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Analysis: Settling L.A. strike causes future problems while trying to solve past ones

Mike Antonucci | April 3, 2023

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If you’ve ever read a science fiction story, you know the dangers of time travel. Someone returns to the past and alters something that completely remakes the present and the future, usually with disastrous effect.

So it went last month with Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Carvalho was forced to shutter schools while the district’s 30,000 support employees, led by SEIU Local 99, went on a three-day strike. Members of United Teachers Los Angeles walked out in solidarity.

The day after the strike ended, Carvalho and the union announced a tentative agreement. The three-year deal raised salaries by a reported 30%. Carvalho called it a “precedent-setting, historic contract.”

It’s historic, in the sense that most of it takes place in the past.

The agreement contains a 6% pay hike retroactive to July 2021, another 7% retroactive to July 2022 and yet another 7% to take effect this July. In January 2024, the district will raise all support employee wages by $2 an hour. The district and the union both say this constitutes another 10% increase for the average employee.

Nevertheless, it’s not the amount that’s going to cause headaches for Carvalho, the school board, parents and students in the near future. The district and the union weren’t oceans apart on the money before the strike occurred. Where Carvalho went wrong was in the timeline of the settlement.

Lost in all the happiness and relief about the contract is that the strike supposedly wasn’t about wages and benefits. Such a walkout would have been illegal, since the union hadn’t completed all the procedural steps before calling a strike. SEIU did so to protest the district’s alleged unfair labor practices.

SEIU accused the district of interrogating workers about union meetings and threatening to fire them if they walked out. The union even claimed that food service workers were locked in a cafeteria to prevent them from voting on a strike. Taking these accusations at face value, the district could not have prevented the strike, short of admitting it had committed these violations.

The strike might end up being deemed illegal anyway. An unfair labor practices strike is legal if unfair labor practices have occurred. These haven’t been adjudicated, and if they’re found to be baseless, the union will be penalized.

But it won’t matter. The reality is that the walkouts prompted Carvalho and the board to settle on the union’s terms. So what happens to the district’s future?

There isn’t going to be much of a lull. “Carvalho has been put on notice that he better move on our demands,” read an email from the teachers union to its members. “If that movement is not enough to settle the contract that UTLA members deserve, we will move to the next round of this fight.”

The union wants a 20% raise over a two-year contract. But the contract expired in June 2022, so the two years are this school year and next. It’s clear the teachers aren’t reluctant to strike, and SEIU Local 99 will be sure to back them up. So we might see a repeat of last week’s actions, only this time it will be the teachers union organizing an unfair labor practices strike, with SEIU striking in solidarity.

Carvalho might be able to head it off by caving early, but the reprieve would be only temporary. The new contracts would both expire in June 2024, right about the time all federal COVID subsidies will have run out. How much labor peace will Carvalho be able to buy then?

He seems unaware of his impending fate. “This agreement’s going to make a lot of superintendents very nervous,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

We’ll see who is the most nervous superintendent a year from now.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays at The 74.

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