By Rob D’Amico
I am by no means the best person to offer a glimpse of the life of Wanda Harris, a comrade in our union that I worked with for 13 years. But I do feel qualified to offer some remembrances and honors from my experiences, and here I am with a keyboard at hand to do so. And with a pandemic robbing me, at least for now, of sharing my thoughts of her with friends, it is important to me to at least offer something in writing.
Wanda Harris died last Friday from an apparent cardiac issue at the age of 57. She left two daughters and a brother and three sisters. To say it was sudden and unexpected to us all would be true, even though there’s an old joke about all death being sudden no matter how long you’ve battled it. Nevertheless, it was profoundly sad, because even though we just shared tidbits of life together, they were still joyful, and I carried a great deal of respect for her.
Wanda had union in her blood. Maybe it just seeped in there from her job, starting with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) long ago. But she ended up serving with the then Texas Federation of Teachers (now Texas AFT) organizing school employees around the state, and she embraced the union label for life.
She did a variety of assignments in locations all over the state. Two stood out—Cy-Fair AFT and Corpus Christi AFT. Wanda played a crucial role in mentoring staff and even guiding the Cy-Fair staffer Nikki Cowart to charter the group and become the local union’s president. In Corpus Christi, her last assignment, she was crucial in assisting the leadership there as well. She took pride in knowing that it was one of the birthplaces of our union and the home turf of one of her role models—the late Linda Bridges, who served as president there and for Texas AFT statewide. Ultimately, Wanda left us about three years ago to organize for a nurses union in the Houston area.
We all understood she was a great organizer and had a knack for cutting through the “bullshit”—a word that skipped across her lips quite often—when trying to help members in the field. But most importantly, she had a solid sense of what it meant to be a union family. Yes, like all families there might be some dysfunction, even outright outlandish and ignoble behavior. Yet, embracing the union family meant that no matter what happens in day-to-day relationships, we still have a foundation of knowing what is right and just, an ideal that may not always be realized, but that at least is sacred in its origin story and in the lives of so many who fight to practice it daily. In more simple terms, she had your back, because she was your sister.
Wanda and I served as negotiators for our staff union contract. (Yes, we have a staff union for our teachers union, and we actually get to bargain a bit for a contract.) She would sweat the details on every point of working conditions, rights, and compensation—not because she didn’t necessarily trust the word of our bosses at the time, but because she understood we were establishing rights for every other worker that would step through the door in the future with whoever was in charge. She strived for the same for our school employee members.
It wasn’t the hard work or even the ideals of the union family that made me feel close to Wanda. To be honest, it mainly was the fun. She loved to laugh, point out the absurdities of situations, and hang out after a long day of training or meetings while drinks went down with the sun. Her laugh was like a song that prompts a dance, and it complimented what at other times could seem like a gruff and obstinate nature. She also carried big, bug eyes that she would try to turn menacing at times, although usually foiled by the freckles that dotted her cheeks.
Wanda as a “Mouthy Woman” (top left) in Corpus Christi
It is here that Wanda would surely smirk and maybe even be tempted to call “bullshit” with what I have to say, since I am prone to cynicism and joking about the truth and all things serious. And sometimes, for me, a bit of cheese is needed to coat the sharp sounds of sincerity. I realized that Wanda epitomized what I value about our union. Thinking of her has reminded me of the endearment and respect I have for all who share working in labor. I have had the honor of not only spending more than a decade of working with her, but also the privilege of serving in a union family that expands beyond the daily grind of our tasks and weaves its way through the everyday lives of the school employees and students we serve.
Recognition of our work doesn’t really matter. Better is the hope that the word “solidarity” finds a place in hearts, occasionally rises to inspire minds, and spurs you all to take action for what is just and meaningful. I know it did for Wanda.