As the nation fixated on the Presidential Election, a handful of teacher union members were holding down the fort at the Montebello Teacher’s Association offices on election night amid the faint smell of pizza in cardboard boxes.
Two volunteers, teachers at local Montebello Unified schools, were rubbing their tired eyes as they made calls to urge last minute votes in favor of Proposition 30, a tax to raise funds for education, and against Proposition 32, which would hamper the political clout of unions like theirs. The second measure in particular —which was ultimately defeated— was seen as a direct attack on the labor movement and it, along with the threat of massive education cuts ($13 million to Montebello Unified School District alone), mobilized California’s teacher unions.
Out in the lobby on election night, office manager Alonzo Ibanez was flipping between a live stream of a middle school football game and a broadcast of election results. All of the activity and campaign fervor of the last few weeks had settled – the lion’s share of the phone banking and precinct walking happened last weekend. Most of Tuesday night’s calls were happening at a central location in Santa Fe Springs.
One of the phone banking teachers came out for a break to peek at the results. She pumped her fist as she saw that Wisconsin, one of the battleground states crucial in deciding the presidential election, had gone to Barack Obama.
Those who remained at the local and regional union offices on election night — looking to pick up any stray voters — tended to be the stalwarts of the labor movement, proud keepers of union activism’s history of hard won contributions to rights enjoyed by workers today.
By the age of 9, Ed Guzman was working on a farm and fighting alongside his family to secure better working conditions. He described employment practices at farms in the 1960s as akin to sharecropping. “Mexicans knew their place, and African Americans knew their place, and they let you know it… It was like feudalism,” the middle school social studies teacher said of the farms his family worked.
Guzman’s family was involved in labor movements “on both sides of the border,” he said. His parents were involved in unions in Mexico and continued their activism while working on farms in the U.S. It was a way to help out the family, he said of fighting for worker rights. But he notes that even in his own family, there was a split — it was half anti- and half pro-union.
Growing up around the labor movement exposed Guzman to a cross section of workers, including steelworkers, miners, rubber plant workers. He rattled off a list of former steel mills and rubber plants in the East Los Angeles and surrounding area that used to provide good paying jobs to anyone with a high school diploma, and sometimes less. The Citadel in Commerce used to be a rubber plant, for example. And the unionized General Motors workers in the area made up the top pool of workers in the area where now, most people are employed in non-union jobs at major retailers like Walmart.
Guzman says he became a teacher and is now active with the teacher union because he came of age at a time when education was seen as the next civil rights issue. California was an early battleground for education rights. Mendez v. Westminster, a 1946 case involving Mexican American students fighting from being segregated out of mainstream schools, was a precursor to desegregation in the American South.
Lu Cruz, a special education teacher at one of Montebello Unified’s East Los Angeles elementary schools, originally taught in Michigan where there was a strong tradition of unionism. She said it was only natural that she would get involved with the teachers’ union when she came to Montebello in 2007. “I felt the need to be proactive,” she said.
Classroom sizes were increasing, and it was only because of negotiated provisions in their teacher contracts that prevented the number of students per teacher to balloon out of control. Cruz believes in the power of a good education, in particular because she had a difficult time with her writing skills in college, even though she was an avid reader growing up. “My writing skills were not good enough,” she said, and because of that she wants to make sure her own students are well-prepared with the critical thinking skills needed for college coursework. She echoed Guzman in her belief that education is an equalizer, and “the way out of poverty.”
Guzman says civil service employees are the “last ones standing” in the labor movement, most working class jobs have gone overseas, helped by international trade agreements and policies that seemed to encourage it.
Cruz says not as many of her colleagues are active in the union as she would have hoped, but feels Proposition 32 and 30 were like a “wake-up call” for many of her colleagues who were less aware of the labor movement’s history and tradition.
Montebello teachers, in an effort to support the statewide union efforts of the California Teachers Association, visited every single campus in their district to mobilize teachers. They held a retreat in an effort to fill younger teachers in on the traditions of unionism. “I got out a paycheck and I read everything they had, their salary and how it was determined, their job security, medical insurance, how it was determined through unionism… we began to educate them,” said Montebello Teachers Association President Julian de la Torre.
Many of those who put in the hours phone banking during this election were older, De la Torre said. “It was close and we could have lost it. One of the things we learned, we have to go back to our young people and tell them the story and we have to have a rebirth of unionism in America,” he said.
Defeating Proposition 32 and getting Proposition 30 passed, however narrowly, is a message to teachers and union groups in other states that it can be done, said De la Torre.
“It shows the sleeping giant, those people who felt under represented, minorities, in particular teachers who felt their voices being lost, we have been rattled,” he said, “When we’re cornered, we fight back.”