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Why L.A.’s Education Workers Had No Choice But To Strike

Striking Los Angeles Unified School District employees and their supporters, including teachers, rally outside LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 21, 2023 during the first day of a three-day strike. At the center of the photo, a person is holding up a sign. It reads: "Mortgage: $$$$ Food: $$$$$ Utilities: $$$$$ My pay: ¢¢¢¢¢¢"
Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Yolanda Mims-Reed is a special education assistant at Hamilton High School, a public school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where she spends almost every moment of her work day, except for a few breaks, by the side of a student who has epilepsy. "Because there's no warning before she has a seizure," Mims-Reed explained. "She could fall at any moment, so I have to stay at her side all day." That is not her only responsibility. She works in a classroom for students with learning disabilities, so she also provides help to anyone who needs it.

"I've done one-to-one almost my whole time with LAUSD. And every child I get out there, they're my child. From the moment I get them, I'm responsible for their life. Their life goes before mine," Mims-Reed said. "So that's what I do. And I love to do it. I love kids. It's the only thing I want to do in this world."

She calls her job her life's work. There is nothing else she wants to do. Except on her current salary, that's impossible.

Mims-Reed said her current salary is probably somewhere between $24,000 and $26,000 a year; meanwhile, the state estimates that the median income in Los Angeles County for a family of four is $91,000. Mims-Reed's salary falls squarely in the range the government calls "extremely low." Like many of her fellow education workers, Mims-Reed works multiple jobs outside of her LAUSD job.

So it makes sense that Mims-Reed and tens of thousands of her fellow education workers—from the bus drivers to the cafeteria employees to the special education assistants like herself—want a raise, specifically a 30 percent wage increase plus a $2 per hour "equity wage adjustment," along with other demands. They have asked for this through their union, SEIU Local 99, during contract negotiations. The district, and its superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, have refused to fully meet this demand. This refusal, among other issues, is what precipitated a massive strike across L.A. this week, shutting down the second largest public school system in the country. The strike lasted three days, ending Friday.

I spoke with Mims-Reed about the strike, why it was necessary, how she makes ends meet, and why she hopes district leadership will finally realize how valuable they are. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

What is this strike about?

Our strike right now is actually a ULP strike for unfair labor practices. Unfair practices is bullying, harassing, threatening, intimidating, and questioning. Telling people that they if they go on strike they're gonna lose their job, the district is going to retaliate and take away your health care, you shouldn't go on strike [because] you'll lose your position, we'll take away your bus hours. I personally know people that have been locked in freezers by cafeteria managers. This is what this is about. We deserve our respect.

We also deserve our fair pay, but we deserve our respect more than anything. All these kids are in our hands every day. You know, we make sure these kids go back home to their parents the same way they came. We deserve much more respect and the way a lot of us are being treated, talked to, bullied, and harassed—it's got to end. So that's really what it's about right now.

(SEIU has repeatedly said that, during bargaining and the strike vote, LAUSD "subjected workers to surveillance, intimidation, and harassment." Defector Media reached out to LAUSD for comment on any bullying and harassment taking place, including people being locked in refrigerators, and LAUSD responded by sending this link to all their prior press releases. Previously, per the Los Angeles Times, LAUSD officials "have either denied wrongdoing or are still reviewing more than a dozen allegations filed with state labor regulators.")

Why did you and your fellow union members ultimately feel like you had to go on strike?

A lot of us are in the same boat, a lot of us work more than one job. You could probably take a survey, almost everybody in the district has to work another job. We all work more than one job. We're all tired. We don't get to spend time with our families. We're tired of kids complaining about us not being permanent. Like, OK, you're with me today but you will probably be with somebody else tomorrow because we're short-staffed. We need more staff. We need cleaner schools. We need more building and grounds people because bathrooms have to be locked on campuses, and kids are not allowed to use them because there's no one to clean it—and that's not fair, especially for the kids that are not mobile enough to get to the other bathrooms.

I want our kids to have clean restrooms, more staff, more people to look out for them and care for them. We need, we deserve our pay. We're not asking for nothing other than what's fair to us. And what's fair is to bring us at least to the poverty line or something.

That's so sad that that's the bar we're talking about though, right? We're like, could you bring us up to poverty?

That's a sad request! But we want our 30 percent plus our $2 [equity wage adjustment]. We want what we want, and it's only fair.

I've worked in a unionized newsroom, so I know it's not a step you take lightly when you go on strike. I would imagine this involved a lot of tough conversations.

Before, we were getting a little raises that add up to like 10 percent, 5 percent, 3 percent. It's been ridiculous. It's high time we got brought out because the economy is constantly going up and our pay is constantly staying at the same spot. And it's hard to survive. We love our state; we want to live here. We want to be in California. This is where I was born and raised.

I heard an interview with another education worker who said she had family doing the same job as her in Nevada for more money.

Yeah. And a lot of them went to Arizona for more money.

Right and, like you said, this is your home state. This is where you want to be.

I know other school districts, and they make a lot more than us too. I won't call them out but LAUSD is the second largest school district in the nation. We deserve fair pay. It's just sad, it's sad.

I know about Carvalho. I know about how he handled things in Miami. So I was wondering, how do you feel about how Carvalho has handled the negotiations?

I have not been a part of any negotiations, but the fact that he does not understand—and everyone else in the room can understand why we need this—is just, I don't know. It's amazing to me that you can't think that clearly we need this when you are making more than the president of the United States.

How does that make you feel? I know I've seen talk about Carvalho's pay and the billions in reserves.

LAUSD has got almost $5 billion in reserves, and he keeps talking about how that's not enough money. No, no, no, no, no. You guys are getting 174 percent raises up there. You got a $90,000 sign-on bonus, sir. (Carvalho is paid $90,000 more than his predecessor.) Come on. We don't deserve our little 30 percent in comparison to your 174? Come on! ... And it's only fair. We're not asking for something outlandish: Oh, we want 174 percent too like you guys got. No. We want our 30 percent, and we deserve it.

(NBC Los Angeles asked LAUSD to explain why it couldn't use the billions in reserves to help pay education workers more. The district responded with a graphic, but even the graphic said that $140 million were unassigned. When NBC asked why the unassigned dollars weren't considered, LAUSD did not give any sort of meaningful answer.)

I've seen some of this language, and the L.A. Times even ran an editorial saying what about the children. I would imagine you have heard some of that too. How do you respond to folks who just, for better or for worse, that's their go to?

My response would be: What about the children? What about all the furlough days they gave us? ... We have to feed these children in LAUSD as well; my grandson lives with me. So, if they cared so much about the children, they would do something about those furlough days and all that stuff. And let me tell you something—after what we do, if we get what we want—the children will benefit so much more than what these three days are doing.

Right. And this also in an opportunity to teach children about the importance of worker solidarity and valuing people.

Let me tell you this, too. It's the day before the strike. I'm the steward for SEIU. Another person is the steward for UTLA [the teacher's union] at my school. So we were talking. Off to the side, a baby with special needs walked over to us, and we both looked at her, and she said: Hey, sweetie, can I help you? And I said: Yes, what do you need? She said: I just want to say it's not the teachers. It's not the staff. It's not the school. It's not even administration. It's the district and they need to pay you guys. Then she went and sat down.

I was at a protest this morning and a child led the chant. He just started chanting. And everybody started screaming with him. And it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life. I absolutely loved it. And when I went to the next site, there were more children. We went to the west, there were just rows of children and dogs screaming out there with us. The children are fine. The children want what we want. The parents want what we want. And it's only what's fair.

What's been the feedback from the community so far?

That's actually the school I was at where a student led the chant. And he wasn't even a student at Hamilton. He came with his mom, and he was in elementary school. He was a little boy, sweetest thing I've seen. He started chanting while we were standing there talking and, next thing you know, we're all screaming with him. It was just beautiful.

How key is it that the teachers are joining you in this strike?

I love that the teachers have joined us. I love it. I consider it reciprocity, but I consider it respect—a sign of respect—showing that our teachers respect us just as much as we respect them. And every teacher, every time I go out to a strike site, every teacher comes to me and says: We are so with y'all. We need y'all to get what y'all want. Because we'd never realized until they put that number out that this is what you guys are being paid.

We don't discuss pay in workplaces and stuff like that, because it's just not politically correct. But now that it's out there, everybody is like, Oh my god, is this what you got? Yeah! We come in here getting thrown up on, changing diapers, helping with feeding, helping kids in therapy, everything. We do this out of the love of our hearts. We definitely aren't doing it for the pay. It's time that we are compensated enough. It's been too many years, it's been too long. We're drowning out here. Having to go to work and keep on a happy face because we don't want to the drag kids into our misery. We don't want to tell the other staff and get sympathy from them through our misery.

So we've been putting on a happy face. But now our smiles are turned upside down.

Is it a relief? Now that everybody knows?

Thank God, the secret is out. Because we never spoke about it even with other negotiations of our contract. We never spoke about what we make. But now it's like a big secret is out. And everybody knows. And everybody sees that this has been bad for a while, but we made it this far. We made it this far with the conditions we've been in and we're tired. We're tired and hungry, girl!

You said you thought about another job and cried for two weeks. Why did you have to think about that? I would imagine it was because of what's led to the strike right? It had to do with your pay. And I know the rent goes up every fricking year.

Every year and our pay does not. So it's impossible. Homelessness. Hungriness. All that makes me want to change my job, but it breaks my heart every time I think about it.

What are some of the other jobs that you do to make up for the lack of pay you're getting from LAUSD.

I am a caregiver, so I take care of an elderly lady. I do that, and I also do hair and makeup. And I own an online boutique which I have not been able to pay any attention to.

Right! You're a little busy!

I'm not going on there doing anything until we get this strike together.

I'm tired just hearing to everything you have to do.

I tell people I'm tired but I have no option but to keep going. I've raised kids while working for this district. I have a grandson that's in this district that lives with me. I have to keep going. ... It's already expensive enough in California, but trying to survive while living under the poverty level? Come on. We all qualify for poverty everything. That's sad! And we work for the second-largest district in this nation.

That must be so frustrating:

It is frustrating. It just feels like they don't get it. And like I said previously to another person, give them a couple of days of doing what we do. Just walk with me every day at work for a couple of days and see what I have to do. And maybe you would understand how valuable we are. Imagine that we disappeared from the campus. I always tell people that on the days when we wear purple to support our union. Just imagine all that purple had disappeared at the school. What would the school be? We're valuable, and we should be treated as such.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I'm really passionate about this. I love what I do. Like I said, I wouldn't want to do anything else in the world. And any any child that I've ever been around can tell you that this is not a joke. This is me. I still communicate with my kids that I've known from elementary that have babies now. I'm their kids' grandmother now, you know what I'm saying? I love what I do. And everybody that I've been around and that I work with, in all the schools that I've been through, they love what they do. They're definitely not doing it for the pay.

Do you feel like the district has taken advantage of that? The love you and your colleagues have for what you do?

Yeah. It's like, they're not gonna do anything. They, they love this. They're not gonna let anybody else deal with these kids. And in my heart, I don't want anybody else to be with these kids ... Just pay us what we deserve, just pay us what we deserve and everything will just go away. People will be lining up for these jobs. We'll have more staff. It'll be beautiful. I can just see it. It's going to be so beautiful.

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