LOS ANGELES — As rain pummeled the sidewalks and wind bent back umbrellas on Tuesday morning, Bartui Merchain, a pool clerk, arrived at her job at a recreation center, her children in tow.
She had left her 14-year-old son at home, but her workplace east of downtown Los Angeles suddenly had become an impromptu child supervision site for Mindy, 9, and Israel, 8.
Ms. Merchain, 36, had learned only the day before that school employees and teachers were going on a three-day strike, facing off against administrators in the nation’s second-largest school district. It would mean no classes for the district’s more than 420,000 students — news that many children seemed to greet with glee, though a number of parents felt blindsided.
“My son told me, ‘There’s no school Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,’” Ms. Merchain said. “This really caught us off guard. Definitely. It’s not something that they prepared us for, like, for two weeks. They just straight up dropped it like a bomb.”
Across Los Angeles, the normal school week gave way to disruption on Tuesday. Children tagged along with parents, were sent to recreation centers or stayed with relatives. Teachers and school employees hit the streets, where they hoisted signs of outrage and chanted for better pay and working conditions.
The strike began on Tuesday morning with bus drivers walking a picket line outside a Los Angeles Unified School District lot where they normally would be starting their routes. The union that represents 30,000 teachers’ assistants, bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers is seeking a 30 percent pay increase, and union leaders say their members are paid not much more than the minimum wage as living costs surge in Southern California.
“We need a fair living wage,” said Jovita Padilla, 40, a bus driver who was among those protesting in a rainbow of ponchos.
Ms. Padilla, 40, had arrived at the bus lot in Van Nuys, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, at 4 a.m. She asked for the day off months earlier to celebrate her 15-year-old son’s birthday. But years without a raise had made her determined to show up for the strike.
She said she often felt invisible in an industry that tends to praise teachers.
“Everybody else gets raises, what about us?” she said.
At a time when support for organized labor is at a high, strikes by teachers and education workers have become increasingly common. Add to that high inflation rates and competitive pay in the private sector, and public employees have felt the need for drastic change.
“No one wants to see kids out of school,” said Maura Contreras, a special education assistant at an elementary school. “But we now must take this step.”
Ms. Contreras, 45, said some of her co-workers were holding down several jobs to make ends meet. Her own salary barely helps pay for her three-bedroom apartment, she said. She splits the $2,800 rent with her husband and father, who both work as gardeners.
“There have to be changes in pay,” she said. “We are unseen by the district.”
Alberto M. Carvalho, the district superintendent, had for days publicly lamented the consequences that a strike would impose on students and families ensnarled in a dispute that was not theirs. He appealed to union members by pointing out the classroom hours lost during the Covid-19 school closures, saying that students “cannot afford to be out of school.”
Negotiations remained at a standstill on Tuesday, and, with classes scheduled to resume on Friday, the situation in Los Angeles did not seem to have the same sense of urgency that accompanies strikes that could go on for weeks.
Instead, parents and local leaders focused on figuring out how to muddle through the three days. The district hustled to put together contingency plans by setting up supervision sites where students could be dropped off for the day, as well as locations where families could pick up three days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches for students.
Mariam Sultani, 40, was among the steady stream of parents who lined up at a food distribution site on the Eastside to pick up grab-and-go boxes of food for her two daughters. She was handed two half-gallon containers of low-fat milk, cereal, oranges, bags of cookies, containers of hummus, small bags of carrots and other snacks.
“The free food does help. It’s one thing less we have to buy while the kids are out of school,” said Ms. Sultani, who sells knickknacks at outdoor swap meets to make money but mostly stays at home with her children.
Ms. Sultani said she supported those on strike.
“Let’s say they have a family with children, that’s not enough to support an entire family. They need a little more money for the work they do,” she said.
By noon on Tuesday, thousands of workers had convened outside the district office near downtown. Their spirits high, they gathered in groups as the sun peeked through the clouds.
Among them was Hugo Montelongo, 52, a special education assistant who has worked for the district for more than two decades.
“We worked through the pandemic and we were supposedly heroes,” he said. Often, he said, employees are living paycheck to paycheck.
The strike is one of the first major challenges for Mr. Carvalho, who became the Los Angeles superintendent in February 2022 after having served as the head of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 75 percent of students and families live at or below the federal poverty level, closing schools is detrimental for students still working to bridge the learning gaps incurred during pandemic school closures, Mr. Carvalho said in an interview.
“They depend on schools for stability, routine, for safety, for protection, but also for food in addition to good education,” he said.
Max Arias, executive director of the union, assailed the superintendent and his salary of $440,000.
“I don’t think he has the moral authority to walk around blaming our members for the schools being closed or the learning loss that may happen,” Mr. Arias said.
He noted that the last contract expired in 2020, during the early days of the pandemic when his workers were on the front lines helping feed students at lunch pickup sites even as schools were closed.
The union remains steadfast in its demand for a 30 percent overall raise; an additional $2-an-hour increase for the lowest-paid workers; and other increases in compensation. Local 99 said its workers made an average salary of $25,000 a year. The district has said that the figure includes part-time and full-time employees.
A counterproposal from the district, announced by Mr. Carvalho at a news conference on Monday, included a 23 percent recurring increase and a 3 percent cash-in-hand bonus.
When the district publicly announced what was supposed to be a confidential mediation on Monday, the union declared it was ready to strike.
The union must first exhaust all of the bargaining steps required before it may legally protest over wages. This strike is technically in protest of unfair negotiating tactics by the school district — and such stoppages are required by law to be limited in duration.
Los Angeles Unified, however, believes the union has put economic issues front and center and it unsuccessfully asked the state to block the planned strike.
In 2019, the union that represents about 35,000 Los Angeles Unified teachers held a six-day strike. At that time, Local 99 conducted rolling sympathy strikes so that the schools could remain open to students, although they acted more like drop-off sites and classes were not held.
The teachers’ union, which is also currently negotiating its contract, walked out on Tuesday in solidarity with the support workers. Both unions have fought with the district over acceleration days, which are intended to give students extra support but cut into scheduled school vacations.
For Griselda Perez, a parent volunteer at Hollenbeck Middle School on the Eastside, the strike is a teachable moment.
“When there’s no resources and your voice is not heard, you have to strike,” Ms. Perez told her sons, 9 and 11. “We have to go through hard things in order to understand, and make changes.”
Ms. Perez, 51, has gotten to know the cafeteria workers, custodians, teacher assistants and other support staff. She was appalled at how little they were paid.
“They are seen as second-class citizens,” Ms. Perez added. “They take care of our schools and they’re taking care of our kids. Their work should be valued more.”