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How a tight labor market has made way for educators to strike

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Los Angeles Unified School District workers and supporters rally outside LAUSD headquarters on the first day of a strike over a new contract on March 21. Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Los Angeles is home to the country’s second-largest school district, and this morning educators there are on day two of a strike.

The people striking include cafeteria workers, teaching assistants, custodians, and other workers — along with teachers demonstrating in solidarity — who make schools run. One reason they’re striking now: the tight labor market.

Cars honked their horns and workers cheered as they marched near an LA high school on Tuesday.

52-year-old Matilde Hernandez, a special education assistant for the district, was among them.

She said people don’t understand the role she plays with high school students.

“I get to be the last teacher, the last person for them to learn something,” Hernandez said. “Maybe not learning to write or read, but maybe something social that’s going to help them in the life.”

Hernandez’s union, SEIU Local 99, is calling for pay increases, more full-time work and increased staffing.

Across the country, the median pay for teacher assistants is under $30,000 annually.

Yet strikes among educators who aren’t teachers, “I think in recent times, it hasn’t been common at all,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Rosenfeld points out that the tight labor market and the offer of higher wages from the private sector gives these public sector workers new leverage.

“A kind of dispute in LA such as this speaks to the power that low-wage workers have actually gained in the last two years,” he said.

The LA Unified School District says it is offering opportunities for career growth and significant pay increases.

Rosenfeld said whether we see strikes like this in other districts depends on how tight the labor market continues to be.

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