University of California strike called off

AFSCME Local 3299 member Kathryn Lybarger reports on the struggle of University of California workers for a new contract.

THROUGHOUT 10 months of contract negotiations, some 8,500 service workers and 11,500 patient care technicians across the University of California (UC) system have been demanding equal pay for equal work.

Believing that we were at an impasse with UC management over this and other key issues, thousands of us voted overwhelmingly--by an average of 97 percent--to authorize a strike.

On May 24, the day after the vote, our union, AFSCME Local 3299, notified the university that its service and patient care units would strike UC's 10 campuses and five medical centers June 4 and 5.

UC management, clearly worried, went to the state Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) to try to stop the strike. They claimed that patient care workers are too essential to the operation of UC's medical centers to be allowed to strike. Management also said that they have more to offer us at the bargaining table. On May 29, the PERB ordered us back into negotiations, and the union agreed to rescind its strike notice in order to hear what management has to say.

But until now, management hasn't acted like we're too valuable to miss a day of work. The UC system pays its patient care and service workers an average of 25 percent less than what workers earn doing comparable jobs at community colleges and Kaiser and Sutter hospitals across California. The result is understaffing and high turnover at the medical centers, which is bad for patient safety.

Moreover, UC's poverty wages qualify 96 percent of service workers for some form of public assistance, which is why UC is called the "Wal-Mart of higher education." Thousands of us work two or three jobs, collect cans or don't buy needed medications in order to make ends meet.

While it's true that the university is facing a state budget shortfall, only 8.6 percent of the workers that Local 3299 represents are funded by the state. The rest of us are funded by auxiliaries that are doing very well, and by the hospitals that brought in net revenues of $371 million last year. Moreover, management has never argued that they have an inability to pay.

Indeed, the administration brought in the new UC president this year at $400,000 more than his predecessor, bringing his total compensation to almost $1 million. They found $9.1 million to fix up his mansion. And they just paid a $2 million lump-sum retirement to UC Berkeley's outgoing police chief, and then hired her back to her old job at a 25 percent salary increase.

But the administration won't commit to wage increases that lift their workers out of poverty.

To try to beat us, UC is spending piles of money on the services of two law firms (one of them, Littler Mendelson, is the number one union-busting law firm in the country), and the PR firm Hill and Knowlton (think Enron and Big Tobacco). Their problem with our demands is clearly a matter of policy, not funding.

Faced with the prospect of a strike by our entire union together, management had good reason to be nervous. We are feeling confident, but we know that now is not the time to relax.

The union has made June 4 a statewide day of action. We'll show management that, while we may not be striking, we won't back down until we get the contract we deserve.