New Optimism, and Organizing Low-income Workers in Valley Schools

By Nick Braune
Mid-Valley Town Crier<br
by permission

Although I am a sourpuss and think President Obama is beholden to much the same crowd as was ex-President Bush, there are many people anticipating that things will change for the better soon. And so there is a resurgence of progressive activity going on, and that is good.

One source of optimism is that Michael Chertoff is gone as Homeland Security head. Two weeks ago, after another disturbing factory raid by ICE in Bellingham, Washington, Janet Napolitano, the new DHS chief, said publically that she had not even been informed the raid was going to happen and that she was ordering a full review of it. “I want to get to the bottom of this,” she said. It is not a clear message, but it provides a glimmer of hope that the recent workplace raids, dramatically handcuffing and imprisoning working people, might be softened in favor of restarting discussions about comprehensive immigration reform.

Interestingly, Napolitano also sent the Rio Grande Valley a signal last month. When Brownsville’s city commissioners had been pressured by Homeland Security to put up more border fencing right in the middle of an area that the city had planned for development, Napolitano stepped in, saying that she was not aware that a deadline had been given to the city and that she wanted to reconsider some of these projects. How far she will go is a mystery, but recent events have provided some hope.

Another sign of hope is that President Obama seems more favorable to labor organizing, and a press release I saw from a local uni*n group quotes Obama that labor is not “part of the problem but…part of the solution.”

Since I have not reported anything on labor recently, let me do that now.

Several weeks ago I reported attending an interesting anti-NAFTA event held by the Southwest Workers (SWU), which is based in San Antonio but also does work here in the Valley. SWU has started an organizing effort in Edinburg, trying to reach the school district’s bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other low income employees. I phone-interviewed organizer Anayanse Garza.

Braune: The SWU is trying to reach workers in Edinburg, but the district is balking. Is that correct?

Garza: Yes, we already have members, but we want more. But the ECISD (Edinburg School District) has been uncooperative. About a month ago, an assistant superintendant yelled at us, saying that if it were up to him there would be no uni*ns allowed. After we made his comments public, we had a series of meetings.

Braune: You certainly should have the right to organize.

Garza: Certainly, and we feel that the workers are being given false information and it is having an intimidating effect. Some are being told what we are doing is illegal. Some are being told it is against ECISD policy to be part of the SWU. Actually, it goes against ECISD policy to discourage us from getting members.

Braune: I know you had a rally in front of the school board last Tuesday night. What was your message there?

Garza: We were trying to inform the board about our continuing problems. We have met with a couple of board members but not with the whole board, and we have not spoken, even after about a month of this dispute, with the head of the school board. One of our SWU representatives and one of the bus drivers spoke at the public testimony session last night while the rest of us were rallying with signs outside. We told them that we want to have a meeting and that we have been trying to schedule a way to work out the problems. But so far today we have not gotten a call from them.

Braune: Your organization has experience with this sort of organizing; I take it what you immediately want is a fair opportunity to meet with the workers.

Garza: Yes, and we are surprised at the problems we are facing. The school district workers have mandated lunch and break time, and they discourage employees from leaving the campuses. So there are lunch rooms and meeting rooms where the workers congregate. We have simply asked that we can meet with them at the breaks on occasion. Part of the disinformation is that we want to interrupt the work time, which is not true. We simply want to visit during the breaks.

Another bit of disinformation is that we are demanding that we can just walk into the schools at any time. That is ridiculous. We would sign in at the desk like all other legitimate visitors. In other districts where we have members, we are able to meet with the workers in an orderly way with no problem.

We hope the ECISD School Board will hear us so that we may work together to correct these issues and help our schools, our families, and the community of Edinburg prosper as a whole.

Braune: Thanks for your work and the interview. Keep us informed how it is going.

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