Celebrating Women’s History Month: Q&amp;A with Mary Gutierrez-Khopkar

For our final Q&A celebrating women in the California labor movement to honor Women’s History Month, we sat down with Mary Gutierrez-Khopkar. With experience in labor, federal and state politics, Mary Gutierrez-Khopkar currently serves as Child Care Campaign Director for the largest union organization in California, the State Council of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU California,). SEIU California is the coordinating political body for over 17 SEIU locals throughout California representing over 700,000 school employees, child care providers, homecare workers, janitors, social workers, court employees, healthcare workers, and other service employees. In this capacity, Mary is responsible for leading strategy and implementation of one of the largest union organizing efforts in the country by trying to win collective bargaining rights with the state on behalf of a predominantly female workforce of over 60,000 family child care providers.

Prior to leading the Child Care campaign, Mary worked as Special Assistant to the Executive Director of SEIU Local 99, a school employees and child care local.  In addition, she worked as Communications Director for SEIU California and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO – the second largest central labor council in the country. She’s also worked for the California Democratic Party, former Assemblywoman Nicole Parra and Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez all in a communications capacity.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! To start off, can you describe your background in the labor movement? When and where did you get your start?

From an early age I knew I wanted to help people. I just didn’t know how. My father was a janitor and I saw how hard he and my mom worked to be able to provide for my sister and I. That inspired me to want to do something that helped people. I started by looking to politics and I began working on political campaigns, Congress, and the California State Legislature. After years of working various progressive campaigns, I started to feel a little disconnected from my purpose and made a shift to work for unions. I worked in Communications as the Director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor as well as SEIU California. Working in communications can be tough- often you’re the one organizing everyone across departments- but I loved getting to work with the very people who inspired me to get involved in politics in the first place. 

What are you working on now?

I am the Child Care Campaign Director for SEIU State Council and have been for about a year now. When I saw the opportunity to work on this campaign I knew I had to go for it.  The primary goal of the campaign is to win collective bargaining rights with the state for over 60,000 family child care providers, primarily women of color who make as little as $4.98 an hour, but who make it possible for parents to go to work and prepare our kids to start school ready to learn. It is our hope that by having a voice with the state we can begin to really fix our state's broken child care system that fails so many families trying to move out of poverty.  This campaign is meaningful for me in that it addresses many significant issues facing working people, particularly working women in California. There’s never going to be a shortage of people talking about the need to “rebuild our economy”, but the factors that truly help working families lift themselves out of poverty are too often overlooked, such as access to quality affordable child care that allows men and women to go to work. There’s substantial research showing how important early learning programs are for development; however 1.2 million kids in our state qualify for subsidized child care but can’t access it because we don’t have enough spaces for them.

What are you most proud of?

I have to say the campaign I’m currently working on. I’ve had great experiences in my career fighting for progressive causes, but this one in particular hits close to home. The childcare providers I work with every day, most of whom are women, inspire me. They’ve been committed to reforming our system and fighting for their right to collectively bargain for over 11 years! I’m proud to stand next to them.

I want to have children someday and I am solid middle-class. The costs of childcare scare me! I can’t imagine the sacrifices families living in poverty have to make. 

What do you say to people who think everything is ok and people should be able to pay for childcare on their own?

We run into this a lot. For decades, our state has been sending women mixed messages about this. They say, “get a job and keep it, but don’t expect any support from us”. They’re told not to leave their kids at home alone, even as they can’t possibly afford quality childcare with low-wage jobs.  They’re lectured about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, yet our lack of support has essentially nailed those same boots to the floor. It’s an incredibly unfair expectation we put on people, especially women and it’s not working. These are divisive messages and ultimately, they hurt working families. Our campaign, Raising California Together is about working  on solutions that are based in reality  and improve the status quo.

What about this work has kept you in the movement?

I feel like we’re making real change. The more we educate, the more people stand behind the idea that all work has dignity, no one working should be living in poverty, and families need access to high quality and affordable childcare.

I’m also fueled by the sense of community when you work in unions. No one is above any task. In the same day you can help drive public policy, create a strategic campaign plan, then go order food and porta potties for your next event. It keeps you real and it keeps you humble.  

As more women join unions as members, union staff, and as leaders, it’s clear that it benefits the movement as a whole. What stands out to you from your personal experiences as evidence of this? How can we be even more inclusive?

Women bring a different perspective to the table. Women have always been expected to do it all. Thanks to the labor and women’s rights movements, we can now persue the same careers as men. However, we also maintained our other non-paid jobs at home. We can work 70 hours a week and climb up the career ladder, but when we go home, we begin our second shift of cleaning, taking care of the home, and raising  families. This is why I love working with women. We are busy, therefore, we don’t have time to mess around. The women I’m working with on our campaign are decisive and diligent. They have to go home and help their kids with homework and feed them so they are focused, thorough and determined. The labor movement needs more women like this at the table and in positions of leadership. We get stuff done.

Who is someone you look up to in the labor movement?

Maria Elena Durazo, the former Executive Secretary-Treasurer and who is now the Vice President for Immigration, Civil Rights and Diversity at Unite HERE. She was my first teacher in the movement. She worked us hard but never required anything of an organizer or staff person she wouldn’t do herself. She led by example so you wanted to make her proud. It was always so obvious how much she cared about every single worker she met. This wasn’t a job for her; it was a way of life.