It was February 2018 when I began my journey into labor activism. I started working for Santa Clara County at this time and noticed a discrepancy in my very first paycheck. I reached out to an SEIU 521 steward in my office who vigorously, yet subtly, addressed my pay discrepancy with management and solved my problem. Shortly after, she went on to recruit and mentor me as a steward.
Fast forward to 2019, and her and I are rallying members in our office fighting side by side during an unfair labor practice strike against the county. During this strike, I met and bonded with other SEIU 521 members across a myriad of county departments who enjoy providing services to the community. I learned from members the value of tribe, belonging and standing up for others who’ve been kicked down and treated unfairly by management.
During the strike, I met a man attempting to deliver more than a dozen barrels of water to a county office building at 70 W. Hedding St. in San Jose. The man gets out of his truck and approaches me. Before he speaks, I notice him scanning the area behind me, a sea of people wearing purple shirts, some shouting into bullhorns with the logo “SEIU 521.” He looks at me wide eyed and says, “I didn’t know you guys were on strike. I stand with my brothers and sisters in solidarity.” He introduces himself and I move in to shake his hand. He and I had a pleasant conversation about labor unions as I learned he belonged to the Teamsters.
At that moment I understood the value of tribe, belonging and how the terms “brothers and sisters” resonated within the labor movement. A short while later, we successfully ratified an extraordinary contract victory.
Prior to her retirement, my mentor taught me the value of union representation and to always place members first. I learned so much under her guidance and tutelage that I have since become an assistant chapter chief steward. To this date, I still hold true to those values of tribe, belonging and being the voice for the voiceless through my representation of workers in their time of need.
It is hard to say the same for the current leadership within SEIU 521. Our elected leadership appears to value glad handing politicians as opposed to working for members. Within SEIU 521, there are chapters that do not have bylaws. Chapters without bylaws equates to no union representation for members at worksites.
I’ve learned that members are silenced and ignored if you do not tow their line and political agenda. I’ve learned that my brothers and sisters with CWA/OPEIU, who work for SEIU 521, have been denied telework opportunities as our current elected leadership takes a position to telework similar to county management. The hypocrisy, lack of transparency and lack of a member driven SEIU 521 is one of the reasons why I am running to be elected to the SEIU 521 Executive Board for Santa Clara County.
I’m running with my friend, Kimberly Gomez, who is currently SEIU 521 director of the contract enforcement department and is running for chief elected officer, currently held by Riko Mendez. Through her leadership, Kim and her team have recovered more than $12 million over 14 years for workers that have been treated unfairly due in part to management violating the provisions within our contracts. She has negotiated settlement and contractual agreements, and prepared cases to be presented in front of California’s Public Employment Relations Board.
Kim represents workers’ interests throughout all regions within SEIU 521. Our members need an administration that can relate to them. Our members need representation. Under a Kimberly Gomez administration, SEIU 521 as an employer will always practice what they preach, which will obviate any possibility of employers using our own employment practices to incite division amongst us—much like what Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone has done in a recent San José Spotlight publication for which his staff circulated to workers in his office.
Andre Thomas is an assistant chief steward with SEIU 521 running for a seat on the executive board for Santa Clara County. He’s also a South Bay Labor Council delegate and SEIU 521 COPE vice chair who works for the county as a senior litigation paralegal.