Union actions have become a familiar site in Santa Monica over the last few months, but the location for this picket is less familiar. Yesterday, two dozen members of SEIU 99 picketed outside of the Michigan Avenue gate of Samohi demanding a new contract and better wages. SEIU represents food service workers, bus drivers, custodians, special education services assistants, health office specialists and other essential education workers

“Those of us who contribute to student learning at SMMUSD should be respected with a livable wage,” said Henry Plascencia, a skilled maintenance worker at SMMUSD schools and an SEIU member. “Seeing the students I help through my work learn and achieve is the best part of my work…but the district has been stagnant in (in new wage offers) and only offers empty promises.”

Yesterday’s picket was peaceful and non-disruptive. The picket started at 3:15, after the school day ended. Parents picking up students had no issue navigating around the picket that was on the sidewalk away from pickup/dropoff area. Many offered supportive honks or raised fists. Students wandering past would also smile and offer a thumbs up. The picket followed a similar action outside of the SMMUSD Board of Education meeting earlier this month.

Negotiations between SEIU and SMMUSD have been ongoing for years, and SEIU has been working without a contract for the last two years. SMMUSD has been offering small regular raises, if funding is available, but the raises are much lower than what SEIU is aksing for and there are other issues that need to be ironed out….including a guarantee that the promised increases happen,

Chief among them, SEIU wants salaries that will make it possible for members to live in, or close to Santa Monica. Plascencia commutes 26 miles each way every weekday, costing him hours of commuting time. A similar demand was and continues to be made by hotel workers with Unite Here! in the ongoing hotel strikes…that raises need to rise to the point where workers can afford to live in, or near, the communities where they work.

In addition to the salary issue, SEIU has other demands including an end to layoffs, more hours for support staff to help them qualify for higher benefits and improved working conditions.

Jessica MacLaren is also an SMMUSD employee and SEIU member who does live in Santa Monica…in her parents house with her partner, children (SMMUSD students) and parents. MacLaren is the exception to the rule when it comes to living near her work for SEIU 99 members.

“I support SMMUSD. I vote for their ballot measures. My kids go to SMMUSD schools,” she explains. “We want our employers to show us respect. Raise us in to fair wages and give more hours to long-term employees.”

MacLaren charges that the district doesn’t offer enough hours to some staff to qualify for benefits while paying agencies up to $75 per hour for support staff that works next to SEIU members who work side-by-side with them. She described yesterday’s gathering as an “unprecedented gathering.”

“Instead of hiring to meet our staffing shortage, they are subcontracting out at higher wages,” she continued.

For its part, SMMUSD maintains that they have a good relationship between the district office staff and both its teachers and service workers. Last year, in the wake of a three-day SEIU strike against LAUSD that was joined by the teacher’s union, district leadership noted in an article at Next that SMMUSD has never experienced a strike similar to the ones that rocked its neighborhing school district in 2023 and 2019. This year, it released a statement on the status of labor negotiations.

SMMUSD continues to negotiate in good faith with our SEIU bargaining unit through the interest-based bargaining process. We respect the voices of our classified staff members. We continue to listen to expressed interests as we collaboratively work through this process in a manner that has worked successfully for all groups in prior years. 

But if yesterday’s picket is any indication, the cordial relationship SMMUSD is portraying may be tested in the coming months. Picketers were chanting threats to “shut it down” should their demans not be met.

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