On March 21, the 25,000 custodians, cafeteria workers, campus aides, bus drivers, teaching assistants, special education aides, building and grounds workers who are members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99, walked off the job in a three-day unfair labor practices strike against their employer, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The decision by 35,000 mostly teacher colleagues—myself among them, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)—to refuse to cross SEIU’s picket line led a total of 60,000 workers across two unions to go on strike together, hitting the streets united, and creating one of the largest labor actions Los Angeles has ever seen. In a deepening of the last 13 years of national upsurge among education workers—often called “Red for Ed”—the SEIU members’ strike added a distinctly purple (the SEIU’s traditional color) hue.
Local 99 represents workers in LAUSD without whom schools don’t run, and students don’t get what they need: quality food, clean buildings, well-maintained grounds, individualized attention in classrooms, and more. The Local 99 workforce is overwhelmingly composed of women and people of color, many of whom live in the same neighborhoods as the schools in which they work; almost half have children who attend LAUSD schools. Their average salary is $25,000 per year, but many are systematically denied health care by LAUSD’s not granting enough work hours, 24 percent have reported recently not having enough to eat, and 33 percent have said they have been homeless or at risk of being unhoused while working for the giant public services employer. By keeping their own employees poor, LAUSD, an educational institution, is systematically exacerbating one of the most significant problems in education: student poverty.
Walking an exuberant and rainy picket line, Corey Wilson, a Local 99 member and campus aide at Hollywood High School for six years, said, “I’m striking because I’m broke. I have to drive an Uber, too. And, I still won’t have enough to send my daughter to college.” Wilson, who also coaches track at the school, knows his importance, saying, “I’m proud I’m a role model and a support for students, particularly for young Black men.”
The current strike builds on a decade of increased organizing and militance in public education in Los Angeles. Gabriela Dueñas, a Local 99 member and instructional aide at Ford Boulevard Elementary in East LA, said, “The 2019 LA teachers strike was a huge inspiration to me in going on strike now. I thought of the huge impact that strike had on our schools and our community. It allowed us to see the power we hold.”