Angeles area should join LAUSD staff on the picket lines, for this strike and any future actions until they both win strong contracts. A victory for SEIU and UTLA would serve as a beacon for other struggles nationally.

If you live in LA, join a picket line at your local LAUSD school anytime from 6:30 am to 10 am this Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Later in the day, join workers for Tuesday’s 12 pm rally at LAUSD’s headquarters (333 S. Beaudry Ave), picketing at the various regional district headquarters starting at 11 am on Wednesday, and Thursday’s 1 pm rally (location to be announced.) Workers Strike Back will be out in solidarity at all of these actions, join us! Community support is crucial to strengthen the fight for better conditions in our schools.

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