Los Angeles education strike cancels school for 420,000 students

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -Some 30,000 education workers backed by the teachers’ union walked off the job for a three-day strike in Los Angeles on Tuesday, canceling school for nearly half a million students in the second-largest school district in the United States.

The Service Employees International Union Local 99 seeks to increase what it calls poverty wages averaging $25,000 per year for many of their members including school bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and classroom assistants.

Thousands of protesters gathered for a rally outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters, vowing to continue their pickets for another two days under the banner, “United for L.A. Schools.”

“This school system is underfunded,” said Findlay Bunting, a special education teacher who demonstrated in support of the striking workers. “As teachers, we spend a lot of time with the support staff. They’re just magnificent. They’ve been underpaid for years.”

At an earlier picket at a school bus yard, striking workers marched in pouring rain, carrying signs that read, “Respect Us!”

The service workers are backed by the 35,000 members of the teachers’ union United Teachers Los Angeles, which refused to cross their picket line.

The work stoppage is the latest in a series of job actions by educators across the United States who have complained of burnout and low wages, leading to a teacher shortage in many parts of the country.

L.A. schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho has acknowledged workers have been underpaid for years and said he was committed to reaching a deal.

The strike has disrupted class for 420,000 students, many of whom also depend on schools for meals, counseling and other social services. Dozens of meal and safe-place sites were opened across the city on Tuesday, with school district employees and volunteers distributing more than 124,000 meals, the district said.

The union, which said 96% of its membership had authorized the strike, is demanding a 30% salary increase plus an additional $2 per hour for the lowest-paid workers, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Carvalho told reporters on Monday the district was offering a 23% raise plus a 3% bonus and that “there are still additional resources to put on the table.”

Education experts have been warning of staff burnout for years. Those concerns grew when the coronavirus pandemic put additional stress on teachers, prompting many to leave the profession for better pay in the private sector.

“What’s happening in L.A. is going to happen in all the major cities if we don’t start doing something collectively as a nation,” said Jamie Sears, a former third-grade teacher who now teaches a master class for educators.

A survey last year by the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States, found 55% of educators were thinking of leaving the profession and 86% said they have seen more colleagues quit since the start of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Carslbad, Calif., and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Alan Devall in Los Angeles; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Edwina Gibbs)