Lead Organizer at Interfaith Center for Worker Justice
San Diego, California
Class of 2012, Illustration major
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
The call and response echoes outside a LabCorp office 15 minutes north of San Diego, California, as about 100 workers and union members in yellow, orange, and purple T-shirts encircle the building. The mid-September sun beats down on the protesters who are encouraging the medical testing company to recognize their union, stop understaffing, and increase wages.
One of the only marchers not in a T-shirt is Cristina Hernandez ’12. Dressed all in black, she grips an Interfaith Center for Worker Justice banner with a pastor wearing an embroidered stole. Hernandez alternates between chanting, calling clergy scheduled to speak at the event, and snapping photos for the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice of San Diego County Facebook page. The LabCorp campaign is one of about 15 for which Hernandez is currently working on as the lead organizer at ICWJ.
Hernandez is one of only two paid staff members of the San Diego organization that brings people of faith together to rally for worker justice. The board is made up of a rabbi, an imam, priests, reverends, a nun, and other religious leaders. ICWJ did not organize this particular event, but was asked to participate by UFCW Local 135.
“They call us first, because they know that the faith community makes a huge impact,” says Hernandez, who attends Christian Fellowship Congregational Church of San Diego. “Even though our religions disagree on many things, we all agree on the inherent dignity of people.” One of the signs that ICWJ members bring to events says, “All religions believe in justice.”
“She’s an organizer beyond compare. I can’t imagine doing this work without Cristina,” says Rev. Dr. Beth Johnson of Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and co-president of the ICWJ board. “Cristina has a deep sense of what her faith calls her to do.”
Hernandez’ duties include organizing and mobilizing communities of faith to support worker justice, engaging on social media, and managing many of the daily operations of the organization. The labor movement was new to Hernandez when she took the job two years ago, and at first she struggled with how protest fit with her faith.
As she studied Scripture, she saw the importance of using her power to advocate for others. “Jesus advocated for the poor, the oppressed, and the outcasts, and spoke truth to power,” she says. “Jesus also turned tables and called Pharisees a brood of vipers.”
Her interest in the connection between faith and justice began when she was a reconciliation studies minor at Seattle Pacific. Bob Zurinsky, senior pastor of Seattle’s Emmanuel Bible Church and former assistant director of University Ministries at SPU, mentored Hernandez at SPU. “From early on, I was struck by the way Cristina combines kindness and a passion for justice,” he says. “Cristina possesses that rare combination of traits that allow her to form deep personal connections with others while pushing forward in matters of justice and community change.”
As the intercultural director for Associated Students of Seattle Pacific at the time, Hernandez worked to elevate the position to a vice president position with more say and more pay. That did not affect her compensation, but the paychecks of subsequent students in the current vice president of intercultural affairs position.
After graduation, Hernandez moved back to San Diego and started nannying for a 4-month-old. Her employers negotiated a lower wage soon after her hire. “I needed a job, so I said OK,” she says.
Hernandez was asked to hold the baby at all times — whether awake or asleep. This made breaks impossible, and Hernandez lost weight. The family was frequently late, requiring unexpected overtime. “At the time, it just felt like a bunch of little things, but they add up,” she says. “Now, I can connect to the workers because I know what it’s like to be taken advantage of, and to feel like you can’t quit. That happened to me as an educated, English-speaking woman, and I’m also a U.S. citizen — those are all privileges I have, and I was still treated this way.”
The stories of workers can weigh on her. This past spring, Hernandez helped organize a Maundy Thursday march in downtown San Diego to support janitors who were asking for a living wage and protections against sexual assault on the job. A recent PBS documentary, Rape on the Night Shift, has helped bring attention to the plight of female janitors, many undocumented, who are assaulted and threatened with deportation by their superiors. “They’re this invisible group of people,” Hernandez says. “Their wages are barely above minimum wage. They get off work at 3 a.m., and sit at the bus stop for hours, waiting for the first bus to arrive.”
Many of the janitors are Catholic, and they came up with idea of taking turns carrying a heavy wooden cross during the procession. The march ended at Civic Center Plaza where nearly 30 clergy from many different faiths washed the janitors’ feet, and the janitors told their stories.
“The women shared things out loud that they hadn’t even been able to share with their own families,” Hernandez says.
A month later, the San Diego janitors renegotiated a contract with higher wages and health care coverage. And, for the first time, there was language that protected them from sexual assault and harassment on the job. “Now they have some direction as to who to contact if something happens,” Hernandez says.
In mid-September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a statewide bill to protect janitors from sexual assault, and also signed bills to give farm workers and domestic workers overtime. All three bills were part of campaigns that Hernandez supported with ICWJ.
The victories felt sweet.
“I had no idea before I started working here how people are treated in the buildings I walk through all of the time. When I first found out, I thought ‘If only the management knew.’ Then I found out that they do know, they just don’t care,” she says. “We are trying to encourage those with power to put people before profits.”
— Julia Siemens
How does your time at SPU connect to what you’re doing today?
My time at SPU helped expand my understanding of how social justice and faith are so tightly tied together. It laid the groundwork for what I am now learning through organizing and I am very grateful for it.
Which SPU faculty or staff member made a difference in your education?
Susan Okamoto Lane was my advisor my senior year and was an excellent friend, mentor, and encourager. She had so much wisdom and experience to share and was always there when I needed her. There were times where I felt like I couldn’t do something or that I felt overwhelmed, and Susan would support me, encourage me, and help me move forward to accomplish what needed to be done. I have so many memories of her praying over me in her corner office. Her powerful prayers supported me through my senior year and beyond.
What advice would you give to current SPU students?
Be open to God’s plans and timing.