30,000 teachers, 40,000 custodians and 2 college students

Adam Novak
4 min readMar 27, 2023


Sirens were blaring. People were yelling. Noise machines I had never heard before were noising. A crowd of thousands of teachers and custodians, gathered to assert that they weren’t being compensated right. Right across the street was the town hall of the LA government. The employees had made their voice clear: give us our demands or the schools will be next week.

As college students from a comfortable background, Kevin and I never had a reason to attend a labor rally. It wasn’t until an uptick in news of successful unionization efforts in the US that we become interested.

As an extension the Social Good Incubator at USC, Kevin and I are trying to build public interest technology. We had learned about labor unions through plenty of academic papers and news reports, but we wanted to hear from ordinary people living that reality.


Teachers from United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and school staff from Local 99 were rallying to build support for their upcoming strike. Although two separate unions, they came together for solidarity since they work for the same employer.

Through our dozens of conversations, we found that it was really the school staff from Local 99 — janitors, custodians, bus drivers, and the like — that initiated the strike. Local 99 hasn’t had a labor contract for over two decades. They’ve now been at an impasse at the bargaining table with the government for over a year.


The most common complaint was wages. One Local 99 member hadn’t received a raise in over two decades. Another told us she was going to receive a 20% pay cut next year. On the whole, these anecdotes corroborate the statistic that a large number of education staff live in poverty.

Lower wages hurt even more when:

But it’s not just low wages that are challenging — it’s low hours. Another custodial, Pauella, told us that she just works 30 hours per week. She wants to work more hours to receive benefits, but the job is capped at 30 per week. She’s forced to work another job to make ends meet.

For Pauella, she’s afraid that when wages go up, her hours will go down.

Feedback & Transparency

To solve these financial troubles, headlines say the union wants a 30% pay raise and more money allocated to the classroom. But is the union asking for a 30% raise across the board, or just for employees who aren’t making enough? Not all teachers need a pay raise. An AP Chem teacher with a masters degree in a nicer county in Los Angeles can easily make a comfortable 6 figures. The employees who struggle the most should benefit the most from a new contract, but how can they be sure that happens?

I don’t personally know what exactly the union wants to bargain for at the table. The thing is — neither do the employees.

When we asked union members how they can give input to their union, here’s what they said:

  1. Google forms. Every so often the union will reach out to survey the members.
  2. Union reps. Every week, the employee rep for the union will report back, and in some cases gather, information from the members for the union.
  3. Zoom forums. Every month the union gathers together for an hour or two to give informational updates. This is more a stream of outgoing information than one of incoming feedback.

A number of people at the rally echoed that it’s difficult for them to know how and if their demands are being represented at the bargaining table.

Better feedback cycles and transparency could exist between those at the top and bottom of the union — those who are bargaining and those who are being bargained for.

Better feedback and transparency wouldn’t help unions overcome their major obstacles like anti-union consultants, distributed workforces and union-unfriendly US labor law. But it would certainly ensure that union members feel their voice is heard and demands at the bargaining table benefit those who need it most.



Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology