By ARLENE INOUYE
March 21 was the third time since 1989 that 35,000 UTLA members went on strike. The second strike was from Jan. 14-22 in 2019, when we shifted the narrative to highlight the underfunding and attacks on our educators and public schools.
As the second-largest teachers local in the country, our fight was for racial, social, economic and educational justice, centered around the “Schools L.A. Students Deserve” in a school district with 90% students of color and 87% low-income.
We lifted up authentic equal relationships with parents and community and took on the struggle against the privatization of public education in Los Angeles, where we have the largest number of independent charter schools in the nation. I have been honored to be in a leadership position with UTLA over the past 12 years, in its transformation into an organizing fighting union.
Our UTLA strike on Tuesday, March 21, Wednesday, March 22 and Thursday, March 23 is a solidarity strike with our 30,000 colleagues from SEIU local 99 who work beside us in our schools. They are the custodians, the food service workers, the special education and general education teachers assistants, the bus drivers and other support staff.
Together we are the two largest unions in the city of Los Angeles, at 60,000 strong. It is significant that UTLA members understand the importance of joining SEIU in a solidarity strike.
SEIU is striking for “respect” and have numerous unfair labor practice charges filed with the California Public Employment Relations Board against LAUSD. Executive Director Max Arias states that SEIU Local 99 is asking for a 30% raise over 4 years, a $2 pay raise, longer work hours to qualify for health benefits, and to stop outsourcing their work to private contractors.
Our SEIU colleagues were essential workers during the pandemic, keeping our schools open to provide food and basic services, at great risk to themselves.
The average salary of SEIU workers is $25,000 a year. This absolute exploitation of SEIU contributes to the crisis of poverty in our school communities and across L.A. These are the parents of LAUSD students and LAUSD is keeping their kids in poverty.
24% of SEIU 99 members report that they don’t have enough to eat. One in three report that they have been homeless or at high risk of becoming homeless while working for LAUSD. This alone is reason enough for UTLA members to support their contract fight but also of importance is that when SEIU win the wages and respect they deserve, UTLA members also benefit.
UTLA is also in contract negotiations with LAUSD asking for a comprehensive package of proposals called “Beyond Recovery,” because even before the global pandemic we lacked the resources, staffing and working conditions for a thriving public education system. Now we are in a crisis while LAUSD sits on a historic reserve of $4.9 billion.
Our “Beyond Recovery” contract proposals include comprehensive issues such as lowering class sizes, increasing mental health and counselor staffing, a 20% salary increase over two years, a nurse at every school, investments in community schools and a Black Student Achievement Plan, which is our vision for public education, support for special education and dual language programs and Common Good community demands. This includes immigrant support, green space on campus, clean water, support for unhoused students, a climate justice curriculum and more.
We have been bargaining for over 10 months, with 28 sessions, with the district making little movement until this past week.
Joining together in this solidarity strike with SEIU means our members lose pay for three days as we join SEIU on picket lines in the morning and attend rallies in the afternoon. It means that we are united as public education workers to fight for what we deserve and need. 66% of UTLA members can’t afford to live in the neighborhood where they work, and 28% have a second job to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the superintendent of LAUSD, Alberto Carvalho, makes $440,000 a year and was given a 26% increase, while the education workers are leaving the district because we are underpaid, understaffed and overworked. This is not sustainable for SEIU, UTLA and our public education system.
This solidarity strike represents what the labor movement is about. Instead of the divide-and-conquer tactics that keep workers separate and fighting for crumbs, we are united and strong. Fighting together gives us collective power, and creates pressure on the district to meet our demands.
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, states that public support for organized labor is at a 50-year high in the U.S. and unions have made major inroads recently at high-profile corporations like Amazon and Starbucks. Strikes, especially by teachers and education workers, have become increasingly common over the past six years, a reflection of the widespread frustration with low wages, poor working conditions and growing inequality.
With our solidarity strike, SEIU and UTLA are taking collective action together to win. Organizing action that builds power to win the schools L.A. students and its employees deserve.
Arlene Inouye is secretary and bargaining co-chair of United Teachers Los Angeles.