Seventeen-year-old Zoe Garner grabbed the microphone and led dozens of students in a chant on the steps outside the downtown offices of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, Car-val-ho has got to go,” she boomed as she moved to the beat, referring to LAUSD Supt. Alberto Carvalho.
While they may not have been in class during the three-day strike of school support staff and teachers, these students got a real-time civics lesson on the state of labor relations and the role of activism in the nation’s second-largest school district. And as they return to school Friday, many will have newfound awareness of the financial pressures facing custodians, food workers, teacher aides and others who serve them every day.
The workers are members of Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union who walked out for three days this week to protest unfair practices by the school district during labor negotiations. United Teachers Los Angeles also walked out in solidarity, forcing the 420,000-student district to close campuses.
Local 99 is pushing for a 30% wage increase over four years and $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid employees. The workers make on average $25,000 a year, which employees say has become untenable as housing and other costs skyrocket.
Students who attended a rally Wednesday said they were not fully aware that many of the workers at their schools face financial precarity. They said they were moved to show up on the picket line during the strike.
“They help to feed us, but they can barely afford to feed themselves,” said 16-year-old Matisse Anderson at the rally.
Their support of the strike is not surprising — a recent Gallup poll found support for labor unions in the United States has reached its highest level since 1965. An analysis from the Center for American Progress also found that support for organized labor is highest among Gen Z, the generation that includes teenagers and those in their early to mid-20s.
The analysis found that young workers have spearheaded successful labor campaigns across the country, including at Starbucks outlets and an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island.
Those at the rally in Los Angeles belong to Students Deserve, a coalition of students, parents and teachers who have also campaigned to remove police officers from schools and led efforts to improve campus experiences for Black students and others from other marginalized communities.
Matisse, a student at Alexander Hamilton High School in Castle Heights, said he inherited his sense of social responsibility from adults in his life.
“Teachers and parents nowadays also fight for human rights.” he said. “We see what’s going on. It’s our whole job to carry out and finish what they started.”
Jailynn Butler-Thomas, an 11th-grader at Susan Miller Dorsey Senior High School in Crenshaw, said she views the labor union’s fight as linked to students’ fight for more resources such as mental health support and funding for efforts dedicated to addressing educational inequities that disproportionately hurt Black students.
“The only way for us to get what we’re fighting for individually is unity and to stand with each other,” she said.
Melanie Juan Cruz, a student at Los Angeles High, said staff workers are the backbone of her school. She is particularly close to a campus aide who she said motivates students and creates a warm environment. The 11th-grader said she spotted the aide on the picket line earlier in the week.
“When I walk into my school, I feel a lot of support. And that’s not from administration,” she said.
The student support energized Jsané Tyler, a parent and family center director at Hamilton High who belongs to SEIU Local 99.
“It was powerful to see them standing up for us,” she said. “We’ve always supported them, and I know how they feel, but to see them come out in the numbers that they did … it melted my heart.”