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Los Angeles schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday morning that he and district negotiators are prepared to meet around the clock to avert a planned three-day strike by unions representing teachers and campus support staff.
His public invitation comes as the school system's two largest employee unions prepare for a joint rally Wednesday afternoon at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles. At the rally, union leaders have said they will announce the date of the strike, which could be scheduled for as early as next week.
The strike would shut down schools attended by more than 420,000 students,
"I have 2, 3, 4 chairs around the table," Carvalho said at a press conference, "and I commit myself 24/7, day and night ... to find a solution that will avoid, will avert a strike that will avoid keeping kids home, will avoid kids from going hungry in our community without access to the food they get in school."
The anticipated walkout of as many as 65,000 workers would represent the largest and longest full disruption of education in the nation's second-largest school system since the six-day teachers' strike of 2019. Not even the campus closures of the COVID-19 pandemic, which lasted more than a year in Los Angeles, resulted in a complete halt to academic instruction.
At the Wednesday morning press conference, school board President Jackie Goldberg — who earlier expressed optimism there would not be a strike — seemed less certain.
"It's the first time since I've been doing this there has been no back and forth," said Goldberg. "There was a statement of: 'This is it. And that's it.' That's not negotiations. Makes me very disappointed."
"We have the resources to make this the best offer in the country in both [Service Employees International Union] and [United Teachers Los Angeles], the best offer in the entire nation — ongoing, not one-time — ongoing because we value our employees," she said.
A bargaining session with the teachers union is scheduled for Friday. Local 99 has not agreed to a date for the next session, Carvalho said.
Union leaders have accused district leaders of not negotiating in good faith over their broad range of proposals and not committing enough of the district's reserves during the bargaining process.
The looming walkout would be led by Local 99 of SEIU. Local 99 represents about 30,000 workers including bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria and other food service workers, campus security aides, teaching assistants and aides for students with disabilities.
Local 99 would be joined in a solidarity strike by UTLA, which represents 35,000 teachers, counselors, therapists, nurses and librarians.
Carvalho also said that the district is in discussions with community groups over how they can help in distributing food on school days and assisting with child care for families. The district also is preparing academic materials for students to take home, he said.
Historically, strikes are relatively rare in L.A. Unified and this strike would be especially unusual because of the coordination between the two unions. In addition, the strike is not over deadlocked negotiations but over Local 99's allegations that the school district has illegally interfered with the union-related activities of its members. Neither union has exhausted the typical negotiation process, which includes time set aside for mediation and fact-finding.
Carvalho said he has authorized his legal team to look into measures that would delay or prevent the walkout, but he did not elaborate on what these would be. He also said he recognized the rights of workers to strike, but insisted that it is unnecessary. School closures would be harmful to students already burdened with academic and emotional recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed campuses in Los Angeles for more than a year, forcing students into remote learning.
Union leaders have countered they have student interests in mind as well.
Local 99 noted that many union members are district parents and work for some of the lowest wages in the school system. Better salaries, they said, would help recruit and retain workers who provide vital services.
UTLA leaders called attention to their lengthy and complex contract platform, which they describe as bargaining for the common good. It demands sustained funding for special programs to help Black students, smaller classes and efforts to develop affordable housing for low-income families.
In his remarks, Carvalho also took aim at the union's focus on the school system's anticipated $4.9-billion ending balance. He said union leaders are giving their members "false hope" because most of that funding is either already committed to future expenses, is restricted for special purposes or is one-time funding that should not be applied toward ongoing wage increases.
But he added that the district nonetheless is prepared to enhance its current offer when union leaders return to the table.
Leaders of Local 99 recently declared an impasse in bargaining and are moving through the mediation and fact-finding process. The union, which has yet to settle wage issues dating to the 2020-21 school year, is seeking a 30% increase for all members, with an additional boost for the lowest-wage workers.
The district is offering a 5% ongoing wage increase retroactive to July 1, 2021, an additional 5% ongoing wage increase retroactive to July 1, 2022, and a 5% wage increase that would take effect on July 1, 2023. In addition, employees would receive a one-time 4% "retention bonus" for the current school year and a one-time 5% bonus the following year.
The teachers union is seeking a 20% raise over two years, starting with 10% for the current school year.
The labor action comes as district officials are organizing two optional days of school over spring break — on April 3 and 4 — a project that has so far attracted a small fraction of students, about 6,000. Officials said they would be pleased to reach 340,000 or more but are determined to go forward with whoever signs up by the March 24 deadline.
This extra learning time — called acceleration days — has become caught up in the labor dispute, with leaders of the teachers union and its supporters calling these optional days a costly and poor use of resources.
Carvalho had announced Monday night that campuses would close during the pending three-day strike because he could not ensure the safety of students without teachers and support staff.
To families, he said: "We encourage you to begin discussions with your employer, child care providers and others now.”
To employees, he said: “We are making every effort to provide students with resources for learning, social emotional well-being and nourishment in the event of a strike.”
For many union members, the walkout represents a painful but necessary step.
"Hopefully, there won't be a three-day stoppage but, evidently, this is something that we might have to do to get the attention of the people to make the decision to increase our wages," said Karimu McNeal, who works as a liaison to parents and community members for 20 hours a week at Dorsey High in South Los Angeles.
McNeal said she planned to attend a Wednesday afternoon rally in downtown's Grand Park hosted by Local 99 and UTLA.
For many parents, a strike would represent unnecessary harm to students and families. Diana Guillen, head of the district parent advisory committee for English learners expressed empathy for workers — but is concerned for students.
"SEIU is one of the unions that defends workers who have the lowest wages," Guillen said. These workers are part of our community. We are in agreement that they should get a raise. But I'm not in agreement with a strike. Academically this won't help at all."
The teachers union had significant parent support during its 2019 strike; there is no reliable gauge of where most parents stand this time.
Moderators of the large Facebook group Parents Supporting Teachers said blame should fall on school district officials if campuses close.
"There is not one parent in this school district who wants a strike, not one," co-founders Nicolle Fefferman and Jenna Schwartz said in a statement. "And while we aren’t budget specialists, we see a constant rolling out of new programs, new logos, acceleration days and other initiatives that cost huge amounts of money when the true value of our schools are the people inside.
"You know what is cheaper and less cumbersome than outsourcing tutoring? Smaller class sizes. Just like our kids won’t do well in school without food, neither will our staff," the group leaders said. "We don’t want acceleration days; we want cafeteria workers paid fairly."
Another view came from Lourdes Lopez, who has children at three district schools.
"Why are they going on strike when our children need to be in school? I understand that the unions want to impact, but they can’t be doing this with the district," said Lopez, who is a member of the group Our Voice: Communities for Quality Education. "Our children are so far behind. ... There is much anxiety for our families, especially Latino families like mine. We live in cramped spaces and we will have our children at home during the day without the ability to teach them — the disruption will be enormous.”
Local 99 leaders said their strike would be in protest of alleged illegal actions by L.A. Unified during the negotiation process. Such actions, called an "unfair labor practice" strike by the National Labor Relations Board, typically last for a fixed duration and can be staged without going through the steps of bargaining that usually precede an open-ended strike, according to the unions.
L.A. Unified officials have denied wrongdoing.
Board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin said there's a lot at stake.
"We need more instructional time, not less, and our workers deserve to be well compensated," Franklin said. "Many of our SEIU members in particular are parents of our L.A. Unified students."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.