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By Julian Peeples

The power of solidarity is unstoppable, even in the middle of a pandemic. This was brilliantly illustrated by a group of about 100 San Jose educators when they organized a union amid shelter-in-place orders.

When these inspiring teachers and counselors from four Downtown College Prep charter schools filed for recognition on May 11, South Bay Educators United (SBEU) became the newest local in CTA and likely the first educators’ union in the country organized during the COVID pandemic. This effort is a testament to what educators will do to support each other, protect their students and defend the school community they love.

“A union is a great step to fixing all the things we don’t like at Downtown College Prep (DCP) without changing its mission and what it means to our families,” says Beatriz Velez, history teacher at El Primero High School. “We want to keep doing all the great things we’ve been doing at DCP. We just want a real seat at the table.”

Guided by the values that built DCP, a small group of educators began organizing in late-February to advocate for their students and create positive change. Unsustainable expectations by management, a lack of support for educators and a disconnect with realities facing students and staff fueled the group’s desire to organize a union.

Sal Williams

“My vision for SBEU is to create a sustainable environment for educators so that students not only have consistency with who they see year-to-year but also top-tier, experienced educators who receive ongoing training and support,” says Sal Williams, an English teacher at El Primero. “Our students already have so much instability in their lives; they deserve stability at school. Our union can help create systems to aid with teacher retention that will support our students.”

Ready to move forward with their plans to organize, the educators contacted CTA in March for support and guidance with the process. An organizing committee began videoconferencing every week to strategize. Due to COVID restrictions, the historic campaign occurred without any in-person organizing. But SBEU showed that the face-to-face communication that powers unionizing efforts doesn’t have to be done in person.

Alum Rock Middle School educator and SBEU member Carolina Rodriguez said the “distance-organizing” was surprisingly streamlined and had many unexpected benefits.

“We were able to have one-to-one conversations without the tension of being on campus,” says Rodriguez, a 2009 graduate of DCP. “There was flexibility in response times for teachers to think about our petition and ask questions, and meetings could be held at any time that worked because commuting and location were not an issue.”

The SBEU Organizing Committee met regularly via videoconference to plan and strategize.

Williams says the virtual organizing allowed the team to take a more personable approach with their colleagues. The committee strategized conversations with their co-workers to secure their support and leverage their relationships to build the union effort. Velez says the virtual medium was a major benefit, providing safe spaces for educators to ask questions and encourage the free discussion needed to build a movement.

Beatriz Velez

“I don’t think we would have been able to get a supermajority (of educators signing union cards) without the time and space to talk through things with people,” Velez says of the virtual effort that even drew the attention of the Wall Street Journal. “At the end of the day, we all want to do what’s best for our students.”

When SBEU organizers knew they had the support to file for union recognition, a new COVID-era challenge arose: collecting physical signatures on cards to submit to the state Public Employment Relations Board. Velez said the team took the same strategic approach, mapping out routes to educators’ homes and coordinating collection of the union cards—complete with precautions to protect everyone’s health and safety.

“We’d call and say ‘we’ll be there in 15 minutes,’ and they’d come out and leave the signed card at a safe social distance,” Velez says. “It was like DoorDash for unions.”

In addition to being strong advocates for their students and families, SBEU members are eager to bring their perspectives as charter school educators to discussions in CTA about how best to support and nurture all students. Just like with DCP, these educators are excited to have a seat at the table as part of the CTA Family.

Carolina Rodriguez

“Charter school educators also need a voice in campaigns and processes that impact our schools,” says Rodriguez. “The fact that so many charter schools have already chosen CTA is indicative of the support that is available for charter school teachers.”

With the process for recognition of their union underway, SBEU now shifts attention to bargaining their first contract, and exercising their unified voice to advocate for students, address difficult working conditions and fight for the schools they believe in, all while wading into the unknown of COVID.

“How can we set up next school year to be sustainable for teachers, students and parents,” Velez asks. “Our priority right now is having teacher impact on what next year is going to look like.”

Help amplify the story of SBEU’s fight by following on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) liking their posts and sharing their website, which includes a copy of their union declaration letter to DCP management as well as a video the educators created on why they decided to say “Union Yes.”

“Knowing that there are people in your school, your district and in schools around the state who have your back feels good,” Velez says.