GEOFF BENNETT: A massive strike has shut down schools today in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and it's focused on higher wages and better working conditions.
This school strike was not initiated by the teachers, who are still under contract, but some of the district's lowest-paid employees.
Class was canceled in the nation's second largest school district.
School support staff took to the picket lines in the L.A. rain to demand higher wages and better staffing.
CONRADO GUERRERO, President, Service Employees International Union, Local 99: Today, thousands of SEIU Local 99 members are on strike, from the bus yards to the schoolyards, to the kitchens and warehouses.
GEOFF BENNETT: The union SEIU Local 99 represents custodians, bus drivers, special education assistants, and other essential school workers.
Many of them live below the poverty line, on account of low wages and limited work hours, made worse by inflation and L.A.'s high cost of living.
That's why they say they're pushing for a 30 percent salary increase, along with an additional $2 per hour for the district's lowest-paid workers.
PROTESTER: What do we want?
PROTESTER: When do we want it?
GEOFF BENNETT: Demonstrations began at a bus yard at 4:30 this morning, around the same time bus drivers would typically report to work.
Tens of thousands of the district's school workers have now walked off the job.
They have the backing of parents like Jenna Schwartz.
JENNA SCHWARTZ, Parent: We have some of our most underpaid workers doing some of the most challenging jobs on our campuses.
The majority aren't receiving health care.
They have been negotiating for years.
GEOFF BENNETT: The district offered a 20 percent wage increase over a multiyear period, along with a 3 percent bonus and expanded health benefits.
Its superintendent accused the union of refusing to negotiate.
ALBERTO CARVALHO, Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District: Despite our invitation for a transparent, honest conversation that perhaps would result in a meaningful solution, that would avoid a strike, we were never able to be in the same room or at the same table to address these issues.
CECILY MYART-CRUZ, President, United Teachers Los Angeles: The onus is on this district.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) GEOFF BENNETT: Union leaders and many teachers support the strike, calling out the school district for ignoring workers' demands.
CECILY MYART-CRUZ: Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, give respect to the education workers that keep our schools running and our children safe.
GEOFF BENNETT: The walkout is affecting some 420,000 students, disrupting not just class, but meals, counseling, and other social services.
SASHA BERNSTEIN, Student: I think it's not good that we're having a strike, because, like, it shuts down school for a few days, which, like, prohibits some people from learning.
GEOFF BENNETT: The strike is expected to last for three days.
For students that are in need of food assistance, the district has set up two dozen locations throughout Los Angeles County where students and families can grab breakfast and lunch.
For the latest on the strike and the impact, I'm joined by Sequoia Carrillo, who covers education for NPR.
She joins us from Los Angeles.
Thanks for being with us.
And, Sequoia, the union says that the average salary of its members in the district is $25,000 a year, with many of these employees who are now on strike, many of them have worked part-time.
You have been speaking with them today.
What did they tell you about how these demands, if they're met, how it would improve their lives?
SEQUOIA CARRILLO, NPR: So many people that I talked to today had truly heartbreaking stories about working for the district and the sacrifices that they have had to go through, working multiple jobs, some going in and out of homelessness, being evicted from apartments, just due to the fact that there's an on-season and an off-season for a lot of this employment.
And rent doesn't work like that.
So, if you're working part-time, you're working during the school year, you don't get that summer vacation.
You don't get paid during that time for a lot of these positions, or some are even working far less hours than that.
But they love what they do.
These are school bus drivers.
These are special education assistants in some instances.
These are people that are really passionate about what they do, and they want to keep doing what they're doing.
But, at this level, they can't sustain themselves.
GEOFF BENNETT: So, the union is demanding a 30 percent increase in base salary over four years.
The district has agreed to a 23 percent raise over five years, along with bonuses.
Why is what the school district is proposing, why isn't that sufficient for the union?
SEQUOIA CARRILLO: The union here really -- from what I can understand from talking to union members and union leadership, they really see their demands as almost the bare minimum.
They feel like they have been arguing and negotiating over this contract for years at this point.
And with inflation and with the economic downturn kind of looming, they really don't see much wiggle room.
They also have had a kind of tenuous relationship with the district in negotiations recently.
And I think this strike is their last straw.
They really -- they don't want to budge on their position.
GEOFF BENNETT: Sequoia, a three-day strike creates a real hardship for working parents.
As we mentioned, many kids rely on school for meals and for social services.
The superintendent told us today that 75 percent of kids in the L.A. School District are at or below the poverty line.
So tell us more about how the neediest students, how they are going to be accommodated.
SEQUOIA CARRILLO: Absolutely.
This is something that when I spoke with Superintendent Carvalho yesterday, he was very passionate about trying to lessen the impact as much as possible on those students that he's worried about.
The district itself has set up different accommodations for these students.
Some schools are open as kind of safe centers for students to go and do take-home packets that the district has sent out.
Others are serving bagged meals to families, no questions asked.
Whoever walks up and wants something, they will get a meal.
There's also some limited childcare available, although I have been told by some parents that that has been very hard to get on the waiting list.
We have also been seeing a lot of students at the picket lines at these rallies.
A lot of the workers in SEIU Local 99, the union, they are parents of students in LAUSD, and they brought their students with them to protest these working conditions.
GEOFF BENNETT: Is there any reason to think, based on your reporting, that a three-day strike will be the thing that forces the school district's hand and these negotiations?
SEQUOIA CARRILLO: It's really hard to tell at this point.
I really thought yesterday that there might be some resolution, and then that very quickly devolved late last night.
I'm not sure if the three-day strike will be what it takes or not.
But what I do know is that, talking with leadership on both sides, there's a lot of people who want this to be over, who know how much this is taking a toll on the city and on parents and on workers and on students.
And, hopefully, a resolution can be reached by the end of this.
GEOFF BENNETT: Sequoia Carrillo covers education for NPR.
Sequoia, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.
SEQUOIA CARRILLO: Thank you for having me.