UC workers are fighting for respect

April 16, 2018

Members of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 24,000 custodians and service workers at 10 University of California (UC) campuses across the state, along with UC medical facilities, will be holding a strike vote on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 17 and 18. AFSCME members have been working without a contract since the expiration of the old agreement at the end of last year, and the administration has stonewalled negotiations.

Instead of offering workers a wage that keeps up with the skyrocketing cost of living in California, administrators proposed a 2 percent pay increase, which, combined with an increase in employee health care costs and pension contributions, amounts to no increase in take-home pay for the most overworked and underpaid employees of the UC system.

Meanwhile, the University of California, the largest employer in the state, has been trying for years to subcontract union jobs to avoid paying health benefits or increasing pay based on seniority. AFSCME and students at UC Berkeley challenged this several years ago to win "insourcing" for some custodial workers at UC Berkeley who had been employed at the university for over a decade in "temporary" positions.

At the end of February, Derek Hill, a senior custodian for the Crossroads dining hall at UC Berkeley, and Shelley Mitchell, an organizer for AFSCME Local 3299, talked to Josh Wilner and Casie Stone, about what the union was fighting for. In the meanwhile, there have been several more protests and plans for AFSCME members to vote on strike authorization.

The interview took place after a February 1 picket at UC Berkeley to rally support for AFSCME's contract campaign, where an African American dining hall worker named David Cole was tackled and thrown to the ground by UC police. He was arrested and held for hours, despite bleeding profusely from his head. Since this interview, a solidarity campaign for Cole got UC to drop the charges against him.

DEREK, LET'S start by talking about your workload as custodial staff and about understaffing, and how that affects you on the job as the head of a dining facility?

Derek: It means I have to do double work, for one thing. And sometimes it can be stressful--you'll be tired. They'll say that they'll get new help, but then the new help is good, but you have to train them, so that's doubling my workload again. I have to watch them and make sure they understand their job, and I have to do my job.

Shelley: That's especially true with Derek--Crossroads serves the most students.

Derek: At night, we serve at least 1,500.

For custodians, there's supposed to be five of us, sometimes six. But it's so much work that people are always calling in sick, so we never have six people. We never have five people, to tell you the truth--it's almost always four or three.

That's pretty much across the board. The custodians, the cooks, the food service workers, everybody. We're short on staff, and because of it, people get tired and sick.

Service workers at UC Berkeley rally for a fair contract
Service workers at UC Berkeley rally for a fair contract (AFSCME 3299)

WHAT ARE the issues that you're trying to bring to the fore in contract negotiations?

Shelley: We're telling the university to respect us--respect the dignity of labor. Respect that we want a 6 percent increase each year for the next three years. The university is trying to offer workers 0 percent for the next five years. This is all of the UC system--we have 23,000 members across the whole system, including the medical centers.

We're asking that they respect our work that we're doing, and that we have to go home and take care of our families with the wages we make here. The cost of living is going up, and we all live in the Bay Area.

Plus we want to maintain the pensions and the health care we have. They're asking us to contribute more into our health care, but we're getting injured more because the university is understaffing us--on purpose, I might add. The university has increased its buildings everywhere, but have they increased our numbers? No, they've decreased us.

This is something that we need to make clear--the university can act if they care. They always say they care about their workers. So show us.

Let me be clear: the university did offer us a 2 percent raise. But they're also making workers like Derek pay more for health care, and they also want him to contribute more to his pension--which they want to transfer over into a risky 401k, which is dependent on the markets. You can't know what his retirement is going to look like that way.

So are we at 2 percent? No, we're at 0 percent.

They want to contract out our jobs. They want to be able to pay a contracting service to complete our jobs at a lower rate. They want to push out our members, some of whom have been here for 30 years plus, because they have to pay them.

I have members who've been employed here for 33 years now, but they can't retire, because they aren't at the age. But UC wants to get rid of them and contract out their jobs. They don't want to hire regular employees who will receive benefits along with wages.

A COUPLE of years ago, you had a successful campaign to insource some of those subcontracted jobs.

Shelley: The university is understaffing us as workers, and we need those custodian jobs. We did fight to insource 100 custodian jobs from contracting services, because these were people who were at contracting services, working for the university, for 12, 13, 14 years.

They're not temporary. Pay them benefits, pay them the proper wages. Honor them as working people, respect that they're working for their families, and bring them on to get full benefits.

Right now, when there's work that needs to be done, and they don't want to give us overtime, they go ahead and get a contracting service. Let's just do it the cheaper way.

Derek: They've been doing that for years.

SO THEY'RE just trying to cut anything they can from you.

Shelley: The UC says they're broke.

WHAT HAPPENED to that slush fund we found out about last year? UC President Janet Napolitano was criticized for hiding tens of millions of dollars, even from the Board of Regents, and planning how to spend it without input, along with paying for higher salaries and benefits for administrators.

Shelley: AFSCME pushed for an audit, and $175 million is what we found in a slush fund. I was told that Janet Napolitano said that she was putting it aside for the DREAMers--that was her excuse, she was blaming it on the DREAMers.

WHY IS the university is taking such a hard line? Maybe this is what they always do, but it seems more extreme this time, to not offer any sort of pay increase once the extra costs of health care is counted--especially with the cost of living in the Bay Area rising so quickly. And it sounds like you're understaffed all the time. Why do they think they're in a position to do something like this?

Shelley: We've been through numerous bargaining session, and we're still asking that question as well: Why the hard line? What have our members done to the university, besides keep it running every day? That's something that we're puzzled about--that there's no movement at the table.

Derek: And they're always talking about teamwork, but they aren't acting like they're part of the team.

WE WANTED to ask both of you about what happened on February 1. There was a picket of AFSCME members at UC Berkeley, both to publicize ongoing contract negotiations and in remembrance of Dr. King on picket line in Memphis in 1968. After the picket took the streets, a coworker of yours, David Cole, was singled out for abuse by a driver, and then police ended up violently arresting him.

UC Berkeley is has been in the spotlight over the past year with far-right, neo-fascist forces coming to town and to the campus, and the UCPD has gotten huge amounts of money to barricade off sections of campus--to militarize the campus. Can you speak to how those things affect you as workers on campus?

Shelley: I was a worker before I was an organizer, and my opinion is simply that UCPD shouldn't be on campus.

We have to look to the UC leadership about this and about what happened to David Cole. Ultimately, any change is going to happen there. Train them correctly! You can pay $4 million, or around that much, to protect a fascist--so you can go ahead and protect your workers.

Derek: The police are supposed to here to protect and serve us. But like I told Shelley earlier today, they served the wrong way. That wasn't any protection for David Cole. And they work for the same people we work for. To me, that was uncalled for.

WHAT CAN community members do to help with the struggle?

Shelley: Whenever you hear AFSCME is holding something through our different networks, attend. Show up--show your numbers in solidarity because the UC needs to feel that our members, who are the biggest union on their campuses, want that respect.

Derek: I've been with UC Berkeley for 11 years. And like I've said, unions are important.

I have friends who say: "Well Derek, you know the unions are no good, because people don't want to come to work, they can always call in sick because they have unions for protection." And I said he might be right about that, but if you didn't have a union, you wouldn't have a job to call in sick to.

When I was a youngster, I was in the Teamsters union, and my stepfather was in a union--everybody in my family was in a union, except my older sister, who's in management. But for myself, I need a union.

Like Shelley said, people are trying to bust up the unions so they can take advantage of working class people. So they can make people do this and do that and overwork them, and then we don't have a leg to stand on. So I'm all for the unions.

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