Delivering for the union: Signing up new members one stop at a time

Driver and local president Albert Lopez moves between 13 campuses

The Riverside County community of Menifee is on the upswing. More than 1,000 new homes are under construction, new businesses are opening their doors, and new families are moving in. The Menifee Union School District sees increased enrollment on the horizon. The Menifee Council of Classified Employees is also expanding. In fact, the CFT recently honored the local for placing second in two categories recognizing member growth: most new members (151) and highest rate of growth (42 percent).

A good part of the credit goes to President Albert Lopez. Since taking office last August, Lopez has focused on convincing fee payers to join AFT Local 6109.
“We started asking people to take that next step,” he said. “We let them know about the benefits they would get as members, like being eligible to vote on contracts.” Lopez has an ideal job for reaching employees throughout the district. As a delivery driver, he tools around in a Ford F150 between Menifee’s 10 elementary schools, three middle schools and administration buildings. He is quick to credit former president Robin Espinda for giving the organizing drive a solid foundation — an audit showing which employees were fee payers and where they worked.

The Menifee local represents about 540 custodians, clerical, security, food service, bus drivers, tech aides, health aides and other staff. Espinda realized there was a problem when several coworkers who should have signed union cards when they were hired began asking her how they could join.

“People were falling through the cracks,” Espinda said, “so we closed those cracks.”

The first step, she said, was a meeting with “district powers that be” to ensure that union membership is part of new employee orientation. Next was a mass mailing to current staff identified as non-members, which sparked a rousing response. These, combined with Lopez’s on-the-ground efforts, brought record-breaking member growth to Local 6109. The local and district recently agreed to a salary reopener that raised wages 5 percent over two years, the same increase Menifee’s certificated teachers negotiated. One of the biggest non-monetary issues at the table was addressed last. The previous contract allowed managers to write up staff “if they feel” his or her absences, for example, were excessive.

“That language has been changed,” Lopez said. “We have never been comfortable with ‘if they feel’ as a standard. Management needs more substantive backing before they admonish employees.”

Staff received large payments for retroactive raises, reflecting long negotiations that included going to impasse. “Moving forward economically is a constant battle,” Lopez said. “We hear about the district already being in the red for years to come, but who knows if that’s true, or just bargaining talk.”