Representing public school employees in San Antonio ISD, the San Antonio Alliance is one of the largest public sector unions in Bexar County.
The alliance organizes within its school district and community for better working conditions with the knowledge that improved employee working conditions translate to better a better learning environment for students.
The San Antonio Alliance takes an intersectional advocacy approach on issues affecting its members and community, including those related to immigration and culturally relevant pedagogy.
“As a trainer, we have teachers sign up for sessions and they come to us in search of a way to better relate to certain populations of students,” said Araceli Manriquez, a middle school teacher who leads many of these pedagogy trainings. “We go through their lesson plans, the student’s work, the outcomes. I teach ethnic studies, so I show teachers how they can incorporate that theory of critical analysis and how they can really center students in their own curriculum. It’s important for students of color, but for other students too, to engage in these conversations about politics, gender inequality, classism, and what oppresses certain people.”
Leading the charge is Alejandra Lopez, president of the San Antonio Alliance and a lifelong San Antonio resident.
“’I’ve been so happy and honored to work with her for the last three years that I’ve known her,” Manriquez said. “I have learned so much from her leadership skills and how she addresses issues that affect the community at large. I am grateful to learn from her as an educator, as an activist, and as a fellow Chicana. She’s a great leader and a great friend.”
Alejandra sat down to tell us more about her story and her role leading the San Antonio Alliance.
Alejandra is one of our many exceptional leaders and members across Texas. Check out our past leader spotlights to hear from more of them.
Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
I grew up in San Antonio and attended public school, pre-K through 12th grade, here. My mom is an immigrant from Mexico. She emigrated when she was little and was a first-generation college graduate. My dad is Chicano. He’s from a working-class background and is a union ironworker.
I grew up understanding what a union was and how important it was to workers and the working class. I went to Stanford, which took me out of San Antonio. I got my bachelor’s there. Then I moved around a little bit, and six years ago, I moved back to San Antonio. I got certified as a teacher, taught second grade, and joined the union.
I recognize that not everyone has the opportunity to do so. Many of my friends work in sectors that are not unionized.
I taught elementary school up until the point I was elected president in June of last year. It’s been a wild ride since.
How did you get involved with your local union?
I got involved largely through immigration work. When President Trump was elected, and given the communities that we work in, [past San Antonio Alliance President] Shelley Potter recognized that there was going to be an increased threat to undocumented students and their families. She mentioned that to me, saying if that was something I wanted to work on, then I should come to the meeting. So I did.
That space was really powerful to have educators, social workers, and counselors together to think through what we could do to protect our undocumented families. From there, I was a part of other campaigns. I joined the elected consultation team, which was another important space, and was really just being given the opportunity to grow in my leadership.
What were you doing before you joined our union? What was your first role in education?
For me, it’s not the traditional path. I didn’t graduate and become a teacher immediately. I worked in education nonprofits. Ever since I was a teen, I was really invested in the movement for social justice and have been an activist in many struggles, specifically immigration and the labor movement. For me, the through-line of the work that I’ve done over the last 15 to 20 years has been centered on my commitment to social justice and ensuring that our communities have what they need and deserve, which is definitely not happening at the moment. All of our inequities are exacerbated right now.
What’s the biggest issue you are facing in your district right now, and what’s the basic plan of attack to find a solution?
Like many other unions — not just education unions but across the labor movement — the biggest issue right now is COVID-19. It’s not just the public health aspect but the economic aspect too. Everything has revolved around keeping people safe and figuring out how we act in defense of human rights. We’ve seen our leaders sacrificing the health of our communities in order to make profit.
Our approach has been very grounded in guiding principles, such as acting in defense of human life, and we’ve had very clear messaging and framing around this. Our approach has been to start organizing at our worksites. That means everything from holding worksite meetings to identifying safety concerns at the district and community level.
It’s important that we’ve been coordinating with other unions, community members, and coalitions to put pressure on the school board and the superintendents. We’ve been trying to address the micro and the macro issues.
We know that our power comes from our members, but we also know that we have to be there to back them up when needed. Is there a recent example of when you helped a member facing problems in the workplace?
With the COVID-19 situation, at the start of the school year, one of our members who is a high school representative on the executive council was in a meeting prior to school re-opening where his principal had opened the floor for questions. This member and other staff members asked very poignant questions about safety and protocol and recognized that the principal didn’t seem to have answers, so he began to organize members on campus. He was put on administrative leave because of his organizing.
We worked quickly to file a grievance within the week to say that his First Amendment rights had been violated as he tried to ensure safety in the middle of a pandemic. We have a large social media following, and we were very public with it. We made a press statement and did interviews, and people caught wind of it.
We mobilized with some action steps, such as encouraging people to call board members and to call the superintendent. Members, current students, and former students started tweeting at the district and tagging them. There was an outpouring of public support for someone who is deeply committed to keeping himself, his colleagues, and his students safe from the virus.
He ended up being reinstated within the week, right in time to greet his students on the first day of remote learning. It goes to show the depth of what organizing can do. Power is in the strength of numbers. We’ve cultivated those relationships, and our district even has a student coalition. That’s what organizing is — it’s that relationship building.
Why does this work matter to you?
I think we are at a real precipice in this country where people are recognizing how corrupt the system is. Just the fact that over the course of this pandemic, billionaires have increased their wealth while our students and members are struggling to pay rent — or they’re worried that they’re going to get COVID-19 because they have to go into unsafe school buildings — is unbelievable.
I feel strongly that the labor movement must be as powerful as it can be to create this multiracial coalition that demands that people have what they need to lead a life of dignity and respect. This work is important because the only way we are going to come out of this on top is through organizing.
Organizing roots what we do here in our union. It’s connecting with one another, being in solidarity with one another, and calling out people in power when they are completely selling out the working class of this country.