by Martin Barrera, California Senior Workforce Equity Coordinator
As a former high school teacher in Los Angeles, I have been reflecting on the ongoing strike by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99. I feel for the educators and support staff of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the continued struggles they have year after year in creating nurturing communities for the youth of L.A. to learn, grow and connect with one another. Although my personal journey in K-12 education predominantly was spent at a charter school (often seen as opposition to existing district public schools), our common struggles with funding, understaffing and lack of resources connects us and gives me insight into their current situation.
During my nine years teaching in Northeast LA, I saw how hard every member of our school community worked to create safe, accessible and beautiful schools where our students felt respected, loved and appreciated. Janitors doing their best to clean more rooms than they can handle. Teacher’s aides and special education assistants struggling with a lack of hours or low pay, forced to work several jobs to make do. Cafeteria workers spread thin and expected to go beyond their job description to assist with school duties. And of course, teachers doing their best to provide students with optimal learning opportunities while underpaid, understaffed, overworked and underfunded.
As someone who considers themselves a lifelong educator, the reason I walked away from the traditional classroom setting is because of the extreme burnout that follows when you are doing your absolute best for your students, but it is never enough. What these education workers do is no short of miraculous and may feel magical, but behind the experience are real human beings struggling everyday to make ends meet, which is not sustainable. I can attest to the exhaustion one feels when you do so much, only to receive crumbs and have our big hearts used against us when we ask for what we need.
Because of the growing obliviousness to the sustainability of our current situation, workers turn to their biggest weapon against an employer that refuses to listen to their workers: the union.
As a former union member of the California Teachers Association (CTA), I am proud that the CTA has supported UTLA and SEIU Local 99 in their efforts to exercise their worker power to pressure LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the US, to listen to their reasonable requests. Ensuring people are paid what they deserve and have the resources needed to do their job is not unreasonable, but can be understood across every sector of every industry. This is what the teachers and school support staff are fighting for.
And to those who think it is selfish to strike at the cost of students going to school, I urge you to see this as a last resort effort. Many teachers and school workers have kids themselves, so not going to work means their already-struggling financial situation is tested even further. But they understand the importance in the long run to ensure education workers have the resources they need to keep going—otherwise LAUSD is setting up their system to crumble.
I stand in solidarity with these educators and school support staff. Our students, teachers, and school workers deserve better from LAUSD and hopefully this strike will create a path for better conditions in our LA schools.