Hopes are fading that last-minute talks will prevent a scheduled three-day strike that would shut down classes for more than 420,000 students, beginning Tuesday morning in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Local 99 of Service Employees International Union, which would be leading the strike, issued a statement Monday afternoon insisting that the talks taking place would not avert a walkout.
"The strike will begin at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 21, and continue through Thursday, March 23," according to the statement.
Union Executive Director Max Arias characterized the discussions with the district as a part of a mediation and fact-finding process overseen by the state labor regulators. While that process could lead to a settlement, it would not prevent the three-day strike, which is about alleged misconduct by the school system that has impeded the rights of workers to engage in legally protected union-related activities.
“We want to be clear that we are not in negotiations with LAUSD," Arias said. "We continue to be engaged in the impasse process with the state.”
The union statement noted that members had voted overwhelmingly in support of letting its leaders call a strike at their discretion.
"During the strike vote and contract bargaining process, the district subjected workers to surveillance, intimidation and harassment," the union alleged. And it is these issues that justify the three-day job action, the union said.
Arias described the Monday meeting as part of "a confidential mediation process with LAUSD to try and address our differences."
"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."
District officials have denied wrongdoing.
The school district had tentatively scheduled a news conference for 4 p.m., but was not ready to make an announcement at that time. The district has rescheduled for 5 p.m.
Local 99 members include custodians, bus drivers, teacher aides, security aides, special education assistants and food-service workers. Joining in the strike would be members of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents teachers, nurses, therapists, counselors and librarians. UTLA also is bargaining with the nation's second-largest school system.
Los Angeles schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho on Monday showcased a new contract offer to workers represented by Local 99, but with limited details. In an appearance on Fox News 11, the schools chief said the wage increase would total more than 20% over a multiple-year period and also would include a 3% bonus and what he called a "massive expansion of healthcare benefits."
He also called on Local 99 to return to bargaining in advance of the walkout.
Arias had said he would return to negotiations immediately only if the union's wage demands were met. The union is asking for a 30% wage increase plus a $2 per hour additional raise for the lowest-paid workers.
Local 99 members make an average of $25,000 — many of them working part time. Arias said he wants to raise that average to $36,000.
Meanwhile, state labor officials were expected on Monday to announce whether they would intervene to halt or delay the walkout of as many as 65,000 workers.
L.A. Unified had argued that the strike is illegal, on the grounds that the union's official justification is not the real reason for the walkout. District officials claim the union walkout is about pressuring the district to improve its salary offer.
The designated arbiter of the dispute is the California Public Employment Relations Board, but that panel is widely considered to be reluctant to intervene forcefully in such matters.
On Friday, the school system had requested an injunction that would have delayed or halted the strike, which was denied. But the case remained active.
"The unfair practice charge will be expedited at all levels," wrote PERB general counsel Felix De La Torre, in a Sunday communication to the parties.
De La Torre did not say when a decision would be made.
L.A. Unified officials said Sunday they have no choice but to "continue to prepare for the unfortunate reality of school closures and remain available to negotiate a resolution to the outstanding issues, which we believe could be resolved ... between now and Tuesday."
With the three-day strike imminent, district officials, union members and families planned and mobilized.
Important details from the school district have emerged on child care, student meals and academics.
In the event of a strike, no classes will take place. Except for limited child care at some campuses, schools will be closed to students because officials said they cannot guarantee adequate supervision.
However, the district is encouraging any willing employees to report for duty for their normal workday — although they are unlikely to be carrying out their usual tasks.
With 80% of students from low-income families, the school system plays an important role in providing breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner Monday through Friday.
Such meals will continue in a limited way. Families will be able to pick up prepackaged meals from about two dozen locations across the vast school system on Tuesday only, and only from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Each family can receive six meals per student — for breakfast and lunch on each of the three strike days.
The district has experience from the pandemic distributing vast numbers of meals. One difference this time is that the workers who provided the backbone of that aid — including the cafeteria and central kitchen workers — will be on strike.
L.A. Unified is welcoming volunteer help in the meal distribution.
"We plan to deploy 15 to 20 volunteers per site to work alongside L.A. Unified teams, City of L.A. staff and other municipalities," according to information about volunteering provided online. "Volunteers will engage in physical work and will be standing for the duration of the event. We will contact you with logistical information once we confirm them to activate."
"Your commitment to this effort is critical," the advisory states. "Please do not sign up for this opportunity if you are not able to volunteer the whole time."
Among the locations with be the Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks Recreation Center, the Glassell Park Recreation Center Complex, the Boys & Girls Club Mar Vista Gardens Branch, Salt Lake Park in Huntington Park and the Wilmington Recreation Center.
Nonprofits, athletic leagues, community groups and other government agencies have worked to expand their hours and offerings during the three-day strike.
Initially, L.A. Unified appeared to be sidelined from a direct role — other than appealing for help and providing support that would include packaged food.
But dozens of campuses — among 1,000 in the school system — will offer supervision between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. This supervision will be led by Beyond the Bell staff, which typically provides activities and homework supervision from the end of the school day until 6 p.m. A district map indicates sites that will be accepting students.
That same map identifies the location of 18 L.A. County Parks and Recreation sites that will offer a drop-in program with balls and equipment for checkout and an open gym from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The county sites close 30 minutes earlier than the school district sites. Where available, the county sites will allow access to computer labs to complete school assignments.
Meals will be provided at both the district and county sites.
First come, first served
There's an important caveat to the day-care offerings.
This supervision provided by the school district and county is available first come, first served. Families will be turned away — or at least directed to try somewhere else — once capacity is reached. Officials have not stated what the capacity will be. And getting in on the first day does not reserve a space for the second day or third day.
Reservations will be possible at sites operated by the city of Los Angeles, but late arrivals will lose their spots.
The map of locations is color coded. The county sites are green, the city of L.A. sites are purple and the district blue. When a site is full, the pin is supposed to turn red, but that will depend on how quickly staff on location can submit a report to update the map. Different programs have different parameters.
The county library welcomes students.
"The library is here to provide computers, books and materials access, events and academic support to support learning during the closure," said marketing director Jessica C. Lee.
But again, there are important caveats.
"We recommend parents and caretakers use thoughtful discretion when determining whether or not their child or teen can work at the library without parental supervision," Lee said. "Library staff is not responsible for the supervision of children left unattended at the library by their parents."
Some branches don't open until 10 a.m. or noon. Others stay open later than school district-operated locations.
For students who want to keep busy with schoolwork — especially if they have internet access — there's almost an overload of resources being posted online and activity packets available for families to take home.
All the work is optional and will not count toward a student's grade.
School board President Jackie Goldberg said she is optimistic that teachers will prepare specific, course-related, grade-level work for students. Other district officials appear less certain, hence the lengthy list of online resources and activities.
One event scheduled for next week, the SAT college-entrance exam, has been rescheduled to the first week after spring break.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.