In 1980, when Max Arias was five years old, his family – father and stepmother, mother and two sisters — fled the civil war in El Salvador, where his father, an economist, was active in politics and labor organizing with the then-outlawed leftist FMLN party. For young Arias, it was the second time he had left his native land. As a toddler, he had gone to live with his father and stepmother in London, where his father was studying at the London School of Economics. The three of them returned to El Salvador in 1978, only to be uprooted again two years later.
Moving, always moving – between divorced parents who lived variously in Mexico City, London, Managua, New Orleans and South Florida — became a constant in his life. “I went to 13 schools in five countries before graduating from high school in Florida,” he said in a recent interview with the Boulevard Sentinel. “My whole life, it was very difficult to find stability.”
And yet, Mr. Arias, who now lives in El Sereno, not only found stability amid the chaos, but a calling as well.
In 2004, after he had bounced for a while between attending college and teaching English in El Salvador and living with family in Florida, an acquaintance told him about job opportunities in the United States with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents low-wage workers in the service sector. Shortly thereafter, he began a rise through the ranks of the SEIU, first as an organizer of home-care workers in Michigan, followed by positions as an organizer and negotiator in Chicago and Oakland.
In 2015, he became the executive director and chief negotiator for Local 99 of the SEIU, which represents some 30,000 school bus drivers, cafeteria staff, custodians, aides for disabled students and other service workers employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). He chose to live in El Sereno because he felt comfortable in the largely Latino community, moving there with his wife, whom he met in Oakland and married in 2013.
Throughout his union career, Mr. Arias said, his own biography – of being destabilized and displaced by forces beyond his control – has been a motivation to help low-wage workers who are vulnerable to instability and displacement in their jobs and communities.
It takes a leader
The most recent test of Mr. Arias’s resolve came in May, when Local 99 clinched a new contract with LAUSD for higher pay and better working conditions. For nearly a year and a half before the contract was reached, Mr. Arias organized a series of early morning pickets at various schools, building team spirit among SEIU members while refining their negotiating stance – essentially, that all of a school’s workers contribute to the quality of education and deserve to be compensated accordingly.
Mr. Arias also developed a crucial ally in the teachers union. In April, when talks between Local 99 and LAUSD broke down and the local voted to strike for a day on May 15, the teachers union urged its members to honor the service workers’ picket lines. That show of labor solidarity sent a message to the LAUSD: Deal with service workers’ demands or face the prospect of a one-day school shutdown.
It was a message LAUSD could not ignore. With the strike imminent, contract negotiations were resumed on May 8 and that same day, Local 99 had a new, satisfactory contract.
In recommending to union members to vote “yes” on the new contract, Mr. Arias said that it was “fair” and met “all of our contract bargaining priorities,” including a permanent 3% annual wage increase retroactive to July 1, 2017 and another 3% raise in the 2018-2019 school year that will stick if the district’s financial condition allows. The new contract also offers greater job protection and additional funding to improve staffing levels and pay for professional development.
The next challenge
The new contract does not mean that Mr. Arias can or will rest. He sees the next big challenge as creating a new organizational paradigm for unionized labor, in which union members are directly involved with union leaders in strategizing and other decision making. Direct participation is a matter of union survival, said Mr. Arias, because unless workers have a say in strategies and decisions – unless, in his words, they “take ownership of their collective bargaining rights” – it is all too easy for union opponents to drive a wedge between union members and union leaders.
Mr. Arias is determined not to let that happen. And he is determined to stay put, in El Sereno, where he is, at long last, at home.