Who are the Los Angeles union members who are on strike?

If a light bulb burns out at the preschool where she works, Bernice Young climbs up a ladder to change it. If pitch trees shed their leaves, they come out with leaf blowers. She wipes bathroom stalls and washes classroom rugs. For generations 2- to 5-year-olds who call her Miss Bernice, I’ve brought blankets for naps and Cheez-Its for snack time.

She said that after 23 years working as a preschool nursery from Hollywood to South Los Angeles, her pay went from $10.01 an hour to $18.86 an hour. It’s barely enough to pay the $2,000-a-month rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

“My hands are bad. My knees are bad. My legs are bad. But I come to work every day,” said Young, 58, who works at Esther Collins Early Learning Center on 52nd Street in South L.A. “I love my job but the pay is so bad it was horrible for many years.”

Bernice Young, 58, a longtime custodial worker with LAUSD, at the Service Employees International Union, Local 99 headquarters on Saturday.

(Brian Van der Brugh / Los Angeles Times)


In Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, she’s part of a wide range of employees—from bus drivers to teacher assistants and food servers to janitors—who serve schools in the background and are in many ways the essential workers for campus operations. Its 30,000-member union is preparing for a three-day strike on Tuesday as they seek higher wages, and teachers will join them in solidarity.

With most staff expected to leave, the district is keeping 420,000 students off campus and providing no direct instruction, though all staff will be able to report to their work locations.

Young’s union, the Domestic 99 International Service Employees union, is pushing for a 30% wage increase plus an additional $2 per hour for the lowest-paid workers.

On Friday, the district upped its offering to Local 99, offering a continuous increase of 19% over three years and a one-time 5% bonus to those who worked in the 2020-21 school year. The county also launched a final legal effort late Friday with California labor organizers to stop or block the strike, but it’s unclear if the decision will be made in a timely manner, and there are no negotiations scheduled before the strike date.

The teachers union, which is also in the midst of contract negotiations, is seeking a 20% wage increase over two years and is negotiating for a wide-ranging list of initiatives, including extra support for black students and affordable housing for low-income families.

The closures took parents by surprise, prompting them to look for daycare or take time off from work. Teachers send home packages of homework and computers. The school district and community organizations are making plans to feed the tens of thousands of children who depend on the schools for most of their meals during the week. Los Angeles City and County Parks departments organize activities and supervision throughout the day.

Young, who works as a union strike leader, has a full-time job and health benefits. But she stays regularly after her eight-hour shift to finish the day’s chores and is determined to do what it takes to improve working conditions.

She said, “You are being taken advantage of.” She is always on her feet. “All day, honey, every day. I sit when it’s my lunch time, my rest time. Otherwise, all day.”

She said she hoped the strike would send a message.

“We don’t want to live in poverty all our lives,” she said. “The wages, that’s a big problem – working too long and not making anything.”

    John Lewis speaks with colleagues as he arrives at the Gardena bus yard

John Lewis speaks to colleagues as he arrives at the Gardena bus yard at the end of Friday.

(Gina Ferrazzi / Los Angeles Times)

At age 56, John Lewis has been driving school district buses for 34 years, a job that now earns him $34 an hour. His yellow six-wheeled bus climbs into the large Gardena depot at 5:30 a.m. and boards at 5:30 p.m.

On his current route, he picks up and drops off about 50 students from Bancroft Middle School and Fairfax High School. He was assigned to some students for six years, leading them through childhood to the cusp of early adulthood.

“I love what I do. I love being around kids. We’re the first person they see in the morning and the last person they see when they get off the bus,” Lewis said. “To see them grow up, it’s amazing. … It’s not like we want to cut short their education, but we have families and we want to be respected and make a decent wage.”

The median wage for the Local 99 unit that includes bus drivers, custodians and food service attendants is $31,825. The median annual wage for educational assistants, including special education, is $27,531. Teacher assistants earn an average of $22,657. After-school program workers earn an average of $14,576.

About 24,000 members of Local 99 work less than eight hours a day, and about 6,000 work eight-hour jobs. More than 10,000 members of Local 99 do not get health care coverage through the school district.

Crowds of Los Angeles union workers for a dollar gather in Grand Park.

Los Angeles uniformed teachers and staff hold a joint rally in Grand Park.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Sean D — she didn’t want to use her last name — works at Dorsey High in South Los Angeles as a representative for the Black Student Achievement Program.

Until this year, she worked 19 years as a community and parent representative at Bradley Elementary, making about $16 an hour. Both jobs involved a little bit of everything – a common theme among the 99 local workers who used to fill in the gaps for what was required.

“Sometimes they just need words of encouragement,” she said of her students. “Sometimes they just need to hear people — or just talk and we listen. Some of these children are suffering and you can’t send a child to see if they are hurting.”

She remembers a 10-year-old boy who came to school after his 31-year-old mother was murdered.

She said, “I took this boy in my arms as if he were an infant, sitting at the nurse’s desk, rocking him, for he was unable to work that day.” “It was very shattered.”

At Dorsey, you welcome students in the morning. Later in the day, I addressed the needs of black students.

“I reached out to the parents. I talk to the kids,” she said. “We also give clothes or whatever the kids need, if they don’t have shoes or jackets or something like that.” There’s no budget for this, but people will donate money or you’ll buy things. out of her own pocket.

She said she feels bad that the students will miss school. “It will affect them.” But union work is important to preserving the livelihoods of those who wish to work in public schools.

Of her role, she said: “I do this because I love children.” But she tells her college kids—who grew up watching their mother take second jobs to make ends meet—”Don’t go into education. And that sounds bad, I know. But I didn’t want them to go through the struggles.”

For 24 years, Peniana Arguelles has worked as a Special Education Assistant in Los Angeles public schools.

At Menlo Avenue Elementary School in South Los Angeles, Argylls are feeding kids who can’t hold a fork. She changes their diapers, helps them choose colors for their paintings, and hugs them when they cry.

Arguelis, who has worked as a Los Angeles USD special education assistant for 24 years, said she considers herself blessed and “loves her job and her students.” She has no teaching credentials but serves as the teacher’s right-hand man, working with children with disabilities and special educational needs.

She and her other teaching assistants said their withdrawal was about respect. They are among the lowest paid workers in the region. Assistants who have worked with disabled students start at about $19 and can earn up to about $24 an hour. But they said their workload was becoming unsustainable.

Argylas is particularly annoyed that the Los Angeles Unified School District is asking her to do more work outside of the classroom duties she is assigned – helping extra students with assignments and leading calming exercises with them.

“She wears two hats with the same salary,” she said. “not fair.”

Kyle Sanchez, 35, works at the Rosa Parks Learning Center in North Hills with 18 special education students in a divided fourth- and fifth-grade classroom. He said the class is just “too big” for him and results in “many hours off the clock.” He wants higher pay, but he also wants to reduce class size and help.

“We’ve reached the point where we need to do something,” Sanchez said. “We need more employees, more money and some respect.”

These TAs said the public does not understand the work their members do to keep schools running.

Sirius Castro, 35, a “proud product of LAUSD” and a graduate of Roosevelt High School, said the extra work for special education teachers and assistants is a given.

Castro created an on-campus photo club specifically for students with special needs at Elizabeth Learning Center, which he says provides “opportunities for children to express themselves through photography.”

“Just going too far now seems to be expected,” Castro said. “We love our kids and our school but at the end of the day, we need a living wage. We love Los Angeles, but we also have to be able to live here.”