Massive Los Angeles school strike results in victory by low-paid school workers, with teachers in solidarity — Editors
On March 23, the third day of a strike that shut down the United States’ second-largest public school system, school workers dressed in purple – including janitors, bus drivers, special education assistants, and cafeteria workers – were joined by members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), dressed in red, in a massive rally of tens of thousands at Los Angeles State Historical Park in Chinatown. Signs carried by these workers, many of the handmade, targeted School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and demanded a living wage for some of the lowest-paid public workers in the city, most of whom are women. Afterwards, teachers and other school employees crowded into the subways and buses, proudly carrying their signs and insignia.
The mood was mellow, even ebullient, as rally participants seemed to sense victory. They turned out to be right, for representatives from Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced the next day that the LA Unified School District had met their demands for a 30% wage increase. This will not yet constitute a living wage, but it will serve to alleviate what has amounted to poverty wages.
From March 21-23, the 30,000 school workers, along with the District’s 35,000 teachers, who stopped work in solidarity, created one of the largest strikes in recent memory, larger even than the 48,000-strong University of California strike last year. But the LA school strike involved a deeper layer of the working class: 84% of Local 99 SEIU members are Black or Latinx, with average pay at $24,000 and in some cases as low as $15,000 per year. The SEIU strikers come from some of the city’s most underserved working class neighborhoods as well. As one SEIU member told the LA Times, “We’re going to fight for our rights. We deserve as human beings to be able to afford housing and food.”
The strike involved an important act of solidarity on the part of the teachers, itself the product of shared sacrifice for our children through the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers expressed particular admiration for the school workers’ service – at great risk to themselves – as essential workers. As one teacher put it: “I’m really proud of UTLA for being out here with SEIU. I think if there’s one thing we learned from the pandemic, it is how much people are connected to each other and there is nowhere that that is truer than in our schools. So, when we were getting ready to come back to schools in Spring of 2021, SEIU members enabled everyone to return to school. They went in first; they were there cleaning, disinfected everything” (Mark Friedman, “UTLA-SEIU Strike Solid. Report from San Pedro Picket lines,” LA Progressive, March 21, 2023 https://www.laprogressive.com/labor-social-justice/utla-seiu-strike )
Teachers are also facing contract negotiations and are threatening another strike in the coming weeks. But the March victory of the school workers puts them in a solid position. Teachers fought in 2019 in their own massive strike for an historic agreement that lowered class size, gaining important community support for themselves and other school workers and thwarting efforts by capital, the state, the media, to pit educational workers against the communities they serve. The 2019 victory was real, even if still not enough. As an English teacher who participated in both the 2019 strike and the March 23 demonstration told me: “I used to have as many as 42, even 45 kids in a class. Now it’s about 30-32, still too many, but a big improvement.”
Something is changing for workers in California and the U.S., not only because of their historic mobilizations, but also because some important victories, even if only partial ones, have been achieved. The public is more sympathetic to labor than in decades and bourgeois politicians and media have become more cautious about attacking unions. Moreover, the labor bureaucracy itself is shifting into a more militant position, as can be seen by the recent United Auto Workers election that has placed insurgents in office. Not exactly a radical voice, William Gould, who served in the 1990s as chair of the National Labor Relations Board, put it this way: “There is, in general, a greater willingness on the part of organized labor to stand up for workers in the last year or so – a greater audacity” (Howard Blume, Dakota Smith, and Debbie Truong, “LAUSD, union reach tentative deal,” LA Times, March 25, 2023)