Fighting for justice in the workplace is the primary goal of member leaders at SEIU Local 1000. Pete Garza, an SEIU International Delegate and Job Steward at CDCR, knew this the minute he got involved with his union. “I wanted to become a steward to help my work area fight bad management,” he said. “My priorities are to create a bully free and fair working environment.”
After getting involved at the local level, Pete soon realized how important the connections between his workplace and other public employees are. “My experiences being a delegate was an eye-opening experience, to say the least,” he said. “I have learned and witnessed so much.”
One of the things on Pete’s and everyone’s mind is workplace health and safety. “COVID-19 has changed the game,” he said. “My main focus throughout the pandemic has been safety for our members. Everything else is secondary.” Taking up that fight was not without challenges. In spite of the immediate needs of staff and the guidelines coming down from state and federal health professionals, changing the culture of a workplace to prioritize safety is a huge undertaking. “Through communication with members and management, we changed the way the departments thinks,” he said. “So many victories through bad situations seemed to be the theme for many moments last year. The biggest change was going from in-person to Zoom, email, and phone conversations to try to get information out.”
But in a workplace like Pete’s that has a wide range of classifications, these changes meant different things for different workers. “The work being done in our unit varies according to what classification you belong,” he said. “Custodians and Correctional Supervising Cooks dealt with a lot in the pandemic, from being short staffed and having mandated overtime to being asked to do essential work with COVID-positive inmates and co-workers.” The staffing issues for those who could not work remotely were also a significant challenge. “Many people were out for 14 to 21 days at a time,” he said, “which meant we were dealing with a lot of issues on ATO and worker’s comp.” However, the biggest challenges went beyond staffing.
In spite of the importance of workplace safety, logistical challenges and gaps in leadership led to a lot of confusion and disorder that put people’s health at risk. “We had no proper PPE gear, no proper gloves, mask, and chemicals that help fight against COVID,” he said. “Many precautions ended up being delayed because the department management didn’t know how to handle it.”
Due to this experience, should any future health crisis or situation require rapid responses from staff and management, Pete is working to ensure everyone is well-informed and involved in their workplace. “I’m excited to be involved with healthcare and learning all the information ot share it with our members,” he said. “I’m excited about the negotiation for our new contract, especially with my unit specific classification.” If these problems are going to be addressed, it will be when all the workers at these sites stand together at the table with the state and collectively bargain for a workplace that works for everyone.