“Yeah, not me,” Marisol Aguilar, a Special Education Assistant at LAUSD, recalls how she responded to her friend prodding her to join her at a Local 99 meeting. “Are you kidding me? I’m busy. I’m at a happy hour.”
But, her friend would not back down.
“No, no, you got to go to these meetings,” her friend insisted. “We’ve got to be informed. If not, the District is going to walk all over us.”
So Marisol started attending those union meetings, in the San Fernando Valley where she lives, and at the union’s downtown L.A. office. Last fall, she even participated in Local 99’s six-week Member Leadership Academy program, which trains members on how to address work site issues and how to build a stronger union at their work sites.
And, among other things, she started reading her contract more closely as a result.
“I need to understand where our money’s going,” she remembers thinking at the time. “I have to be more active.”
As her involvement deepened, she found answers to questions that used to confuse her, such as why her wages were not going up fast enough.
“Who fought?” Marisol remembers wondering. “And what did they do to fight for us and what didn’t they do?”
Rather than finding any one person or organization to blame, she realized that the answer was more complicated than that.
“I always thought the union was just an entity,” she says. “And it’s not. It’s a moving, breathing, living thing. The union is everybody in it.”
“And if we didn’t have a union, that would have pretty much left us to the wolves, so to speak,” Marisol explains. “It would leave us in a position where we would have to face management on our own.”
She says that without a union her coworkers and she would have no job security, be poorly paid and be forced to quit in greater numbers. The employee roster would change from one year to the next. And this would have a tremendous impact on students.
“Working with children, consistency is key,” she points out.
Marisol is deeply committed to education. Having started her education career as a teacher’s assistant in El Oro Way Elementary School in Granada Hills more than 15 years ago, and with the intention of eventually becoming a teacher, she instead arrived at helping teach students with special needs because she noticed early on in her career that they were the ones most in need of support.
“I have this knack for trying to get through to children, for breaking things down in order for them to grasp whatever it is that they’re trying to learn,” she says. An elementary school teacher Marisol was working with noticed this natural talent and encouraged her to continue in that direction.
So when an opportunity to assume that role full time came along, that teacher advised her to apply, which Marisol did.
Her first three years were “really hard,” she admits. She worked with elementary school students with autism and sensory issues, conditions she didn’t completely understand at first. But in interacting with them, she also learned from them. In some ways, she saw herself in them.
“I had a lot of holes in my own education,” she confides. But one middle school teacher and one counselor in high school went the extra mile for her, even tutoring her at home after school for free. “I still remember them to this day,” she says. “And I’m very thankful for that.”
Like that teacher and counselor she fondly remembers, she wants to make a difference in the lives of her students.
“These are children who have been left behind, or people have just given up on them because of their disability—or because of their lack of understanding of their disability,” she says. “And I don’t think that that’s fair. This is somebody’s little boy or little girl.”
For Marisol, her work as a Special Education Assistant and a union activist go hand-in-hand.
“Imagine if you drop your union membership, and then other people drop, and other people drop, we’ll lose our strength in numbers,” she says. “Employers will have the ability to cut your hours, cut your medical benefits, cut pretty much your whole livelihood, and they can put you anywhere they want. If you speak-up about cuts or other issues that affect our kids, they’ll be able to shut you down by firing you with whatever severance pay, if any. But as union members, standing together, we can prevent that. We have each other’s strength and support, and real protections, to speak up for our livelihoods and for the students we serve.”
When working people stick together in a union, they gain the power in numbers to improve their jobs and the services they provide. But working people’s freedom to form a union is under attack. A case before the Supreme Court this year called Janus v AFSCME is the latest attempt by big corporations to rig the system against working people. Find out more and fight back by signing a union membership card.