School workers and teachers in Los Angeles are poised to go on strike for three days starting Tuesday, shutting down schools and forcing about 430,000 students to stay home.
The strike would be a significant show of educator activism, the largest this year so far—but likely not the last. Experts say that teachers’ unions in large urban school districts are becoming increasingly militant as educators push forward both pocketbook demands, like salary increases, and broader social initiatives.
SEIU Local 99, the union that represents 30,000 cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, and other employees in the nation’s second-largest school district, is seeking a 30 percent pay increase, more full-time hours, and paid training, among other demands. United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union that represents another 30,000 educators and is separately in the middle of contract negotiations, is joining the strike in solidarity.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has offered the school workers a 5 percent pay increase for this school year, another 5 percent increase for next school year, and additional one-time bonuses both years. Certain high-demand workers—including nurses, counselors, and special education teachers—would receive additional “market-driven” pay increases.
Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who has helmed the Los Angeles Unified district for a little more than a year now, has called the proposal “historic;" the unions disagree, arguing that the district has threatened and harassed workers for engaging in union activity.
In 2019, Los Angeles Unified teachers went on strike for the first time in 30 years. Educators picketed for six days, fighting for pay raises, smaller class sizes, more support staff, and commitments from the district to invest in social initiatives, such as the creation of community schools and the elimination of random searches of students. That expansive approach to contract negotiations, known as bargaining for the common good, secured support from the community—and the strike was largely successful.
That strike was also part of a historic wave of teacher activism in 2018 and 2019. There were statewide work stoppages in a half-dozen states, as well as additional big-city teacher strikes in Chicago and Denver.
The pandemic temporarily halted the labor turmoil, but there’s been a resurgence of activism over the last year. Minneapolis teachers went on strike for three weeks last March, and this school year brought teacher strikes in Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, as well as several other smaller districts. Support workers, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers, have also gone on strike.
To understand how the Los Angeles strike fits into the broader landscape of teacher activism and what might come next, Education Week spoke to Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies teacher strikes. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How does this strike compare to the 2019 teachers strike in Los Angeles?
The conversation is again about educator wages—this time initiated by SEIU, but I don’t think it should be lost that UTLA is also is the midst of bargaining negotiations and has been pushing for a 20 percent raise for teachers. These economic conversations have carried over from the 2019 strike.
But this strike differs in a few key ways: For UTLA, it’s a sympathy strike, and that is legal under California law. UTLA won’t essentially face any punishment as a result of engaging in a strike, because they’re doing so in sympathy with another union that has alleged unfair labor practices, which is one of the allowances for sympathy strikes.
From a bargaining negotiations standpoint, though, this allows UTLA to essentially go on strike without having to declare it themselves. I think it allows them to put pressure on their current collective bargaining negotiations without having to go through the full impasse process in those litigations to declare a strike.
SEIU and UTLA have sometimes differed publicly in their positions regarding school board members and whatnot. They’re not always in agreement with one another, which is another reason why this strike is somewhat interesting. But because UTLA is in the midst of these new bargaining negotiations, they can hop on board and support SEIU while at the same time putting pressure on their own negotiations.
Could UTLA initiate another strike as those negotiations continue?
There very well could be another strike following. It puts Superintendent Carvalho in a tricky position to want to wrap up both the SEIU negotiations as well as the UTLA negotiations without another disruption in schooling.
What makes this strike work is the fact that UTLA is willing to walk out in sympathy. Schools may have still shut down if just SEIU was picketing because of the need for bus drivers and cafeteria workers to make all of the important things that schools do work. But it makes it even more forceful that UTLA is joining, and I think it signals down the road that, “Hey, we could still walk out if you don’t also meet our salary demands.”
How does what’s taking place in Los Angeles connect to the national picture of teacher activism?
I think we continue to see the trend of progressive union caucuses in large urban school districts using more militant tactics to push forward bargaining for things. UTLA, [the Chicago Teachers Union], Minneapolis—those unions continue to garner a lot of the attention, and it’s because their more progressive caucuses have maintained power and are increasingly militant in their efforts to put forward worker demands.
You’ll see that, among all of those unions, the scope of collective bargaining has expanded beyond just your typical bread-and-butter [demands for] wages and working conditions. The traditional union militant tactics of strikes are increasingly being used by these groups as an effort to bring forth these new negotiation ideas.
Could we see a return to pre-pandemic levels of teacher activism, such as state-wide walkouts?
Some of those walkouts in 2018 were a response to governor and legislative changes in red conservative states. I think what we’re seeing Republican governors do now is engage in essentially state-level negotiations with labor groups—not formally, but informally. In states like Utah and Florida, you’re seeing governors propose substantial salary increases for educators while at the same time passing these more controversial privatization bills that would face a lot of opposition from labor groups.
I think we’re seeing governors and state legislatures respond to some of those  walkouts and saying, “Well, maybe there’s a different way we can go about bringing about some of the reforms we would like to see, while at the same time avoiding the large-scale walkouts.” Whether or not that works remains to be seen. But I think for the short term, we’re going to see mostly bargaining negotiations strikes [in districts], and Republican governors try to offset unpopular reforms with their labor groups by also offering salary wage increases at the state level.
How much power do teachers have right now, given the concern over shortages?
In general, teachers’ unions and teachers have more bargaining power when it’s more difficult to find teachers. And that’s certainly the case right now. And then I also think district budgets are in a tricky position. Right now we’re coming off of a substantial federal investment in education, but of course had some strings attached with that pandemic-related funding. At the same time, a lot of urban school systems are dealing with declining enrollment, so they’re losing funds at the same time.
You have a murky budgetary picture coupled with rising union power as a result of shortage situations, which could strain collective bargaining negotiations. I think we’ll see more of those local-level conflicts between locals and school districts, and less so of the state-level walkouts that we saw in 2018 and 2019, unless state unions grow increasingly frustrated with Republican-related reforms related to vouchers or [parents’] rights.