At the beginning of this month, Los Angeles substitute teacher Irene Pineda didn’t know much about the politics surrounding a possible strike by LA teachers, but she was preparing to cross the picket line if she had to.
The 26-year-old was set to start a plum assignment for a substitute—three to four months covering for a teacher who was on maternity leave—and the work was sorely needed. She hadn’t been called in to substitute for all of December, leaving her in a serious financial jam. In exchange for stepping in when 30,000 teachers walked off the job, the Los Angeles Unified School District offered Pineda a huge raise: $42 an hour, up from $31.
“I really couldn’t afford to miss a day,” she told Splinter on Sunday night, as she let what she said were frantic phone calls from various schools in the district go straight to voicemail. (She said that she expected them to stop at 8 that night and start at 5 the next morning.)
But a meeting earlier this month changed Pineda’s mind. It was put together by United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents LA teachers, and was specifically geared toward convincing substitute teachers, whom the district was planning on relying on to keep schools open during the strike, not to cross the picket line.
Teachers are striking over the need for smaller class sizes and the continued privatization of the country’s second-largest public school system, as charter schools (supported by a newly installed Walton Family-funded school board) continue to siphon students and space from public schools, depriving them of state funding amid declining enrollment. (The district contends it simply does not have the funds to hire more teachers and drastically reduce the maximum size of classes.)
At that meeting, led by teachers whom Pineda had worked with and respected, she realized that her own future as an educator was inextricably linked to the battle that full-time teachers were preparing to wage.
“They helped change my perspective by explaining all the things they were fighting for, including things that would help me if I chose to become a full-time educator, like smaller class sizes and just getting the district to spend money on hiring more teachers,” Pineda told Splinter.
One of the teachers who reached out to Pineda was Rebecca Flynn, a high school history teacher who had substituted herself. She knew that substitutes were being targeted by the district, which made it that much more important to reach out to the ones she knew would be needing the work.
“We had to have some hard conversations about what union solidarity means,” Flynn told Splinter from the picket line on Tuesday. “We had to ask them to make sacrifices and show them that if the subs didn’t also strike, the teachers would not be nearly as powerful a force.”
And so Pineda walked. In the pouring rain on Monday morning, she marched with thousands of other teachers in the first strike by Los Angeles teachers in 30 years.
In the lead-up to Monday’s strike by the teachers and support staff, the LAUSD hired 400 new substitute teachers in addition to its existing roster of substitutes. Those new hires were meant to supplement the 2,000 re-assigned administrative staff that aren’t part of the teachers union in trying to somehow manage and maybe even teach the 600,000 students in the school district.
The district has not released any official numbers for how many substitute teachers showed up on Monday, but two students who were being picked up by their mother outside the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus in Koreatown shortly after 10 a.m. that morning told Splinter that no one had been supervising their classroom of over 50 students. Others reported that a scattered few adults were on hand to oversee mostly empty auditoriums of students. LAUSD said that only about a third of students attended school.
“They had us watch Black Panther and then write a summary of it,” said one student, who reported that he wasn’t going to come back to school until his teachers returned.
Screenwriter Matthew Long, 51, never even considered crossing the picket line. The son of two public school teachers, he’s been subbing in Los Angeles for 10 years.
“I’m one of the struggling artists out here, you could say,” Long told Splinter. “But that segues into the subbing because one of the reasons this works for me is because of the flexibility.”
In addition to that flexibility, subbing provides Long with something that creative professionals often lack: healthcare. One of the ways that UTLA has looked out for the district’s substitute teachers is by guaranteeing that if a substitute teaches for 100 days a year, and at least one day a month during the school year, they qualify for the same healthcare plans available to full-time teachers.
In the days leading up to the strike, teachers reached out to Long to offer him a “sick day” during the current pay period (which spans a month), to make sure that his healthcare remained active in case the strike were to prevent him from getting his needed day of work.
At Rebecca Flynn’s school, several teachers took “sick days” so that substitutes could have healthcare during at least the first few weeks of a prolonged strike.
“They’re looking out for us,” Long said.
Others aren’t so sure, though. Paul Nasser, who teaches guitar and writes music in addition to subbing for the past five years, told Splinter that he felt left out of any conversations that the union might be having with substitutes. He even considered crossing the picket line at a school different from the one he normally teaches at, to avoid seeing teachers that he knew.
While he admitted he’s benefited from the raises that the union has secured, he said he wished that substitutes, given how central they are to the school system, were given more of a voice in the union.
“I don’t feel like I know what’s going on,” Nasser said. “[There are] other substitutes that are trying to take more of a proactive role, having meetings where we can talk about work.”
Still, after seeing the press that the strike was getting, and eventually how the union had zeroed in on demands for smaller class sizes and more teachers, Nasser stopped considering scabbing altogether.
“I understand that by working I would be directly harming what the teachers would be doing,” Nasser told Splinter.
Others haven’t been able to withstand the pressure from the LAUSD. Long said a pregnant substitute teacher had admitted to her that she just couldn’t go without pay for that long. Pineda spoke with two other substitutes, a married couple, who were figuring out which one of them would be the one to cross the picket line. Neither wanted to do it. Unlike full-time teachers, there’s no strike fund that substitutes can tap into.
“The short term stinks, but hopefully this doesn’t go on too long,” Pineda said.
Long, whose cat is having health issues, said he hoped there was a quick resolution, and that he could only afford to miss three or four days of work at most. For now, he said he still felt like the strike was the right decision for teachers, both full-time and substitutes.
“I think something really good could happen out of this,” he said. “We can end up with a really strong union... This is not only an indicator of what’s going on right now in this country, but what can happen.”
Max Rivlin-Nadler is an investigative journalist whose reporting has appeared in outlets such as the New York Times, the New Republic, the Village Voice, The Appeal, and Gothamist.
Scott Heins is a photojournalist and reporter based in New York City.