Union Teachers Are Donating Their Stimulus Checks to the Undocumented

Undocumented workers are excluded from unemployment protections and stimulus checks, but not from union solidarity.

Brooke Anderson

Olivia Udovic (top right) and her husband, Edgar Sánchez (left)—with daughters Citlali and Lucía—organized fellow teachers in Oakland, Calif., to pledge their stimulus checks to undocumented families. (Brooke Anderson)

OAK­LAND, Calif.—Olivia Udovic and her hus­band, Edgar Sánchez — both teach­ers in Oak­land — are among mil­lions of Amer­i­cans receiv­ing fed­er­al stim­u­lus checks. The mon­ey didn’t 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. Fam­i­lies were los­ing jobs, couldn’t pay rent and were left with­out food — espe­cial­ly undoc­u­ment­ed folks who couldn’t access unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits,” 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 state — a lit­tle less than 15% of the undoc­u­ment­ed work­force. For many, that won’t 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 Raza’s Oak­land Undoc­u­ment­ed Relief (OUR) Fund. The fund pro­vides $500 checks or pre-paid deb­it cards to each fam­i­ly — an 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 Oakland’s Mam com­mu­ni­ty, many of whom arrived from Guatemala with­out papers. Many Mam peo­ple have come to the U.S. to work as day labor­ers, or they are sell­ing fruit on the street,” Sales says. They tell me, If I can’t work, how will I care for my fam­i­ly, pay elec­tric­i­ty, rent, food?’”

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.

It became appar­ent that undoc­u­ment­ed folks who are hold­ing the entire U.S. econ­o­my togeth­er would be side­lined,” Lara says. Thanks to the strength of the union, we’ve main­tained full-time jobs and ben­e­fits. Because we’re in that priv­i­leged posi­tion, peo­ple want­ed to give. We said, Let’s do it collectively.’”

Lara’s union, the Unit­ed Edu­ca­tors of San Fran­cis­co, orga­nized to give to Undocu­Fund SF — with 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 Council’s Com­mu­ni­ty Response Fund to sup­port undoc­u­ment­ed families. 

We’re not rolling in the dough,” Lane says. But I get to stay home while my stu­dents’ 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, it’s a neces­si­ty. We’re sup­posed to take care of each other.” 

Back in Oak­land, Udovic cred­its her union’s sup­port in part to its increased empha­sis on rank-and-file lead­ers. OEA’s his­toric week­long 2019 strike trained hun­dreds of teach­ers to become union activists. Many peo­ple doing the work today didn’t know how to par­tic­i­pate before the strike,” Udovic says.

The 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,” says OEA Pres­i­dent Kei­th Brown.

For many unions, this moment is not just about pro­vid­ing imme­di­ate mutu­al aid to stu­dents’ fam­i­lies, but back­ing broad­er com­mu­ni­ty demands. 

Just like in the strike, we do this for the fam­i­lies,” Lane says. I’m proud of my union for pro­mot­ing equi­ty across Chica­go by sign­ing onto the Right to Recov­ery for all Chicagoans.” The Right to Recov­ery is a com­mon good” 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, The OEA is vot­ing to be in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the rent strikes,” 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. We should see this as the tra­jec­to­ry of the union,” he says. We’re one with the com­mu­ni­ties we serve. With­out the sup­port of those com­mu­ni­ties, we can’t win broad­er, rad­i­cal reforms in pub­lic education.”

Brooke Ander­son is an orga­niz­er and pho­to­jour­nal­ist based in Oak­land, Calif. 

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.
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