LAUSD Strike highlights the growing challenges of life in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — As of Tuesday, Diana Cruz has been juggling her stay-at-home job as an executive assistant with caring for her children after the Los Angeles school strike forced to cancel their classes for three days.

Ms. Cruz earns $36,000 a year and raises her two daughters and teenage son in a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, sharing the $1,700 rent with her mother.

A few miles away, Yolanda Mims Reed earns about $24 an hour as a part-time special education assistant at Hamilton High School. She supplements her income by taking care of and doing her elderly woman.

Parents like Mrs. Cruz may have been taken aback by the strike, but few are angry with the strikers like Mrs. Reed.

The parents see their lives reflected in the struggles of the bus drivers, cafeteria workers and classroom assistants who line the picket lines – working-class residents who take on multiple jobs to survive in Southern California.

“If you’re not making huge six-figure salaries, yes, then it’s hard,” said 33-year-old Ms Cruz. “How can you not support their cause?”

The strike sharply illustrates the economic divide in modern Los Angeles, where low-wage workers can barely afford to pay their rent, while affluent professionals in the area are willing to shell out $13 for a coconut smoothie. In this case, the working-class parents of the school district and the school staff are on the same side of the divide.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the nation, relies on tens of thousands of staff struggling to keep up with rising costs in a state short of housing. Most of the families they serve are in the same boat, with 89 percent of households in the district qualifying as economically disadvantaged, according to district data.

Housing is the largest expense for people living in the Los Angeles area, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Residents spend 38 percent of their annual spending on housing, compared to the national average of about 34 percent, the agency said.

“The high cost of living in Los Angeles permeates every aspect of life, often forcing low-income residents to make impossible choices between basic needs such as housing, security, health care and food,” said Kyla Thomas, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. . Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research. “Many in LA are living on the brink of crisis.”

LABarometer, a questionnaire The Dornsife Center conducts to monitor social conditions and attitudes in the region found that about 60 percent of local tenants had ‘rent burdens’, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing.

Griselda Perez, 51, said her family struggled to pay their $2,000 rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Her oldest son, 20, shares a room with his two younger brothers, 11 and 9, who attend district schools. Every day, she said, the family feels the pressure of gentrification as more higher-income people move east from downtown.

Ms Perez said she tried to explain the strike to her sons by comparing their situation – they can’t afford birthday parties and trips to Disneyland – to the challenges faced by the people who work in their schools.

“When I see the cafeteria workers, when I see the lady at the front door, when I see the lady working in the parent center, we talk mother to mother,” she said. “The struggles they have are the same struggles we have.”

The strike continued on Wednesday with picket lines at schools and campus facilities, including at the district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. School support staff joined the district’s 35,000 teachers in the work stoppage. The strike is expected to end on Thursday.

The Local 99 branch of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 30,000 Los Angeles Unified support workers, said half of members who responded to a 2022 internal survey said they had a second job.

The union also said its members earned an average of $25,000 a year — a figure that Los Angeles Unified officials said included both part-time and full-time workers. The full-time salary average was unclear.

The union noted that 64 percent of its members were Latino and 20 percent black. The families they serve are also predominantly Latino, at about 74 percent, reflecting broad migration and population trends.

Austin Beutner, who served as the ward superintendent during the coronavirus pandemic, said the vast majority of parents understood the plight of Local 99 members because they lived in the same neighborhoods. He said the six school principals he spoke to on Tuesday said they saw overwhelming support from parents for staff members.

“The intersection of school staff and community is tight and close,” said Mr Beutner. “They are the community. So many of them have relatives at school or neighbors at school.”

Local 99 leaned on that support and tried to frame its contract struggle as a fight for low-wage workers across Los Angeles. And parental support – for now – could help bring the union to the negotiating table.

Workers are aiming for an overall raise of 30 percent, as well as an additional raise of $2 per hour for the lowest-paid workers. The members of the union have been working without a contract since 2020.

Alberto M. Carvalho, the current district superintendent, in a statement Tuesday acknowledged “historic inequalities” that workers had faced.

“I understand the frustration of our employees that has been brewing not just for a few years but probably for decades,” said Mr. Carvalho.

School districts cannot generate revenue as quickly as private sector companies from price increases during an inflationary period. The Los Angeles District relies on funds determined at the state level, and after years of growth, California is expected to face a deficit in the coming fiscal year.

The district has responded to this with a wage increase of 23 percent, spread over several years, and a one-off bonus of 3 percent. Mr Carvalho said the latest proposal was designed to meet the union’s needs “while remaining fiscally responsible and keeping the district in a financially stable position.”

At a time when public support for organized labor is high, strikes by teachers and teaching staff are becoming more frequent. Faced with rapid inflation and the prospect of higher private sector wages, civil servants are in need of drastic change.

“Everyone gets a raise. What about us?” Jovita Padilla, a 40-year-old bus driver, said Tuesday.

In a high-poverty district like Los Angeles Unified, school closures not only halted teaching, but also crucial school meals. The district provides free breakfast and lunch for everyone, regardless of income, and many children depend on those meals during the school week. As negotiations stalled, the district took its stand supervision sites where working parents could drop off children, but also locations where families could pick up for three days breakfasts and lunches.

Gabriela Cruz, a ward parent who is not related to Diana Cruz, stopped by one of the distribution sites this week and picked up a box of food, which she said was a big help. “My kids have to eat every day and the free food is good for us because we spend a lot on groceries,” she said.

Ms Cruz, 44, said working as a receptionist at a real estate agency on the first day of the strike was not easy. She had to take her young daughter and son to work.

“The truth is it was hard to work,” she said.

Her family of five depends on her part-time job that pays her $15 an hour. She works 30 hours a week. Her husband works full time in a restaurant and is paid minimum wage.

“Everything is so expensive,” she said.

Reporting contributed by Shawn Hubler from Sacramento, and Corina Knoll And Ana Facio Krajcer from Los Angeles. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.