On Wednesday March 15, tens of thousands of teachers and education workers rallied at the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. The joint rally of K-12 teachers (UTLA) and education support staff (SEIU 99) was organized to announce plans for both unions to go on strike, with SEIU 99 taking the lead in the fight for better wages, improved staff to student ratios, and an end to harassment by administrators. The mood was lively, with a mariachi band made up of teachers playing for the crowd, teachers and support staff dancing to the music, and pockets of teachers and education workers striking up impromptu chants and banging on homemade drums. When the two unions together announced there will be a joint strike March 21-24 this month, the crowd erupted with applause! There was an air of solidarity and optimism as SEIU workers mingled with UTLA teachers.
Teachers and support staff have been pushed to exhaustion, forced to work with fewer teachers and more students at wages that do not meet the cost of living. Roybal high school teacher Tiffany Wallace told Left Voice of the stark disparity between education workers’ wages and the massive salary of the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The LAUSD superintendent, Albert Carvahlo is being paid a salary “higher than the governor of California, while teachers are barely scraping by, surviving off of the Dollar Tree.” With inflation and teachers leaving the profession because of stagnant wages, current workers are expected to do the work that two teachers used to do. Superintendent Carvahlo is acting like a vampire, sucking the lifeblood from education workers while pulling down a yearly salary of $440,000. An important demand of the strike is that wage increases at least match the rising cost of living.
SEIU 99 has been without a contract since 2020 and their wages have been reduced even more by increasing costs of living. The average pay of school support staff is $20,000 a year. These are poverty wages for the school’s teacher’s aides, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.
The strike, set to take place from March 21 thru March 24, will be significant as the Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest in the country. It is unfortunate that the union bureaucracy is insisting on a three day strike instead of an open ended strike. Limiting the strike from the jump allows the bosses to prepare, plan around, and attempt to undermine its power.
An open-ended strike, like the one that UTLA teachers held in 2019 kept the power in the hands of the workers, who did not go back to work until their demands were met. That 2019 strike is still very much on the minds of the teachers who participated, and likely was part of the high teacher turnout for the rally on Wednesday.
The planned UTLA and SEIU strike is an important escalation in the ongoing struggles of municipal workers across the city and the state to confront rising inflation and the out of control cost of living increases that have made California unaffordable for working people and must be defended. For this strike to succeed however, will require more than the enthusiastic participation of teachers. In order to win these unions will have to win the support of the broader working class families that they serve. And UTLA rank and file have been working to build those ties by supporting popular struggles like the 2020 Black LIves Matter protests. In fact, it was during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement that UTLA members fought and were able to reduce the school police budget by 31%. UTLA also engaged and organized with students, parents and community to continue to oppose cops on school campuses. Support from an active, progressive union like UTLA could bolster the bargaining power of SEIU 99.
This strike of the two unions comes on the heels of several higher education strikes across the country, including at the University of California schools, Columbia University, and Temple University, which all won meaningful gains as a result of strikes and job actions. The success of higher education strikes like these could bring more inspired life into an incipient movement.
The strike, led by SEIU 99, is also a sympathy strike by UTLA. Sympathy strikes are at times deemed “illegal” by the National Labor Relations Board. That means both UTLA and SEIU 99 are taking a bold step to challenge the Los Angeles public education system and labor laws. It is a powerful move during a self-described “pro labor” Biden administration. Biden who broke the strike of railroad workers along with Republicans and The Squad are agents of capital. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), is often presented to workers as impartial, but in reality has a history that undermines U.S. workers. Any pro-worker stances taken by the NLRB are because workers at Amazon, Starbucks, REI and more have forced the NLRB to act. Yet even with the pressures of Generation U. forming unions, the NLRB does not enforce laws against bosses’ union busting or other illegal practices, and is severely underfunded.
Workers must defend ourselves against the bosses. If the education workers win, their demands could inspire workers in the public sector and private sector to take similar actions in solidarity. In France, as this article is being written, there is a national general strike with workers defying austerity measures by the Macron regime. It is possible in the U.S. to take up the fight of education workers as a fight of the entire working class. This fight is the only way for us to secure decent enough wages to survive comfortably, full employment so we aren’t breaking our backs as one person doing the work of three, and a workplace free of harassment by bosses who retaliate when we speak up about working conditions. The labor movement should take up this strike and support the workers involved. Workers must fight for our right to strike whenever we deem necessary and repeal anti-union and anti-worker legislation like right to work or the Taft Hartley Act. Workers should prepare for extending the strike if their demands are not met. The rest of the labor movement then must also prepare to support and fight alongside these workers until they win. Wednesday’s massive rally shows the workers are ready to fight. The rest of the labor movement must support them.