By Howard Blume
A Los Angeles Unified School District move to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour has thrust the system into the forefront of a national movement and marks another political victory for a powerful labor group -- and it's not the teachers union.
The Service Employees International Union, Local 99, represents 33,000 of the lowest-paid employees in the nation's second-largest district, including custodians, teaching assistants, security aides and cafeteria workers. Some made $8 an hour last year.
The union hailed both the local and broader impact.
"This historic agreement sets a new standard for ending poverty in our schools," said Local 99 Executive Director Courtni Pugh. "This will be felt in school districts across Los Angeles and across the country."
With Washington, D.C., stalled in legislative gridlock, the "Fight for 15" campaign, as it is known, has achieved particular resonance in more liberal, diverse cities, where the cost of living frequently is higher.
Seattle has approved a gradual move to a $15-per-hour minimum. San Francisco has put the idea on the November ballot. A group of employers at Los Angeles International Airport has signed on, and city officials are drafting an ordinance that would require larger hotels to pay at least $15.37 an hour.
Such efforts often are spearheaded by locals of Service Employees International.
"This is a giant first step in making sure that school jobs are good jobs," Pugh said. "Mom and Dad can help with their children's homework instead of clocking in for their second job."
Some observers struck a cautionary note.
"Funds that are now going to be redirected to low-wage workers will have to come from somewhere," said Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank based in San Francisco. "Where will that belt-tightening occur? How much effect will that belt-tightening have on children in the classroom?"
He added: "While revenues are better now, it was just a couple years ago that LAUSD ran deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars. With California's economy subject to roller coaster ups and downs, is it prudent to nearly double the wages of these employees?"
The school board approved the pact unanimously. L.A. Unified has benefited from an improving economy and state policy that provides increasing funding to schools with low-income students.
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy strongly endorsed the $15 minimum, calling it "philosophically easy" if "financially difficult."
Through education, "we lift youth out of poverty every single day," he said. The school system must do its part, he added, "to make sure parents are not remaining in poverty."
Board members were unreservedly enthusiastic.
"As our nation struggles with questions about justice and fairness for low-wage workers, LAUSD must lead by example," said one, Steve Zimmer.
Tamar Galatzan praised the contributions of the workers: "You keep our schools clean, you make sure our kids get to their field trips safely and on time, you wipe runny noses, you ensure the transcripts and paperwork go out -- you lead our school communities."
The new contract is a testament to the clout of both the union's campaign dollars and the ground troops it can assemble for an electoral campaign.
Local 99 has scored notable victories in recent years. In 2007, part-time cafeteria workers received health benefits for themselves and their families. Later, jobs and working hours increased for food workers when the district began requiring breakfast for students in their classrooms.
And the district responded to the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut by hiring hundreds of unarmed security aides -- all union members.
"Local 99 is obviously flexing its muscles but in a way that draws political agreement as opposed to being in your face," said Charles Kerchner, a Claremont Graduate University professor who has written about education reform and labor. "This is the part of the wage agenda that seems to have found political resonance over a fairly broad spectrum."
Because these union members often also are L.A. Unified parents, they are regarded as doubly motivated voters who could influence others in school board elections. Local 99, an alternative union power base to United Teachers Los Angeles, is carefully courted by school board aspirants and incumbents.
Last year, the local helped Monica Garcia remain in office despite teachers union opposition. The group also aided teachers union ally Zimmer, who staved off a well-funded challenge.
The teachers union, which has about the same number of members, has long had the reputation of being the most powerful employee group. But cash-strapped United Teachers Los Angeles sat out some school board races to save money and made strategic blunders in some others, said union supporters and critics alike.
Teachers union leaders praised Local 99's contract breakthrough even though it could result in less money available for raises for instructors, who have yet to conclude contract talks. The teachers union is seeking a multi-year pact with a 17.6% raise.
About half of Local 99 members were making less than $15,000 a year; more than half earned less than $15 per hour. During the recent recession, many workers also had their hours reduced, often in addition to pay cuts from unpaid furlough days. Despite the raise, they'll remain among the district's lowest-paid, in part because many do not work full time.
In the current deal, workers already earning more than $15 per hour will get a 2% raise this year, followed by annual raises of 2% and 2.5%.
By the time all promised wage and hour increases are phased in, the district will be paying nearly 19% more to Local 99 members than it did in the school year that just ended.
The $15 plan takes effect in stages. The minimum rose to $11 an hour last week. The rate will be $13 next year, and will hit $15 on July 1, 2016.
The pact was one of several approved Tuesday by the school board.
If the teachers negotiate a better deal, some of the already-approved employee contracts contain a "me too" clause that allows those union members to receive the same.
The Local 99 pact also has a new evaluation clause. About 500 workers will take part in a new, more detailed performance review, which will include employee input, Pugh said.
Some low-wage district employees who are not part of Local 99 are not affected by this agreement, but could receive similar terms when their union finishes its negotiations.
"This is a wonderful day," said Andre Smith, a campus aide at Fremont High for 19 years, after the board vote. "We've had a struggle for the past years, but today is the good day -- to finally have our voices heard."
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