Marisol Garcia Wants to Transform Arizona's Teachers Union

Marisol Garcia sits in her office at AEA headquarters in downtown Phoenix.
Marisol Garcia sits in her office at AEA headquarters in downtown Phoenix. Sheenae Shannon
Building a labor movement in Phoenix is no easy task. Over the past year, though, the labor movement in Phoenix has seen some major wins.

Last fall, airport workers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport went on a 10-day strike, scoring a new contract after years of bargaining. In June, a former budtender at Curaleaf’s dispensary in Gilbert won her job back after arguing in court that the cannabis giant fired her for organizing. And employees at Starbucks locations across the Valley joined unions — becoming some of the first unions at the coffeehouse chain in the country.

To commemorate Labor Day, Phoenix New Times spoke with four union leaders and rank-and-file workers — from teachers to dispensary workers — about the victories and struggles of the past year, and the labor movement in Arizona.

The Labor of Love series:

Today: Marisol Garcia is the newly elected president of the Arizona Education Association, Arizona's teachers union. She was a key figure in the historic #RedForEd teachers movement in 2018, and the first woman of color to lead AEA.

Laila Dalton on Surviving Starbucks' Union-Busting Tactics

Victoria Stahl Joined the Picket Line at Sky Harbor. The Strike Worked.

Anissa Keane Won Her Job Back Two Years After Being Fired for Organizing
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Marisol Garcia speaks at a #RedForEd rally in April 2018.

'Almost Every Room I Enter, I’m the Only Woman of Color'

There is a moment from a historic teachers’ walkout in 2018 that Marisol Garcia, the newly elected president of the Arizona Education Association, will never forget. She was leaving Diamondback Stadium just after sunrise on the first day of the walkout, leading the march to the Arizona State Capitol.

That morning, Garcia recalled, she did not know that #RedForEd would become a movement, drawing participation from tens of thousands of teachers across the state, demanding better pay and increased school funding. She remembers feeling as she walked that the stakes were immensely high. People could get fired. People could lose their benefits. "And it's all on our shoulders," she said.

It was not until she arrived at the statehouse, and watched the crowd fill in, that she realized the scale of the protest.

At that time, Garcia said, #RedForEd was seemingly unstoppable. “It was so pure,” she said. At the end of August, when she met with New Times, Garcia sat at her desk, wearing her usual scarlet blouse, the color of the movement. Photos of the protest, of the vast crowds of red, filled the AEA’s offices. Four years — and a pandemic — later, though, Garcia admitted that the state of things is different.

“Yes, there was a small victory,” she said. “But it also came with backlash. Like, tremendous backlash. And then we got hit with COVID-19. And it became triage.” The union’s focus, she said, rightly turned to safety measures for teachers and students in 2020. That, in turn, inspired more backlash, from those opposed to masks in schools and other safety policies.

Now, following years in AEA’s senior leadership as a board member and then vice president, Garcia has taken the helm. She hopes to bring a “totally different paradigm for how we’re going to fight back" to Arizona's teachers union.

If anyone has the chops to do so, it would be Garcia. She is a self-described “education kid." Both her parents worked in the field. She spent a decade after college as a field organizer for political candidates in California before she, as she put it, “joined the family business.” Now 49, she has spent most of her career in public education.

“I was like, I’m done with politics. I don’t want to organize anymore. I just want to close my door and teach my children,” Garcia said. She paused. “But it just doesn’t work like that.”

After a few years teaching in San Francisco, Garcia moved back to the Valley, where she had gone to elementary school and junior high. She taught middle school history for the Isaac School District, a small district in west Phoenix. There, she recalled, she witnessed “the most abject poverty I had ever seen in my life.” Some of her students had no running water or air conditioning at home.

At the time — the late 2000s — Joe Arpaio was in power, heading up the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. “My students could not tell you who the vice president was, but they could tell you everything about Sheriff Joe,” Garcia said. Immigration raids led by Arpaio kept students from leaving school, she noted. Families in the district were split apart. Garcia was frustrated by the district administration's response. Meanwhile, when she enrolled her own son in kindergarten, she was a single mother and qualified for free-and-reduced lunch on her teacher's salary. That infuriated her.

It did not take long before Garcia was back to organizing.

After joining the union, Garcia slowly moved up through the ranks. She served as president of the Isaac School District's local union, and ultimately was elected vice president of AEA in 2016. She ran unopposed for president in May, and took office July 7. She’s the first woman of color to head the organization after nearly two decades of white male leadership. The change is a meaningful — and needed — one, she said.

Garcia identifies as Chicana. Her grandparents, who were farmers in Fruita, Colorado, were forced to be sharecroppers on land they once owned. “Almost every room I enter, I’m the only woman of color,” she said. “Even labor leadership rooms.” She hopes to bring a lens of racial and social justice to the union’s top office.

Garcia also has promised to grow the teachers union, with an “aspirational” goal of doubling membership in three to six years. And she is adamant about pushing back on conservative conceptions of unions in Arizona. After #RedForEd, invoking the “teachers’ union” has become a cheap shot from the right.

Garcia has no tolerance for this. “There’s no secret person running this place,” she said. “It’s all of us. If you don’t like unions, you don’t like your kindergarten teacher who’s helping your child open their applesauce. If you don’t like unions, you don’t like the bus driver who brings your child to school.”

She knows all too well that, in the wake of the #RedForEd backlash, and in a state like Arizona, which has one of the worst funded public school systems in the country, the work will not be easy. But it doesn't faze her. "We'll get there," she said. "We have no choice."
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk