L.A. Unified reopens after three-day strike brought the district to a halt Trendynewsbro

Credit: Kate Sequeira / EdSource

LAUSD employees rallied at the Los Angeles State Historic Park on Thursday.

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Schools in Los Angeles Unified reopened Friday following a three-day strike that drew nationwide attention to some of the district’s lowest-paid employees and interrupted instruction for 420,000 students. However, no contract settlement was announced.

Even as classes resumed Friday, negotiations remained underway between LAUSD and Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents bus drivers, custodians, special education aides and other workers in the state’s largest school district. They had walked out of work Tuesday, joined by Los Angeles teachers, frustrating some families worried about more learning losses after the pandemic.

With help from Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, the two sides said they were optimistic Thursday that they’d reach an agreement soon but did not release any details on the status of the talks. The union returned to work regardless but didn’t rule out a second strike in the coming months if disagreements over pay and working conditions could not be resolved.

From outside Loma Vista Elementary in Maywood on Friday morning, José Molinas Jr. watched his son’s kindergarten class line into their classroom as the bell rang. His son was excited to be back in school after three days at home. “He wanted to come back to school, you know,” Molinas said. “He likes learning and everything.”

His son had spent the last three days at home, doing workbooks they had bought alongside the homework packets sent out by the district. Molinas isn’t worried about the three days of school closures, he said, because his son is a quick learner.

Both sides expressed hope that schools could quickly get back to normal with healthy attendance, even though there is only one day left in a week that also brought punishing rains to the Los Angeles region. But it remains to be seen how many families decide to send their children back to campuses Friday or even know that schools will be open.

Teachers and Local 99 workers said they expect the transition back to school to be smooth. The district had prepared take-home work packets and online homework assignments for students during the strike, and teachers had adjusted lesson plans accordingly.

Gabriel Serrano, a special education teacher at Emelita Street Elementary in Encino, said the strike delayed some assessments, but he thinks the students were over-tested to begin with.

“We did have to talk to the students and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have three days off, that’s why we have to get certain work done before we go,’” he said. “We’re going to have work we need to get back to.”

On Friday morning, Josefina Arechiga said she wasn’t too concerned for her granddaughter, who had spent the last few days at home with her. The third-grader at Loma Vista Elementary finished the district packet and spent much of her time reading and writing. “Of course one worries a little,” Arechiga said about the impact of the strike on learning. But Arechiga said the three days of strike were worth it so that the union workers could stand up for their needs. “They’re things that one has to do to better things at all levels,” she said.

The strike resulted in shuttered schools across the district, leaving families to find last-minute child care and students without instruction for three days and coping with online or on-paper homework assignments. The teachers union, which is also engaged in contract negotiations with the district, joined Local 99 on the picket lines.

Credit: Kate Sequeira / EdSource

LAUSD employees rallied at the Los Angeles State Historic Park on Thursday.

Negotiators issued vague but more positive statements than they had earlier in the week before Bass got involved.

“We are hopeful that with the leadership of Mayor Bass that we will be able to reach an agreement that leads to living wages and respect and increased staffing for our students in LAUSD,” Local 99 spokesperson Blanca Gallegos said Thursday. “(Union members) are going back to work with their heads held high … There is a new recognition from the school district and the entire city of the work they do.”

The district also expressed confidence that a deal was close, without revealing details.

“We continue to do everything possible to reach an agreement that honors the hard work of our employees, corrects historic inequities, maintains the financial stability of the district and brings students back to the classroom,” the district tweeted. “We are hopeful these talks continue and look forward to updating our school community on a resolution.”

Credit: Kate Sequeira / EdSource

SEIU Local 99 and UTLA members and their allies gather outside LAUSD’s Banneker Career Transition Center to rally in favor of the worker union’s demands on Thursday.

During the strike, the district opened dozens of child care centers and distributed more than 124,000 meals to minimize the disruption to students and their families. Attendance was light at the child care centers but thousands of families took advantage of the free meals.

Throughout the district, union members and their supporters rallied, marched and chanted to draw attention to their plight, often in the pouring rain. Loretta Pointer-Powell, a district bus driver, was one of dozens of picketers who showed up outside Banneker Career Transition Center on Thursday. She said she’s proud of the impact the strike has made in showing the importance of positions like hers.

“Without us, the school district doesn’t run,” said Pointer-Powell, who has worked for the district for 35 years. “They need all of us — bus drivers, school staff, custodians.”

Local 99, whose members earn an annual median salary of $25,000, is asking for a 30% raise plus an additional $2 per hour for lower-paid workers, while the district’s last publicly announced offer was for a 23% raise plus a one-time 3% bonus for workers who were hired before 2020-21.

Thousands of union members and their supporters gathered at Los Angeles Historic Park in Chinatown on Thursday afternoon for speeches about the importance of the district’s essential workers.

“When we go back to schools tomorrow, you’re going to look at each other differently,” teachers union President Cecily Myart-Cruz told the crowd, referring to the two unions’ cooperation during the strike.

West Hollywood Elementary teaching assistant Kristie Moran, who attended the rally, said she hoped the strike has shown the district the value she and her colleagues bring to schools. Still, she’s happy to return to school on Friday and see her students. “I miss my kids,” Moran said. “I love what I do. That’s why I’ve been doing it for six years.”

The mood was festive at Figueroa Street Elementary in Vermont Vista on Thursday, as picketers danced to “Cha Cha Slide,” “La Chona” and “Payaso de Rodeo” playing from a loudspeaker on the grass.

Kindergarten teaching assistant Kathy Avechuco was one of nearly 40 picketers lined outside the school. She said she’s eager to see the labor disputes resolved, but only if the unions’ demands are met. She doesn’t want union strikes to become the norm.

“I don’t want to have to keep doing this every few years,” Avechuco said. “I hope we reach an agreement and we don’t settle. Then that defeats the purpose and we have to strike again.”

Some parents have expressed frustration over the school closures, complaining about the inconvenience and disruption to their children’s education. Avechuco said she understands their perspective but hopes they understand that the strike will benefit their children in the long run.

“I’m here for the kids. I’m not doing this just to get paid,” Avechuco said. “But we can’t live off this. We need more.”

L.A. Unified’s teachers union staged a six-day strike in 2019, and memories of that experience are fresh for many workers, students and families. United Teachers Los Angeles Chairperson Julie Harrington, a third grade teacher, said she believes the Local 99 negotiations will be a long process.

“I just hope that this superintendent realizes that teachers and SEIU are the people that take care of the kids,” she said.

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