An insult of a contract at UC

Dan Russell reports on a rotten contract imposed on thousands of workers in the University of California system--and on the potential for a fightback.

AFSCME health care workers at UCSF walk the picket line (Labor Video Project)AFSCME health care workers at UCSF walk the picket line (Labor Video Project)

THE UNIVERSITY of California (UC) system forced an austerity contract on 8,300 service workers on September 25, less than two months after imposing a similar deal on 12,000 patient care workers.

Both groups are represented by AFSCME Local 3299. Not only were these workers denied any pay raises, but they are being forced to pay more into their pension benefits, which are being cut for a newly created second tier of workers. Retiree health care is also being cut for a "second tier" that includes almost half of current workers.

Health care and research and technical workers, represented by University Professional and Technical Employees-Communication Workers of America (UPTE), are also without a contract as UC refuses to negotiate on the tiered pension system. UPTE even offered for workers to cover the cost increase if it meant keeping all workers in a single tier. UC rejected this, however--showing it is more interested in driving a wedge between existing and new workers, rather than saving money.

Management has declared an impasse and is likely to impose a contract on these workers in the near future if it receives approval to do so from the Public Employee Relations board. UPTE has responded with a strike authorization vote for the week of October 14.

AFSCME struck for two days over the summer with support from UPTE, but still faced complete intransigence from management. Even after showing willingness to accept a second tier--if workers were compensated with raises--management chose to impose its terms unilaterally.

This overconfidence could come back to bite management: AFSCME remains free to strike at will, which means that sympathy strikes with UPTE are possible, as well as solidarity from graduate employees represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) and nurses represented by the California Nurses Association (CNA), who are also without a contract.

The 13,000 UC graduate employees in UAW Local 2865 are preparing for a contract fight, too. They are hoping to raise their pay from a paltry $15,000 a year, reduce class sizes, and secure basic health care and child care provisions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

UC CLAIMS that its offers are fair--that pay and benefits are "competitive" and changes to the pension system are necessary for it to remain "sustainable."

However, UC previously admitted that some employee wages are 25 percent below market rate. Many employees qualify for public assistance, while executive salaries and pensions have skyrocketed.

Pensions and a secure retirement are mostly a thing of the past, and if our unions aren't able to draw the line, they could be gutted or worse in the UC system. Rather than trying to eliminate collective-bargaining rights as Republican-dominated states have done, bosses in California are simply trampling them, confident that workers are not prepared to resist.

Anyone who follows labor struggles will immediately recognize the tried-and-true tactics that UC is using: dividing current and incoming workers, while fostering a race to the bottom by pointing to non-market wages that are far lower. We've heard the same accusations leveled at Bay Area Rapid Transit workers, who are likely to return to the picket lines in the coming weeks. San Jose's Democratic mayor, backed by a ballot measure, has moved to renege on that city's public-sector pension obligations--a battle that is now being taken to the courts.

Public employees largely fought and won their benefits in an era when private-sector unions were strong. Now that these have been decimated, state bureaucrats are coming after public-sector unions. Resistance and community-alliances against austerity have been the exception rather than the rule, but they remain our only chance to turn the tide.

Both AFSCME and UPTE have extended an olive branch to incoming UC President (and former Homeland Security Secretary) Janet Napolitano, perhaps hoping she will blunt the attacks in order to keep labor from joining vocal student and faculty opposition. While this can't be ruled out, it is more likely that a mainstream Democrat fresh out of the Obama administration, with its commitments to austerity and education "reform," will carry on the assault.

While Napolitano has no record on higher education, she was previously governor of a right-to-work state where she followed the neoliberal playbook on school reform by supporting the expansion of charter schools. And how could we forget her spotless record in leading Obama's relentless war on immigrant workers and families?

UC unions won't win alone--and they certainly won't win divided. We need to work with students and faculty to oppose attacks on academic freedom, dissent and affordable public education. We also need to stand with unorganized workers, particularly .

Ultimately, we must be prepared to stand and strike together, in spite of management's attempts to divide us.