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This is what solidarity looks like!

An interview with LA educators

Alex Schmaus interviews UTLA member Thalía Cataño and SEIU Local 99 member Rosalba Romero— both of whom work at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles—about the successful strike in March.

Amassive strike won big in Southern California earlier this spring. Sixty-five thousand education workers and their supporters shut down more than one thousand school sites in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for three days in March.

LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the U.S., serving more than half a million students. The unions that organized the strike, Service Employees International Union Local 99 (SEIU 99) and United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), are two of the most important labor organizations in North America.

SEIU 99, a union that represents teachers’ assistants, playground workers, special education assistants, bus drivers, gardeners, custodians, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers, early care and education workers, and others, initiated the strike. SEIU 99 won a new contract as a result of the strike, one that achieves an average 30 percent wage increase, more hours for part-time special education assistants, and increased access to health care benefits. The new contract was ratified by 99 percent of the thousands of SEIU 99 members who voted on it.

UTLA, a union that represents classroom teachers and other credentialed educators, organized a solidarity strike to honor SEIU 99 picket lines. This kind of inter-union solidarity is itself significant, but UTLA was also able to win a tentative agreement on a new contract for its own members as a result of the strike. The tentative agreement secures a 21 percent raise, added staffing to hire more social workers, nurses, psychologists, counselors, and special education support workers, reduced workloads, increased preparation time, smaller class sizes, and more.

Tempest interviewed two educators who work at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, Rosalba Romero, an SEIU 99 member, and Thalía Cataño, a UTLA member, to learn more about this powerful labor action. The interview predates the tentative agreement that UTLA reached on April 18, 2023.

Thalía Cataño has been a high school social studies teacher for nine years, currently at Roosevelt High School, and is a member of the East Area steering committee for UTLA. She was a first generation college student and worked in immigrant rights in New Mexico and Alabama prior to becoming a public school teacher.

Rosalba Romero has been a classified employee in LAUSD and member of SEIU Local 99 for 25 years. She is currently a campus aide who greets students and families at the front door of Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. She sees herself as the bridge between students and the school and enjoys helping the community she grew up in. She was a picket line leader in the strike and was since chosen as a steward to represent her school site.

Alex Schamus: SEIU 99 and Los Angeles Unified School District management came to a tentative agreement on a new contract the day after a three-day joint strike with UTLA last month. SEIU Local 99 members are now voting whether or not to ratify the agreement. How would you characterize this outcome? Would you call the strike a victory?

Rosalba Romero: The agreement was historic. We won a 30 percent average wage increase, an additional hour of work guaranteed for Special Education assistants, retroactive pay of $4000 to $8000 depending on job classification and years of service, and fully paid health benefits for two groups of members who didn’t previously have it. Of course the fight will continue as the contract negotiations approach but for now yes it was a big victory for all SEIU members.

AS: This strike took place in the context of a nationwide shortage of education workers and a cost-of-living crisis. Can you explain something about the difficult economic conditions faced by education workers in Los Angeles, and how SEIU 99 and UTLA have struggled to address them?

RR: The living crisis for some education workers due to the cost of living here in LA is a daily challenge and of course the strike took a tougher challenge on everyone’s living conditions. As SEIU members and UTLA members on the strike line missed 3 days of no pay. The cost of living has risen without any rise in our check. Some struggle with having to obtain two jobs in order to make the simple necessities for their family, like rent, food, and basic clothing. Everyone’s situation is different.

Thalía Cataño: While nationally we have heard the narrative of the shortage of workers in education, what I feel has been the most impactful were the stories of our LAUSD Local 99 colleagues who on average are making 25k a year, experience housing insecurity and holding down multiple jobs. In learning about these realities, I feel it really contextualized the financial struggle our colleagues are living through daily. I heard from other UTLA members who were shocked to learn this, given that we work alongside our Teaching Assistants, Campus Aides, custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria colleagues on a daily basis. We know how difficult it is financially for us as certificated employees, but in learning about our Local 99 colleagues and their struggles I believe the question of a solidarity strike for UTLA members became a non-negotiable.

AN SEIU Local 99 striker holding up two posters while demonstrating. The first has three check boxes next to three demands, respectively, a living wage, full time work, more staffing with the slogan, “We are worth it.” The second poster reads: “Together we rise” Fair wages now.”

AS: Working conditions for education workers and learning conditions for students have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, its aftermath, and the attendant social crises. Can you explain something about what this has looked like in Los Angeles, and how SEIU 99 and UTLA have struggled to improve working and learning conditions there?

TC: As a UTLA member, I was thankful for my union working to ensure science informed -working conditions during COVID-19 Pandemic, and some of the ones which kept us safe have continued as the pandemic has continued.

We are still living through the pandemic and its aftermath. One of the things I can point to was that UTLA has been speaking on some of the issues COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront: economic struggle of our families with food and technological insecurities (such as providing computers and internet). The push for community schools or the Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) in addressing inequities. The overall shift towards mental health and social/emotional resources for our students, families, and communities.

RR: The impact COVID 19 left has been felt tremendously. One of the biggest things right now is mental health and the drug use by students. The lack of social life and the struggles these kids lived during the pandemic within each household can be seen for every student. Some have bigger impacts than others. This can lead to verbal abuse and disrespect from students, and SEIU and UTLA struggle with holding them accountable.

AS: Can you say something to help explain the relationship between the two unions, SEIU 99 and UTLA, and their members? My understanding is that when UTLA went out on strike in 2019, SEIU 99 crossed the picket lines. So, the joint strike action last month seems like a huge step toward building solidarity between credentialed and non-credentialed education workers in Los Angeles.

RR: The relationship between both unions is solid and strong. It makes me proud to say we are awake and together. Two strong unions have united in solidarity and the feeling of commitment to one another is big and well respected. Yes, in 2019 SEIU members crossed the picket lines. We had no choice, our union had just signed a contract that did not allow us to join. But let’s let it be known that some SEIU members hit the picket lines before our shift and during our lunch – I was one of those employees. The solidarity and guidance has us both as strong unions sticking together more than ever.

TC: We did get support from Local 99 in other ways back in 2019 – some brought us donuts/coffee for breakfast or helped to inform on scabs (mostly substitutes) who had crossed the line. Some came out before their shift started to walk the picket lines at various sites.

This time around we knew we had to strike in solidarity because our Local 99 members have been there working alongside us through the COVID-19 Pandemic. We understand the economic struggle but realize that our Local 99 folks are living in a different reality of surviving in LA with much less. We needed this solidarity strike to show the unity that as workers we will no longer be divided as the district might want. Our struggles are similar and we cannot afford as workers to be divided. Solidary works, I feel more connected to our Local 99 folks and this is a similar sentiment across school sites.

AS: Mayor Karen Bass is a Democratic Party liberal who was elected with the endorsement of SEIU 99, UTLA, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. On the first day of the strike, Mayor Bass recognized the struggles of SEIU 99 members but called the strike “absolutely a disappointment”. The media later gave her credit for brokering a deal between the union and the District. What do you think of the role she and other LA politicians played?

RR: My attention, my focus was in learning and supporting our strike. UTLA and SEIU were building community and focusing on each day of strike. We left the politics out.

TC: I say workers did that! Workers made that deal possible!

Politicians will come and go as each term or political opportunity presents itself. While our unions will support various politicians, we cannot wait for approval or ‘active’ support from these politicians who in the end are self-serving for their own interest. Local 99 with UTLA support pushed for the deal to be made, Carvalho didn’t have a choice because he, the School Board, and the whole country were reminded what is essential for school to function on a daily basis: workers! The workers who interact with our students, their families and communities on the daily. We had Assembly member Miguel Santiago (District 54) who came out for a minute on the picket line to take his photos (as he should since SEIU has supported his candidacy for years). But soon after he was gone and who remained? -the workers.

My question for the majority of these politicians is how many of them are public school parents? If they were, they would know firsthand the economic conditions of our public-school employees. Santiago sends his own children to a private school in another city, so his connection to this strike is solely as a politician who runs on a ‘progressive’ platform like Bass and others. Even some of the school board members really disappointed us during the solidarity strike by coming out weak in support. Many of them are current LAUSD parents but their support was weak or nonexistent -some did attend a picket line but it didn’t feel like they had our backs on this one which as a member is disappointing since our members were out there canvassing for them around elections.

A group of about twenty UTLA and SEIU members and supporters gathered holding posters, ad pickets, beneath a rainbow following rainfall.

AS: SEIU has reached a contract with LAUSD, but [at the time of this interview] UTLA is still campaigning for a contract. Can you say something about where things stand for UTLA?

TC: The district had been stalling throughout this contract cycle. The most the district has moved on bargaining was the time between the March 15th rally at Grand Park and when UTLA announced we would strike in solidarity with Local 99. This is when the district moved the most, in regards to salary increasing their offer to 16%, but also in putting into contract language BSAP and Community Schools. The district’s goal was to incentivize UTLA in order to not get us to strike with SEIU Local 99.

Since our solidarity strike the district has been stalling, they brought nothing to bargaining sessions before Spring Break. Since the solidarity strike UTLA has filed UPCs against the district, most notably the one on the calendar. We are currently boycotting faculty meetings for the remainder of the academic year. This past week UTLA informed the district during bargaining that at our next area meeting we will be talking about taking further action moving forward. Here again the district moved a little on their offer with a 19 percent salary raise over three years, which did not meet our demand of 20 percent over two years and nothing on the lower the numbers for our counselors, PSA or PSW.

RR: Yes, SEIU has a contract for now and we are all verty happy and grateful. We stand with UTLA and are ready to support in whatever way they need. We are two united unions.

AS: What is next for education workers after UTLA concludes this current bargaining cycle with LAUSD?

RR: Once UTLA concludes with their bargaining we will continue to grow as one. SEIU will not drop the relationship we began to cultivate with UTLA. We are grateful and forever thankful; they taught us how to fight. Without UTLA, we SEIU would have never gained anything. As a representative of SEIU, I will work to grow our relationships and cultivate to bigger and better things, TOGETHER.

TC: Whatever happens, some issues will not be fully resolved in this contract negotiation that we need to continually push and hold the district accountable when it comes to their promise such as BSAP, class size, community schools, etc. The example I think of is when they made the decision to defund school police, but that has not actually happened, recently students from Roosevelt HS and Garfield HS were pepper sprayed by school police at the conclusion of a basketball game. These are some of the conversations that will be ongoing after this bargaining session concludes. One thing is for sure, after this year – SEIU Local 99 and UTLA will be working more closely together coming off this historic solidarity strike.

Special thanks to Gillian Russom for help with this interview.

Featured Image credit: Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association; modified by Tempest.

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Alex Schmaus View All

Alex Schmaus is a special education instructional aide at a public middle school in San Francisco. They are a member of the United Educators of San Francisco executive board and the Tempest Collective.