Over 400,000 LA students out of school as massive worker strike continues: ‘We need higher wages’

Classrooms on Los Angeles Unified School District campuses remained empty Wednesday as a planned strike by thousands of service workers continued — with no new negotiations in site. The district announced Wednesday night that schools would remain closed Thursday, as the strike enters its third day. 

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99 entered the second day on strike and began picketing at the Gardena Yard at 4:30 a.m. 

The workers — including cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education assistants and others — are joined in solidarity by about 30,000 members of the UTLA union. Both unions are seeking new contracts with the LAUSD, but only the SEIU has called a strike.

"The message that we’re trying to send today is that we need higher wages. The cost of living here in California, we are not receiving enough money," Loretta Pointer-Powell told Good Day LA.

Powell is a school bus driver who has worked for the district since the 1980s. 

RELATED: All LAUSD schools closed as thousands of employees continue 3-day strike

"We haven’t received a cost of living wage increase in years, and we need more money just to sustain our lives," she added.

LAUSD bus driver Loretta Pointer-Powell. 

The average salary is $25,000 for the workers on strike.

"That’s just not enough. People work here at the district, and we have contract companies that are making more money than we make," Powell said. "We have people that work here that have to get second jobs just in order to live because they are not making enough money."

LAUSD officials said they've offered a 23% salary increase, but the union is asking for 30%.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: LAUSD strike: What you need to know about school closures, resources available

"The union doesn’t want to take anything less than the 30% because we deserve it," Powell said. "As the bus drivers, we feel like we are not respected, and they don’t give us what we need."

She said she empathizes with parents but said the strike is necessary. 

"Well parents, we are sorry. But we have to be out here to fight for what we need. If we don’t come out here for this fight, we’ll never get anything. Hopefully, the district can give us what we’re asking so we can get back to work and get our babies back to school because our children depend on us."

Officials speak out: ‘Those are poverty wages’

"Let me be clear, the district has approximately between a $13 billion and $14 billion budget a year," SEIU Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias told the crowd at the rally. "Out of that budget, it spends between 5% and 6% on payroll for 40% of the workforce. That's negligible."

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, joined workers at the rally Tuesday, saying the service workers should not be earning "poverty" wages.

"The median income of our bus drivers and our cafeteria workers and our school aides is $25,000 a year," he said. "Who can live on $25,000 a year? Those are poverty wages."

UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz had fiery words for LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, accusing him of short-changing workers and refusing to bargain privately with workers, and saying the district had ample time to negotiate a fair deal but failed to do so.

"He makes more than the President of the United States of America at $440,000," she said. "Bargain with the members."

Other protesters gathered outside Carvalho's home Tuesday, wearing clown costumes and makeup and dancing to circus music, while demanding higher pay.

Max Arias, Executive Director of SEIU Local 99, said Wednesday that Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass had stepped in to help with negotiations.

"Education workers have always been eager to negotiate as long as we are treated with respect and bargained with fairly, and with the Mayor's leadership we believe that is possible."

LAUSD responds

LAUSD Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho issued a statement Tuesday morning again saying he and the district remain prepared to return to negotiations at any time "so we can provide an equitable contract to our hardworking employees and get our students back in classrooms."

"I understand our employees' frustration that has been brewing, not just for a couple of years, but probably for decades," he said.

"And it is on the basis of recognizing historic inequities that we have put on the table a historic proposal. This offer addresses the needs and concerns from the union, while also remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the district in a financially stable position."

According to the district, the LAUSD last week made an offer that included a 5% wage increase retroactive to July 2021, another 5% increase retroactive to July 2022 and another 5% increase effective July 2023, along with a 4% bonus in 2022-23 and a 5% bonus in 2023-24.

On Monday, Carvalho said the district sweetened the offer to an overall 23% salary increase, along with a 3% "cash-in-hand bonus."

RELATED: LAUSD Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho discusses planned strike

As the strike unfolded, the LAUSD offered free food distribution for families on Tuesday morning at designated sites, providing three days' worth of meals.

The strike is the first major labor disruption for the district since UTLA teachers went on strike for six days in 2019. That dispute ended in part to intervention by then-Mayor Eric Garcetti, who helped spur labor talks at City Hall and broker a deal between the district and union.

Available resources for families

The district on Friday announced the creation of a website that will "provide resources for families during the work stoppage period" from Tuesday through Thursday. According to the district, the site has information on "learning activities, Grab & Go food locations, tutoring services, enrichment activities and cultural opportunities across Los Angeles and Los Angeles County park locations that will provide free youth programs." The district also established a hotline at 213-443-1300, operating between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The LAUSD also partnered with the LA City Department of Recreation and Parks to offer "Every Body Plays" sites.

"This is really a time when kids and families are really under a lot of pressure. When they come to an ‘Every Body Plays’ site, they can de-stress, and most of all, just have fun and connect," a representative told Good Day LA. 

In addition to the park programs, the Los Angeles Zoo will be offering free admission for students. The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County will also offer students free admission as long as the strike persists. The Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance is offering free admission to LAUSD middle and high school students and chaperons during the strike.

City News Service contributed to this report.