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The Los Angeles schools superintendent discusses the labor strike

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here in Los Angeles County, public schools are closed today. Basically, all of the support staff that keeps these schools running - people like custodians, the cafeteria workers, the bus drivers - they are on strike fighting for wage increases and respect, among other issues. Many of these workers earn less than $25,000 per year, and many work part-time schedules. Their union is now in mediation with the school district, and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho joins us now. Welcome.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: Good afternoon. Thank you so much for having me today.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So tell me, what has your day been like so far? Like, have you seen any of these picket lines yourself at the schools or at the bus depot in Van Nuys? Have you talked with any of the strikers?

CARVALHO: I actually have. You know, I - we had a closed session with the board today to iron out some of the issues and refine some of our final proposals, and that's done with our school board. But before that, I was actually on the streets. I went to a food distribution. We set up dozens of sites to distribute food to our students, considering the level of poverty in our community, where 75% of our kids really depend on the free breakfast, lunch and snack that we provide in schools.

So I was out there in the field. I met a lot of volunteers. I came across some of our valuable, indispensable workforce members who are currently picketing. And, look, I understand their frustration. I understand the hurt, which goes back many, many years. We are a new team that, quite frankly, is trying to rectify some degree of historical injustice when it comes to compensation for some of the lowest-wage earners in our community.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about some of these people that you call valuable members of your team. These people on strike - I mean, these are the workers who've been on the front lines throughout the pandemic, cleaning schools, keeping kids safe and fed. And a lot of them say, you know, all of this - it comes ultimately down to respect. And I want to play for you some remarks from Conrado Guerrero, the president of the Local 99 chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which is the union that's on strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CONRADO GUERRERO: Enough of the disrespect. We refuse to be invisible. We refuse to be silenced. We are ready to fight, and we are proud to be joined by teachers who are striking in solidarity with us.

CHANG: Tell me, how can your district show these workers that they are valued - that they are respected?

CARVALHO: I think that's the most important question that we have to answer. So we have been at the table. And because of those historic injustices and inequities specific to compensation - and, in my opinion, disparate treatment - that is why we initiated this battery of negotiations with a historically high compensation proposal, which, right now, is at 23% across the board for these employees, in addition to a 3% bonus, cash in hand, in recognition of their efforts, with additional runway, meaning additional resources to put on the table to continue to negotiate.

At no point in the history of LAUSD has there been that level of offer, nor am I aware of any type of contract settlement in the state of California or across the country that would reach that level. I think that is the strongest definition of respect, particularly for those people who earn very little in one of the costliest cities in the country...

CHANG: Absolutely.

CARVALHO: ...Where the cost of housing, the inflation...

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, because we're not only going to be talking about the support staff. The teachers' union is also negotiating a new contract this year. Last time they did this was in 2019, with one of your predecessors.

CARVALHO: Correct.

CHANG: And if you'll recall, teachers went on strike, with broad support from the public. So how are you going to avoid a second strike this year?

CARVALHO: Well, I think we need to recognize where we are and how far we can go, considering also a very stark state of economic reality, where the forecasts are not very positive. The difference between 2018, '19 and today is that, right at the beginning, our first offer to our teachers represented by UTLA is far higher than what it was back in (inaudible). In 2018, teachers went to strike on a 6% demand. We, right now at the table, are significantly above that percentage demand, in addition to a whole host of workplace conditions that I think are favorable to our teachers. So the conditions are different, and we are...

CHANG: OK.

CARVALHO: ...Right now in meaningful conversations and negotiations...

CHANG: Well...

CARVALHO: ...With the teachers' union.

CHANG: ...We will have...

CARVALHO: We want kids to be in school.

CHANG: ...To leave it there. Thank you so much. That is Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

CARVALHO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Sarah Handel