Claudia Fernandez commands the group of ten students with great fervor and excitement, recounting a recent project or her latest cause as she sits crossed-legged on the floor. Her face lights up as she talks about organizing an action for the marginalized workers at a local Wendy’s restaurant chain and is so well spoken that her audience registers every word. Matching her enthusiasm for the cause, the audience nods, smiles, mumbles small agreements. Her dark, tired eyes indicate sleepless nights and a hectic schedule, but knowing a difference is made makes it all worth it.
Claudia Fernandez is the program coordinator for Santa Clara University’s Labor Action Committee. The committee supports and represents workers and workers’ rights on and off the Santa Clara University campus.
“[The labor movement] is so important because it brings people together and shows people’s humanity completely,” said Fernandez. “You get to see that we all need these basic rights and to fight for them…is really empowering.”
As an 18-year-old high school graduate, Fernandez was looking to escape the familiar walls of her Santa Monica home and her parents’ undivided attention as an only child. But, she entered her freshmen year at Santa Clara feeling unfulfilled and disengaged, knowing she wanted something more. It was not until the end of her freshman year that Fernandez stumbled upon the committee that made her realize “there were so many issues that affected people’s everyday lives.”
The issues were relatable to Fernandez given her family’s working class past. Her grandfather was a bracero, part of a US government program that sponsored workers from Mexico who, in turn, provided cheap labor for agriculture, railroad construction or other manual labor. She saw that participating in labor issues was a way to connect to her grandfather and to those who have not had the same opportunities she has.
Labor-related concerns became evermore pertinent one drive home to Southern California with her father when he turned and told her he was laid off from his 31-year employment at Boeing as a mechanical engineer. Fernandez immediately thought of a phrase she had learned from her internship at a labor union that summer—“Tomorrow Could Be You.”
“Our system is set up where people don’t have job security even if they are part of the professional class,” she said. “It happens on so many different levels and this became so personal to me. It has changed my perspective on a lot of things.”
Within her first weeks as program coordinator for the Labor Action Committee, Fernandez has begun campaigns ranging from workers’ rights in Bangladeshi sweatshops to supporting Santa Clara staff and faculty in their battle with new amendments to health coverage. She has also been working closely with union directors for facilities and service workers in order to maintain fair working conditions on campus.
Fernandez’s passion for labor rights is why Tony Maldonado says he and Fernandez “work very well together.” Maldonado is Santa Clara University Bon Appétit organizer for the Service Employees International Union. “She is very good at getting the student body involved in workers’ rights affairs on campus,” he said. “The more student support, the better.”
Student support at Santa Clara University is not the easiest to come by. The Labor Action Committee has an average of a dozen people at its meetings and events—something Fernandez desperately wants to combat as program coordinator. For committee member Hannah Rogers, Fernandez does a great job “empowering the group to act and get involved, even if it’s just a few of us.”