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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Los Angeles school workers are on strike, and parents say they get it

Thousands of demonstrators gather during a rally in support of public school teachers in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.

By Kurtis Lee and Jill Cowan

Since Tuesday, Diana Cruz has juggled her stay-at-home job as an executive assistant with the care of her children after the Los Angeles school strike forced their classes to be canceled for three days.

Cruz earns $36,000 a year and is raising her two daughters and teenage son in a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, where she splits the $1,700 rent with her mother.

A few miles away, Yolanda Mims Reed makes about $24 an hour as a part-time special education assistant at Hamilton High School. She supplements her income by caring for an older woman and by doing hair.

Parents like Cruz may be flustered by the strike, but few are angry with strikers like Reed.

The parents see their lives mirrored in the struggles of the bus drivers, cafeteria workers and classroom aides walking the picket lines — working-class residents who take on multiple jobs to survive in Southern California.

“If you’re not making massive six-figure salaries, then, yeah, it’s hard,” Cruz, 33, said. “How can you not support their cause?”

The strike has sharply illustrated the economic divide in modern Los Angeles, where low-wage workers can barely scrape together rent while affluent professionals blocks away are willing to pay $13 for a coconut smoothie. In this case, the school district’s working-class parents and school workers are on the same side of the divide.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, relies on tens of thousands of staff members who are struggling to keep up with rising costs in a state that lacks enough housing. Most of the families they serve are in the same boat, with 89% of the district’s households qualifying as economically disadvantaged, according to district data.

Housing is the biggest expense for people living in the Los Angeles area, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Residents devote 38% of their yearly spending to housing, compared with the national average of roughly 34%, according to the agency.

Griselda Perez, 51, said that her family stretched to afford their $2,000 rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Her eldest son, 20, shares a room with his two younger brothers, 11 and 9, who attend district schools. Every day, she said, the family feels the squeeze of gentrification, as more people with higher incomes move east from downtown.

Perez said she tried to explain the strike to her sons by likening their situation — they cannot afford birthday parties and trips to Disneyland — to the challenges faced by the people who work at their schools.

“When I see the cafeteria workers, when I see the lady at the front door, when I see the lady working at the parent center, we talk mom to mom,” she said. “The struggles that they have are the same struggles that we have.”

The walkout continued on Wednesday with picket lines at schools and campus facilities, including at district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. School support employees have been joined by the district’s 35,000 teachers in the work stoppage. The strike is expected to end on Thursday.

The Local 99 branch of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 30,000 support workers in Los Angeles Unified, said that half of its members who responded to a 2022 internal survey said they worked a second job.

The union also said that its members earned an average of $25,000 a year — a figure that Los Angeles Unified officials said included both part- and full-time employees. The full-time salary average was unclear.

The union noted that 64% of its members were Latino and 20% were Black. The families they serve are likewise overwhelmingly Latino, about 74%, an outgrowth of broad migration and population trends.

Austin Beutner, who served as the district’s superintendent during the coronavirus pandemic, said that a vast majority of parents understood the plight of the Local 99 members because they lived in the same neighborhoods. He said the half-dozen school principals he spoke to Tuesday said they were seeing overwhelming support from parents for the staff members.

“The intersection of school staff and the community is tight and close,” Beutner said. “They are the community. So many of them have family members in schools or neighbors in schools.”

Local 99 has leaned on that support and tried to frame its contract battle as a fight for low-wage workers across Los Angeles. And parental backing — for now — could help the union at the negotiating table.

Workers are seeking a 30% overall raise, as well as an additional $2-an-hour increase for the lowest-paid employees. The union’s members have been working without a contract since 2020.

In a statement, Alberto Carvalho, the district superintendent, on Tuesday acknowledged “historic inequities” that workers had faced.

“I understand our employees’ frustration that has been brewing, not just for a couple years but probably for decades,” Carvalho said.

School districts cannot raise revenues as quickly as private-sector businesses might through price increases during an inflationary period. The Los Angeles district relies on funds that are determined at the state level, and, after years of growth, California is projected to face a deficit in the coming fiscal year. The school district also continues to lose students each year, which means it receives less money because funding is based on enrollment.

The district has countered with a 23% wage increase, spread across several years, and a 3% one-time bonus. Carvalho said that the latest proposal sought to address the union’s needs “while also remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the district in a financially stable position.”

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