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I’m a History Teacher at LAUSD, This Is Why I’m Striking

School staff danced in the street to the off-kilter rhythm of a cowbell. Umbrellas flipped and blew into fences.  A normally taciturn teacher grabbed a bullhorn and urged passing cars to honk or at least acknowledge his presence. Fold-out tables sagged under the weight of donated donut boxes and coffee carriers. People laughed, took selfies, and sheltered one another from the rain.  A group of more than 100 teachers and school staff picketed, chanted, and marched in front of an almost entirely empty school. 

Welcome to the strike. 

I am a social studies teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, and I, along with more than 70 other teachers and coordinators, spent Tuesday morning on the picket line in solidarity with 46 of our colleagues from SEIU and in support of contract demands that would benefit our entire school communities—staff, teachers, and, most importantly, students. 

We were among over 60,000 teachers and school staff who went on strike across LAUSD’s 1,000-plus campuses. LAUSD decided to cancel classes before the strike, affecting more than 420,000 students across the second-largest district in the country and unintentionally enrolling them in a real-life crash course on civics, justice, and labor organizing. 

To be clear—this strike is led by SEIU. LAUSD teachers are striking in support of their efforts. SEIU is composed of the workers who actually make our schools run: bus drivers, custodians, kitchen staff, and campus aids, among others. They are our essential workers. Like nurses and grocery store workers, they are both underappreciated and underpaid. The average SEIU worker makes $25,000 per year. Nearly three-quarters are women of color, and half are parents of school-age children. The people without whom our schools could not operate, the majority of whom are from among our most marginalized populations, are not making a living wage. 

“I think we deserve it,” said Veronica Perez, who has been a food service worker at Wilson for 14 years. “I think everyone does.”

Perez makes $16.91 per hour and is only given three to four hours of work per day. And yet, she said, the school could not function without her and her coworkers. 

“(The district) tells us, politely, that we’re replaceable,” she said, “But it takes a long time to replace us. If we put our trays down and walked out one day, everyone would see they really need us.”

Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.

Perez said her work is more critical than merely handing food to children as they go through the lunch line. 

“We feed kids across all grades,” she said. “We see them grow up. I tell them, ‘I’m like your mom, that we are like family.’”

Ernesto Rubio, a counselor aide, and Wilson’s SEIU strike leader said the food service workers are some of the most critical and undervalued workers on staff. When he saw how committed they were to fight for a new contract, he realized how important this movement would be.

“They are on the bottom,” he said, “to see them living paycheck to paycheck, I knew how real this was.”

So, what happens after the rain subsides, the strike ends, and we all return to school on Friday? LAUSD is currently sitting on a record $5 billion in surplus funds. Carvahlo continues to say the district needs to hold onto those funds for the future. The unions continue to argue that the money should be invested in our school communities, rather than hoarded for an ever-receding day in the future. Contract negotiations continue to move along without much real progress. And looming over all of this—both SEIU and UTLA could go on strike again before the school year is over. 

This three-day strike did not come out of nowhere. Strikes never do. It is, instead, the culmination of nearly a year of primarily fruitless negotiation efforts with Los Angeles Unified School District and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. According to SEIU representatives, despite public protestations otherwise, Calvalho almost never sat down to negotiate with SEIU and instead sent one-sided proposals. The exception was the last-minute bargaining meeting Monday afternoon, during which the district violated its nondisclosure agreement by leaking information about the meeting to the press. 

“We’re not being offered anything,” Rubio said. “We didn’t want to strike. We wanted to be heard.”

Over the course of negotiations, SEIU has filed dozens of unfair labor practice charges, claiming LAUSD has threatened and penalized workers at multiple school sites for participating in union activities. The current unfair practices strike is in direct response to the alleged contract violations. The mediation process legally required before workers can go on an open-ended strike is still ongoing.

Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.
Photo by Daniel Thalkar for L.A. TACO.

“We’re out here because we’re fighting wages for all our people,” Rubio said. “We’re trying to show everyone we can be the voice of change.”

SEIU workers are demanding a 30 percent wage increase, which would raise the average salary of SEIU members to $36,000. Just above the federal poverty line for a family of four.

William Chavez, Wilson’s UTLA Chapter Chair, said the current strike is about more than wages.

“We’re here because SEIU took a stand,” he said. “It’s historic. When have two of the largest unions in Los Angeles been on strike together? It’s never happened. We’re sending the message to the superintendent, to the charter lobby, to anyone who tries to weaken our union, that it’s only making us stronger.”

UTLA is currently in its stalled negotiations with LAUSD, and Chavez said he hopes both unions can soon reach agreements on new contracts that serve the best interests of the school communities. 

“I hope both SEIU and UTLA get the contracts they deserve,” he said. “Not only in salaries but in working conditions, in full-fledged community schools, in the Black Student Achievement Plan. The hope is both unions are able to get what both they and our students deserve.”

So, what happens after the rain subsides, the strike ends, and we all return to school on Friday? LAUSD is currently sitting on a record $5 billion in surplus funds. Carvahlo continues to say the district needs to hold onto those funds for the future. The unions continue to argue that the money should be invested in our school communities, rather than hoarded for an ever-receding day in the future. Contract negotiations continue to move along without much real progress. And looming over all of this—both SEIU and UTLA could go on strike again before the school year is over. 

We don’t want to go on strike again. We didn’t want to go on strike this time. But we will if need be, and as the staff at Woodrow Wilson HS showed on Tuesday, we’ll do so with conviction, donuts, and a killer playlist blasting from somebody’s spotty Bluetooth connection. Our communities are worth fighting for. With solidarity and love in our movements, we will win. 

“Hopefully, other unions, whether in California or across the nation, take notice,” said Chavez as he drove through pouring rain to the afternoon rally outside of UTLA’s downtown headquarters. “There is power in solidarity.”

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