UC unions unite to strike for respect

May 7, 2018

Ragina Johnson and Diana Macasa report from the Bay Area on a strike this week by a coalition of unions representing workers across the University of California system.

SOME 53,000 workers across the University of California (UC) system are uniting for a three-day strike at campuses and hospitals this week to demand the wages and benefits they deserve.

The largest union at UC, AFSCME Local 3299, which represents technical and research workers, custodians, cooks, food service workers, gardeners and truck drivers, will begin its three-day strike with picketing and rallying at some 18 locations across the state.

After a year of negotiations, Local 3299 members are still fighting for a decent contract. Last month, they voted overwhelmingly--by a 97 percent margin--to authorize a strike.

In the run-up to the strike vote, AFSCME 3299 led a UC system-wide day of action on April 4, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to draw attention to the poverty wages UC pays its workers.

According to a report released by AFSCME, women and people of color are paid less than their white male peers for service jobs in the UC system. Starting wages for service jobs are 23 percent lower for Black women than their white male peers.

Workers at UC Berkeley demand a living wage and dignity on the job
Workers at UC Berkeley demand a living wage and dignity on the job (AFSCME 3299 | Facebook)

In an important show of solidarity, two other major unions at UC are going on strike to support Local 3299 on May 8 and 9: the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU) with 14,000-plus members, and the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA), which has more than 15,000 members in the system.

Both CNA/NNU and UPTE-CWA are also in contract negotiations with the UC.

Some 98 percent of CNA/NNU's members voted to take part in a sympathy strike, according to a union press release. As Michelle Kay, a nurse practitioner at the UC Berkeley Tang Center, said:

UC Student Health nurses are ready to sympathy strike to support our fellow UC service workers. We all play a critical role in making UC the institution it is. All UC workers deserve job security, safe working conditions, economic and retirement security, and we stand united with all UC workers demanding justice and fairness from UC administration.

UPTE-CWA explained why its members are striking in a statement:

UC refuses to bring AFSCME the kind of contract that they deserve, and all front-line workers need to stand with one another to make sure that none of us are left behind. We are very familiar with having to fight for the same issues--fair wages, a secure retirement and staffing levels and other conditions that promote quality research, education and patient care. Any unit winning a good contract will set a pattern that other units will follow.

UC HAS tried to intimidate workers every step of the way.

Last week, UC filed a legal action against AFSCME Local 3299 in an attempt to block more than 700 workers from joining the strike, claiming they would "pose an imminent and substantial threat to the public health and safety."

As Local 3299 spokesperson John de Los Angeles pointed out, "This is just another example of UC trying to diminish the ability of workers to speak up and speak out."

Among AFSCME's demands are a wage increase of 6 percent, a freeze on health care premiums and job security that eliminates subcontracting jobs. But the university's pathetic "last-and-best offer" was just 3 percent across the board and a prorated, lump-sum payment of $750.

UC bosses also plan to establish a 401(k)-style pension for new hires rather than maintaining the traditional pension. When AFSCME rejected this offer, the UC imposed it on the union.

On May 3, workers and supporters gathered at the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 student worker union hall for a "Socialist Solidarity Meeting: AFSCME Joins Strike Wave," hosted by the UC Berkeley branch of the International Socialist Organization and co-sponsored by La Voz de los Trabajadores.

An AFSCME 3299 worker told the crowd:

It's obvious that workers can't take a contract like that with no respect to our work and disregards everything that we do for this university [UC Berkeley]. The university is saying that our salary is up to market rate so we don't deserve anything more because we've already been taken care of. They're not accurate in their calculations and statements towards their greediness to the workers.

If we don't sacrifice three days, we're going to be living in hell for the next four years as they want us to. There's no guarantees that we're going to last four years if there's no layoff protections and no contracting out our jobs.

The speaker also described the impact of increased health care premiums:

If they increase our health care to the point where we're not able to pay our co-pays. If my kids get sick, how am I going to deal with this? If I can't pay my co-pays or my premiums keep going higher and higher, how am I going to be able to help my own kids? None of us are exempt to get sick. Maybe it's not the wages, maybe it's not the protections, but it's our family's well being. This is a personal attack.

The university system's subcontracting of Local 3299 work is a huge issue and one that the union has been fighting around for years.

When AFSCME members retire, the university replaces them with low-wage contractors, who are basically university employees, but not included in the union because they are contractors. The contract workers are paid poverty wages, and some of them end up on food stamps, living on the couches of family members or friends, and working for the UC system for years with no benefits.

The use of contract workers puts a burden on AFSCME workers to train and cover the extra work contractors don't have the experience doing. Many of these contractors are immigrant workers who face especially horrible working conditions due to racism.

ULTIMATELY, THIS strike is also about solidarity in the workplace. AFSCME is pushing back against the "divide-and-rule" strategy of UC bosses, who have created a tiered workforce.

California was just named the fifth-largest economy in the world, and the University of California is the largest employer in the state--with some 200,000 workers. It's clear that the UC system is flush with money, and this isn't lost on workers who are simply asking what is owed them in terms of pay, job security, health care and retirement.

For workers in the Bay Area, with its skyrocketing cost of living, their wages are nowhere near what they need to live.

Yet UC Berkeley spent millions of dollars to help provide far-right speakers with a platform on campus while trying to squash opposition from students and faculty, and thereby further militarizing the campus and police.

To that end, UC police tackled and arrested UC Berkeley dining hall worker David Cole at a February 1 labor protest called by AFSCME to draw attention to low wages and victimizations by the administration. Cole, who's African American, was racially profiled by police.

If UC administrators wanted to pay its workers what they deserve, they might also take it from the slush fund discovered in an audit of the university last year, which showed that UC President Janet Napolitano's office hid tens of millions of dollars in reserves--from its own board of regents.

In an interview in SocialistWorker.org, AFSCME Local 3299 organizer Shelley Mitchell said, "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."

OVER THE last few years, neoliberal cuts have meant worsening conditions for workers and students alike at UC campuses.

The UC system wants to keep making its campuses more profitable--with fewer services for students and decreased wages and benefits for workers--but the AFSCME strike shows how our side can come together and push back against these attacks.

AFSCME workers are asking everyone who supports them to join their rallies and picket lines.

UC Berkeley graduate student Erica West explained why she will be on the picket line:

I am so thankful for the workers in AFSCME who make our campus run, and I am thrilled about this opportunity to support them on the picket line. We know the UC system has money--it's clear from the severe debt me and my classmates are in just to attend this school.

I wish the money I gave to this school went to the people who make it run--the workers. But instead it goes to the administrators, who then turn around and tell workers and students alike that there's just no money.

I hope that students at UC Berkeley and across the UC system see just how much we all have to gain by standing in solidarity with campus workers. Just like an injury to one is an injury to all, a win for one is a win for all. I hope my fellow students will join AFSCME on the picket line next week.

IN ADDITION to supporting picket lines, AFSCME has asked for organizations to host educational sessions at picket sites as part of what's being called "The People's School."

"This is an opportunity for people and organizations to teach members about intersectional struggles, about gentrification, about knowing their rights," an AFSCME organizer said at the Thursday solidarity meeting. "It's really an opportunity for our members to have access to new ideas and education that's typically inaccessible due to their [daily/work] grind."

The Bay Area International Socialist Organization, East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, La Voz de los Trabajadores, UC Berkeley Young Democratic Socialists of America and UAW Local 2865 are organizing a solidarity contingent for the 6 p.m. rally on May 7.

This strike comes on the heels of teachers' strikes across the nation--from West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado, with the potential for one in North Carolina. Graduate students have also gone on strike at several universities, including the University of Illinois and Columbia University.

It's clear that all across the country, workers are fed up, and AFSCME joins the strike wave to demand better wages and working conditions, not just for themselves, but for everybody. As a UC worker put it:

It's time for us to show the university that we're not going to stop until we win what we deserve for our families and everybody because it's a community and university system. It's not only the workers that will benefit. It's the type of services that the students are getting. It' the type of place and environment the community is going to enjoy when service workers are doing their job and happy doing it.

Further Reading

From the archives