More than 30,000 support workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District walked off the job for three days last week. Shortly after they returned, their labor action bore fruit: a tentative agreement with the district for pay bumps, cash bonuses, and investments in professional development and training.
The strike drew attention from national media outlets and solidarity from teachers in the district who joined the walkout.
This latest high-profile labor action, which prompted three days of closed schools for the 430,000 students enrolled in the nation’s second largest district, highlights the power of workers in schools to get concrete results from drawing attention to challenging working conditions and low pay, longstanding features of these crucial positions.
Schools can’t operate without cafeteria workers, bus drivers, instructional assistants, and teacher aides. But their average annual pay often falls well short of the lowest-paid teachers'—and even sometimes below the federal poverty line.
One cafeteria worker in East Orange, New Jersey, told the school board there earlier this year that the district’s food service contractor pays him less than $20 an hour after 40 years of service to the district, the local news outlet Patch reported. The cafeteria workers are among Sodexo employees around the New York City area who authorized a strike earlier this month—meaning their union now has the option to call a strike.
Similar frustrations recently boiled over for school workers in Hastings, Minn., where three dozen cafeteria workers were on strike since early February. They spoke publicly about juggling multiple jobs, lacking stable housing, and generally feeling underappreciated for the grueling work they took on since the pandemic upended school operations.
That strike ended March 24. The union reached a tentative agreement with the districtthat includes $800 bonuses and some modest pay increases for workers.
But the advocacy continues. The workers’ union, SEIU Local 284, said in a statement that it plans to push the state legislature to fund pay increases. “There should not be tax breaks for the wealthy while hourly school workers around Minnesota, like the Hastings food service workers, are in crisis,” the statement says.
Here are a few takeaways from these strikes:
There’s more than one way to launch a strike
The Los Angeles support staff union announced in advance that its strike would end after three days. In the past, some educators, like teachers in Oakland, Calif. in 2018, have used that approach to gauge how the public might react to a longer-term strike, or to signal the union’s serious intent to the district without taking more drastic steps, said Melissa Arnold Lyon, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Albany who’s extensively studied the last decade-plus of K-12 school strikes.
The Los Angeles strike “was largely successful in gaining public support and positive media attention from what I have understood, and so both of those factors are going to help the workers’ bargaining position and also increase their ability to credibly [threaten] to strike in the future,” Lyon said.
In Hastings, meanwhile, workers announced they would strike indefinitely until they reached an agreement, putting pressure on the district to respond.
Labor activism in education shows few signs of waning
Seven school districts have seen workers strike so far this year, according to the Labor Action Tracker from the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations. A number of other educator unions recently have raised concerns over the outcomes of bargaining, or signaled that a strike could be forthcoming.
More could be on the horizon. Teachers in the Woodburn school district in Oregon have raised the possibility of a strike next month if the majority-Latino district doesn’t address concerns over pay and benefits. And last Friday, the first full day after the Los Angeles strike wrapped up, more than 100 teachers in Oakland, Calif., took off work in what’s known as a “wildcat strike”—meaning their overall union didn’t authorize the action. The protest of recent staff cuts and low pay disrupted instruction for some students and could represent a step toward a full strike.
Districts often struggle to meet strikers’ demands because of spending constraints based on the amount of local tax revenue and state aid they receive to fund key priorities like compensation, instructional materials, technology, and utilities. That’s one reason these disputes recur every few years.
Teachers aren’t the only school workers striking to get their points across
Recent strikes in Los Angeles and Hastings, Minn., offer a reminder that teachers are far from the only workers in K-12 schools using collective action to call attention to the challenges they face on the job.
These support positions often pay, on average, less than $35,000 a year. School cafeteria workers nationwide made an average of $13.87 an hour in 2021, according to the most recently available federal data. That’s below the current minimum wage in a handful of states and Washington, D.C.
Nearly 90 percent of school support workers who answered an EdWeek Research Center survey last year said they believe their work is critical for student learning. Less than a quarter said their pay is fair for what they do. Slightly more than a third said they have a second job. Close to one in five said they had sold or pawned items they wanted to keep in order to pay bills.