Mike Garcia served as the President of SEIU United Service Workers West between 1988 and 2014. He was a warrior in the labor movement, organizing janitors to stand up for better wages, working conditions, and just immigration policy. Garcia was one of the key leaders in the Justice for Janitors movement. He was the Padrino of the Labor movement and a fierce champion for education and education reform. He died and transitioned on Saturday.
When I was just getting started as an organizer and involved in politics as a teen in the early ‘90s, the Justice for Janitors movement was gaining momentum. It was the first time that Labor leaders invested in Latino workers in a serious and strategic way. I may have not known Garcia then, but I certainly was aware of the striking janitors who were making their voices heard in Los Angeles and in other cities. I protested along their side. I was in awe of their courage and envisioned that when I grew up, I would also fight for our community’s rights even, and especially, in the face of insurmountable odds.
In the next few days, there will be glowing tributes to Mike Garcia and for good reason. He was a fierce advocate for the most vulnerable workers, and he led some amazing fights such as the janitorial organizing campaigns at high tech giants like Oracle, Apple and Hewlett Packard and a historic strike in Los Angeles in 2000 with workers at 500 worksites walking off the job for three weeks. He changed the narrative of labor and made sure that working class Latinos were not only in the conversation but leading the conversation for justice, equity and were grounded in a sense of hope for themselves and their children.
You can read the tribute from SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry to Garcia here.
What some may not know about Garcia was that he worked on educational equity and supported charter schools, even served on the board of Green Dot Public Schools. I was at the table when Mike agreed to be on the Green Dot board. I was grateful and happy because I knew it would be game changing. Advocating for education reform and charter schools was a lonely place for me as an unapologetic Chicana Progressive Democrat. Other Democrats like us would take notice and together, we could push for more reform, more educational justice for our communities who are conveniently ignored or trivialized in the education conversation. Was it his political statement? Absolutely.
He was a visionary leader who cared enough about his members to ask them what they wanted. He surveyed them and when the surveys came back, the members spoke loud and clear: education was their top priority. So, he looked for solutions. Public charter schools made sense in many of the areas where his union members lived. He helped us open several of the schools while I was at Green Dot. Many of the SEIU members were founding parents at the schools. Those SEIU members, and their biggest hope, their children, who are now college-educated adults, are a part of his legacy.
Garcia didn’t automatically side with the teachers’ unions. He taught me about the dynamics about the intersections of power within the labor movement. He knew that while they were sometimes aligned, they were sometimes not. Just as he changed the narrative of the labor movement that too often “forgot” to advocate for Latinos, immigrants, the poorest of the poor and people of color, he saw that in education, educational outcomes for kids were not always part of the debate nor were they a priority. As a result, he researched, asked questions, and became involved because he didn’t want the children of his members to be forced to attend failing schools. He fought for school options for them, with them.
Along with Steve Barr and Marshall Tuck, I was part of important conversations about how labor leaders, truly progressive labor leaders, could work for educational justice through our education reform work. We all understood that it should not be the divisive pro-charter vs. anti-charter debate. It had to be a “what is absolutely the best decision for students?” debate. Period.
He was bold and beautiful- a true community champion who was unafraid of talking the talk, and walking the walk. He stood with us as we advocated to open more charter schools. It was a beautiful feeling to have him speak on behalf of our vision of excellent schools at LAUSD board meetings. He was powerful. The LAUSD board members and staff simultaneously feared and revered him. It was a mix that I truly appreciated because I got to see it up close.
Under Garcia’s leadership, SEIU collaborated with both the Los Angeles Parents Union, which I co-founded, and Green Dot Public Schools to help parents gain the advocacy skills to communicate with teachers and district administrators to demand quality education. When I was preparing the trainings for the parents, I would call Mike for advice. He was a wonderful thought-partner and affirmed the incredibly powerful work that I was creating. Garcia wanted to see the children of janitors and other custodial workers have better opportunities, and he was unafraid to get involved so that those families would have choices. He also started an important program called the Building Schools Partnership for SEIU members and their children. Please see note below to see how you can support this important project and their Mike Garcia Scholarship Fund.
Mike Garcia was a great man, a leader to many, but for me, he was extra special because he put aside organizational politics and really listened to his members, their desire for quality schools and did the right thing. He represented all that is beautiful about Chicano leaders, fierce Latino leadership, and fearless Labor leadership.
He was generous with his mentorship, guidance and taught me how to become a better strategist. He taught me about organizing at a different level and the power of calling a thing a thing both, behind the scenes and at the podium.
I am eternally grateful for his leadership, mentorship and guidance. I am saddened by his death and now, will make it my mission to make sure that a school, an excellent school, is named in his memory.
Rest in Power Mike Garcia. Para siempre, Mike Garcia, tu estarás ¡Presente!
In lieu of In lieu of flowers, Mike’s wishes were for contributions to be made to the “Building Skills Partnership” C/O Mike Garcia Scholarship Fund, 828 West Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90015 in order to help SEIU members’ children attend college. All donations made to BSP are tax deductible. For more info, please email [email protected].
Share your reflections on Mike’s life and legacy by https://action.seiu.org/page/s/mike-garcia-reflections
Alma V. Marquez
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