Column: He helped LAUSD’s most ‘invisible’ workers go on strike, but Max Arias isn’t done

Southern California’s latest storm didn’t dampen the spirits of over 300 workers who gathered in front of a school bus yard in Van Nuys before dawn on Tuesday, the first day of a planned three-day strike.

Standing at the edges of the picket line at 4:30 a.m., Max Arias beamed.

“I’m inspired by them,” said Arias, the executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 99. He wore Adidas sneakers, blue jeans and a black hoodie jacket that kept his silver-framed glasses dry from the cold rain pounding down on the picketers. “Once you learn you have power, it’s not easy to take it away. They’ve shut the district down!”

The union’s 30,000 members — Los Angeles Unified School District bus drivers, mechanics, custodians, food workers and others — are asking for a 30% wage increase over four years, plus $2 more per hour for the lowest-paid employees. They make an average of $25,000 a year in a city of astronomically high rents.

The teachers union is striking in solidarity, shutting down the schools for 420,000 students. It’s the first time the two unions have gone on strike together.

Arias grabbed a small sign that read “Respect Us” and slipped into the crowd. Sometimes, he led chants. Sometimes, he joined them. Sometimes, he jumped out of the line to embrace people or offer support. “This is you trying?” Arias joked, impressed by a chant leader who said she wasn’t trying hard enough. “I’d hate to see you doing!”

This week’s historic strike is the culmination of a years-long strategy that Arias describes as “internal organizing” — getting workers to realize they have far more power than they ever imagined.

“You’re asking, you’re not demanding,” he said. “You can get to incremental change, but you’re never going to get to serious change unless you somehow can shock the system.”

Max Arias, head of SEIU Local 99, leads a bargaining meeting at the union’s offices in Koreatown.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Arias, 51, grew up bouncing from country to country after his parents fled El Salvador for finding themselves on the wrong side of the government. His plan was always to help make his homeland better. He fell into union organizing in the U.S. by accident, finding that his greatest satisfaction came not in raising his own voice but helping others find theirs.

“Max strives to center workers in this campaign,” said Henry Perez, executive director of Boyle Heights-based nonprofit InnerCity Struggle. “He’s giving them a name and recognition and bringing them out of the shadows and showing them as the backbone of the district that deserves equity.”

“Most people as they rise, they get insulated,” said Pamela Stevenson, who first worked with Arias in Oakland helping to organize healthcare workers and is now his chief of staff. “But he wants to be in the public and meet with everyone. He does not want to delegate.”

“He’s one to follow,” said bus driver Marvin Vega. “He speaks strongly, and with conviction.”

“He has our back,” said Maria Betancourt, another bus driver. “Max has made us believe in ourselves — and has made others believe in us, too.”

The day before the strike began, I met Arias at Local 99’s headquarters in Koreatown. His large office has gorgeous views of the Hollywood sign and Wilshire Boulevard below, but remains sparsely decorated because the union moved in only three months ago. A plaque on his desk said, “It’s On, Motherf—ers.”

Arias sipped on a cup of coffee that turned cold as we chatted for the next hour. Outside, Local 99 employees and staff carted out picket signs, posters and wooden stakes for the coming days.

I asked how he was feeling.

“Workers are empowered,” he said. His voice was soft but resonant. “You fall in love with what the workers do and how they are. And you can’t tolerate to see how they are,” referring to the LAUSD officials he claims treat Local 99 members as little better than “the help.”

Tears welled up in his red eyes. He had barely slept in five days.

“I’m sorry, I’m emotional,” Arias said. “When I was young, I was told to not talk about what we were up to, because we were always in hiding.”

People stand close together. Some hold picket signs. A woman gestures with her hand as she speaks.

UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz, center, flanked by Max Arias, right, SEIU 99’s executive director, speaks at a news conference Tuesday — the first day of three-day strike, in front of Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Los Angeles.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Picket signs are on an elevator's floor.

On Monday, signs were ready for a three-day LAUSD strike in Los Angeles.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

He’s the son of two economists radicalized by the poverty they saw in rural El Salvador during the 1960s and 1970s. As a boy, Arias moved with his father from London to Nicaragua to Belize to Mexico City before joining his mother and stepfather in New Orleans. There, he wrote letters to death row inmates with the help of a family friend, Sister Helen Prejean.

“We were exiled because of pushing back against injustice and not just standing there,” Arias said of his upbringing. “This was a revolution. It was real. It was life-or-death implications.”

He joined his father in El Salvador after graduating from high school in Florida, teaching English as a second language classes while studying engineering. But the pay wasn’t good, so Arias returned to Florida, where he worked at a Radio Shack for four years while waiting for a chance “to go back to El Salvador and keep the fight going.”

A fellow Salvadoran exile suggested that he intern for an SEIU campaign in Michigan.

“They actually pay people to do that?” Arias remembers responding.

He soon got hired as an organizer in Chicago, then moved to California to work as an assistant director for collective bargaining for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West’s hospital division. In Oakland, he led what was until this week the biggest strike of his career.

At two nursing homes in 2010, about 80 caregivers — janitors, nursing assistants and other lower-rung employees — went on a five-day strike over working conditions. Afterward, 38 workers were fired.

“They lost heart, but we kept organizing and pressuring and reminding people, ‘The struggle is long,’” Arias said. The workers eventually got their jobs back, along with lost wages, after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that their firing was illegal.

By then, Arias was Local 99’s executive director, with a more existential challenge.

“Our members were a group of workers that were just exploited to no end and oppressed,” he said. “It’s just an oppression that’s been ingrained for years and years. They had been students [in LAUSD schools], they’re now parents in the system, and they believed that they couldn’t strike.”

His bottom-up strategy emboldened members, who in 2018 pushed contract negotiations to the brink of a strike, backing off when the district gave them a raise.

That confrontation led to improved relations between the district and the union. Local 99 members continued to work at campuses through the pandemic even after their contract expired in 2020 and classrooms were shuttered.

Once schools reopened, however, Local 99 members felt that district leadership brushed them back to their place.

“They were called heroes,” Arias said, “and then they became zeroes.”

Arias and his team began to visit workers at their campuses in the spring of 2022, arguing that a bold ask and the threat of a strike were what they needed to stop being “invisible.” In February, 96% of Local 99 members voted to give union leadership the discretion to call a strike.

The official reason for the strike is not the contract negotiations but the union’s allegations that LAUSD has impeded workers’ rights to engage in legally protected union-related activities.

Last weekend, the district, according to its leaders, offered a cumulative 23% raise and a one-time 3% bonus for those who have been on the job since the 2020-21 school year, along with expanded hours, more full-time positions and improved eligibility for healthcare benefits.

“We have an opportunity right now to push for — not incremental change, but some transformational change,” Arias said. “And in the process and in the struggle of doing so, build agency for our members.”

A man in a purple shirt sits next to a window.

Max Arias, head of SEIU Local 99, at the union’s offices in Los Angeles on Monday.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“He has righteous indignation,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz, who said she and her union were “proud” to stand with Local 99. The way Arias and his union were able “to build power and create change in a real way [for themselves] … it gives me chills.”

LAUSD board member Kelly Gonez, whose district includes most of the eastern San Fernando Valley, praised Arias for his “pragmatic, open and honest approach,” despite being on the opposite side of the bargaining table.

“While we are currently engaged in negotiations, it’s easy to fall into adversarial positions, but there is a record of partnership with L.A. Unified under Max’s leadership,” Gonez said.

I asked Arias as our interview wrapped up what was next after the three-day strike. He didn’t dismiss the possibility of more work stoppages if LAUSD officials don’t meet the union’s demands.

“My dad always taught me, ‘Don’t expect to see a moment of change in your lifetime, necessarily,’” he said. “‘Just work for it.’”

That was the Arias I saw the following morning at the Van Nuys bus depot. The SEIU communications team had to drag him out of the picket line to do television interviews underneath a tent, then another one by phone in a car.

“I’m done talking to the press,” he said. “I want to talk to the people.”

Someone handed him a megaphone. He returned to the picket line, which suddenly went quiet.

“This is what power looks like!” Arias proclaimed. “This is your power!”

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