You’ll find Socorro ISD perched just outside of El Paso. In it, you’ll undoubtedly hear its employee voice in local union Socorro AFT.
Representing all district employees (except for administrators), Socorro AFT advocates for issues important to educators and school staff: small class sizes, discipline, salaries, and paperwork reduction, to name a few.
Born and raised in El Paso, Veronica Hernandez has served as Socorro AFT president since the local union was chartered in 2008. Since she started as an organizer with the Associate Membership Program in Socorro in 2002, the local union not only has been chartered but membership has grown from under 100 to just about 2,000.
Here, Veronica shares her insight into the work happening on the ground with Socorro AFT members and activists to improve the experience for employees and students in Socorro and continue building their power.
Veronica is one of our many exceptional leaders and members across Texas. Check out our past leader spotlights to hear from more of them.
Can you give an example of how your members have taken collective action to build the power of their union?
Yes, actually several. Since the chartering of our local union — and, actually, since I started organizing in Socorro — we’ve had several successful advocacy campaigns. Each time we do a little better, with more membership engagement. We’ve really demonstrated our power with our membership by electing union-friendly school board members into the majority, which advocates on behalf of the employees. And recently, of course, with the COVID-19 situation, we’ve had several victories on making sure that we’re directly involved in every aspect of safe school re-openings.
We know 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?
Yes, absolutely, actually there was a very recent situation in which a couple of the nurses had called us voicing their concerns around COVID in terms of their work: how they were going to be exposed while conducting the testing without having proper PPE, no proper ventilation, and no upgraded computers to input all the data.
We reached out to a couple more of the nurses and found out that this was a larger issue, so we called a Zoom meeting, and I’d say about 90% of our nurses attended. We were able to sign some of them up as members and advocate for them within the district. We voiced their concerns and made sure that they got laptops and were able to create protocol for how to address the situation. So that was a great victory.
What’s the biggest issue you’re facing in your district right now, and what’s the basic plan of attack to find a solution?
I would assume that, like every other local union right now, our biggest concern is a safe return to school. The overarching goal this year would be having a safe return for all employees and students and serving on committees to ensure that all CDC protocols are followed, like social distancing and mask requirements. Then, of course, a range of our employees should be considered essential employees and be vaccinated as soon as possible. This last weekend, we were able to work in partnership with one of our local hospitals, and we were able to get an agreement to consider our nurses a priority. We were able to get some of them vaccinated — including myself — so that was awesome.
Then there’s other stuff right now. Virtual learning brings a lot more issues like the grading, attendance, procedures — oh my gosh, a whole list of other issues that we’re trying to work at as they come.
We were also able to negotiate that if a teacher has a real critical health situation, they be given the opportunity to continue teaching from home with the proper documentation and medical records.
How did you get involved with your local union?
Back in 1990, I had no idea what a union was. I was married back then, and my husband was a Greyhound bus driver. At that time, they were on strike. I had no idea what he was talking about when he would come home yelling about things, and, of course, he was in such a bad mood that you wouldn’t dare ask at the time. So when I started working for El Paso AFT, little by little, I started putting the pieces together and learning all about unions. Then, come to find out afterwards, my dad was a president of the bartenders’ union in Mexico, and I said, “Oh my gosh, how come I never knew about this?!”
Why does this work matter to you?
I feel like labor must play a vital role in ensuring that our voices are heard and owning our own power. People need to stand up for their beliefs and what they feel is right if they want to make a difference. I think that it’s extremely rewarding when you have those members who are scared or intimidated to speak up and then you see those same members take an active role in the organization. It’s overwhelming — it’s like wow!
The clout we’ve been able to build in Socorro AFT and the rapport we’ve built with the district has gotten us many, many victories in public education, and it’s a very gratifying feeling that makes it all worthwhile.
Are there any members or leaders in your area who are particularly inspiring?
Oh yeah, several. One who stands out is Tommy Hill. He is a bus driver who has become so involved and engaged with us. Now, he has become such a respected leader within his department that he rarely has to get us involved. He gets things taken care of ASAP.
Then, I have teachers like Ms. Veronica Ruiz and Ms. Veronica Lindsey, who have become the voice at the campus level when it comes to advocating for their members. They are not afraid to say they are leaders of Socorro AFT, and they need things to be changed.
We do have quite a bit of membership engagement out here. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there are plenty, plenty more.
Anything else important you feel that folks should know about you, your local union, or the work itself?
I don’t think I can stress this enough: I think that solidarity, persistence, and teamwork are how we make a difference and make change within our districts and professions. Alone we are one drop, but together we are an ocean. Our activists understand that if you want anything changed within the district, they need to participate. They need to make sure they are voicing their concerns and being actively engaged. That’s what has resulted in several of our successes and victories within Socorro AFT.