Olivia Udovic and her husband, Edgar SĂĄnchezâboth teachers in Oaklandâare among millions of Americans receiving federal stimulus checks. The money didnât stay in their bank account for long, however; the pair is part of a nationwide movement of teachers paying their checks forward to undocumented families in their schools.
Udovic teaches kindergarten at Manzanita SEED Elementary, a dual-language school serving many immigrant households. Sixty-five percent of students there receive free or reduced-cost lunch. When schools closed March 27 in response to Covid-19, Udovic and her coworkers called parents for wellness check-ins. âFamilies were losing jobs, couldnât pay rent and were left without foodâespecially undocumented folks who couldnât access unemployment benefits,â Udovic says.
The $2.2 trillion federal Covid-19 stimulus package provides $1,200 to taxpayers bringing home less than $75,000 a year (plus $500 per child) and expands unemployment benefits. But undocumented workers are excluded from both provisions, despite collectively paying billions in taxes. California created its own $125 million coronavirus disaster relief fund to provide $500 in cash to some 250,000 undocumented immigrants in the stateâa little less than 15% of the undocumented workforce. For many, that wonât fill the gap.
So Udovic and other members of her union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), organized teachers to pledge their stimulus checks to Centro Legal de la Razaâs Oakland Undocumented Relief (OUR) Fund. The fund provides $500 checks or pre-paid debit cards to each familyâan important consideration for many undocumented people who do not have bank accounts. According to Udovic, as of April 20, 33 teachers have pledged more than $16,000.
Henry Sales is a leader in Oaklandâs Mam community, many of whom arrived from Guatemala without papers. âMany Mam people have come to the U.S. to work as day laborers, or they are selling fruit on the street,â Sales says. âThey tell me, âIf I canât work, how will I care for my family, pay electricity, rent, food?ââ
Oakland teachers are not alone. Frank Lara teaches fifth grade at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School, a dual-language Spanish immersion school in San Francisco. While Lara transitioned to online classes, he was also talking to his undocumented neighbors in the Mission District. The heavily Latino neighborhood is home to many essential workers and has been hard-hit by the virus.
âIt became apparent that undocumented folks who are holding the entire U.S. economy together would be sidelined,â Lara says. âThanks to the strength of the union, weâve maintained full-time jobs and benefits. Because weâre in that privileged position, people wanted to give. We said, âLetâs do it collectively.ââ
Laraâs union, the United Educators of San Francisco, organized to give to UndocuFund SFâwith 340 teachers pledging more than $115,000 so far.
Teachers in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have also organized funds.
Anna Lane, a history teacher at Thomas Kelly College Preparatory in Chicago, has been working through the Chicago Teachers Union to survey parents, distribute resource lists and organize coworkers to donate to the Brighton Park Neighborhood Councilâs Community Response Fund to support undocumented families.
âWeâre not rolling in the dough,â Lane says. âBut I get to stay home while my studentsâ parents work dangerous jobs or have been laid off. If I have that privilege, how do I help? Giving my check is not a sacrifice, itâs a necessity. Weâre supposed to take care of each other.â
Back in Oakland, Udovic credits her unionâs support in part to its increased emphasis on rank-and-file leaders. OEAâs historic weeklong 2019 strike trained hundreds of teachers to become union activists. âMany people doing the work today didnât know how to participate before the strike,â Udovic says.
âThe community coalition and relationships with parents that we built during the strike helped us be in a position during the Covid pandemic to rapidly address the needs of our families,â says OEA President Keith Brown.
For many unions, this moment is not just about providing immediate mutual aid to studentsâ families, but backing broader community demands.
âJust like in the strike, we do this for the families,â Lane says. âIâm proud of my union for promoting equity across Chicago by signing onto the Right to Recovery for all Chicagoans.â The Right to Recovery is a âcommon goodâ platform, put forward by dozens of labor and community organizations with many local and state elected officials, calling for paid time off, free Covid-19 testing and a moratorium on evictions, mortgage payments and utility shutoffs.
In Oakland, Udovic says, âThe OEA is voting to be in solidarity with the rent strikes,â referring to the movement of tenants withholding rent and calling for its cancellation, given they cannot earn income while sheltering in place.
Lara emphasizes that the political climate necessitates unions help their communities as a whole. âWe should see this as the trajectory of the union,â he says. âWeâre one with the communities we serve. Without the support of those communities, we canât win broader, radical reforms in public education.â
This article was originally published at In These Times on May 1, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.