Workers find their power on the picket line

November 1, 2018

Some 24,000 members of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents support staff and patient care staff in the University of California (UC) medical and school systems, took to the picket lines on October 23-25 for the second three-day strike of this year. The 15,000 members of University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) Local 9119 workers at UC also went on strike and were out on the picket lines with AFSCME.

The picket lines last week were lively, with strikers stopping several scab deliveries at various campuses. On the second day of the walkout, members of UNITE HERE on strike at Marriott hotels in the Bay Area joined UC strikers from other campuses in converging on UC San Francisco for a rally of more than 1,000 people. That day, all of the service units from campuses without medical centers (Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Merced and Riverside) joined big picket lines on campuses with big medical centers (San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Davis and Irvine.)

AFSCME members at UC have been without a contract for 20 months, while UPTE’s agreement expired one month ago. AFSCME organized a three-day strike in May — members of UPTE and the California Nurses Association at UC medical facilities joined AFSCME workers for the final two days of the walkout. The main sticking points in negotiations with management have been inadequate pay increases, the university’s plan to turn workers’ pensions into 401(k)s, outsourcing of jobs to contractors who pay less money and increases in health care premiums. Another major point of contention is pay differences because of race and gender — something that isn’t always taken on by the union movement. AFSCME has highlighted pay discrimination and differences in career advancement in several reports and is trying to eliminate these injustices.

Kathryn Lybarger is president of AFSCME Local 3299, the largest union at UC, and also president of the California Labor Federation. She talked to Alex Schmaus about the unions’ ongoing struggle at UC and how last week’s walkout contributed to the fight.

WHY DID AFSCME and UPTE decide on another three-day strike? What were the factors that went into this decision?

WE KNEW going into this contract campaign that this would likely be a protracted fight, and that UC was going to dig in. Every contract cycle, we learn more about what UC’s tactics and aims are, and they learn more about us.

We also knew that our demand around stopping outsourcing is a demand we raised five years ago, and didn’t get all the way on — and that’s something we really have to get this time around.

Striking workers demand a living wage and job security at the University of California
Striking workers demand a living wage and job security at the University of California (AFSCME 3299)

The issue of outsourcing ultimately goes to our union’s power and UC’s urge to break that power. We know that struggles over union power are always harder than struggles over money, so we knew that this would be a longer fight.

Based on the contract struggle five years ago, we knew we had to expect that we might need to have multiple strikes again. So the question was: what kind of strikes?

We struck for service workers the first time, hoping that would move the university, and it didn’t. We called another strike vote after the university settled with the nurses union this summer, and then didn’t call our Patient Care unit back to the bargaining table. They actually canceled the last bargaining session. We were ready to meet with them, and they said: Never mind, we’ll e-mail you our last, best and final offer.

Why not an open-ended strike? These are all tactical considerations. It’s not uncommon in the hospital sector for unions representing hospital workers to carry out short strikes because they’re incredibly disruptive.

A short strike tells the university that we’re still pissed off, that we’re still serious about what we’re demanding, that we know the university isn’t willing to bargain and so we’re still ready to fight you.

CAN YOU talk about some of the obstacles in the way of realizing the potential power of UC workers? You have an intransigent administration and the corporate conglomerate-like structure of the university, with these different parts. There is the vast array of different kinds of workers who don’t necessarily see each other or even know about each other. Plus there are the problems facing all public-sector workers in the era of the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling. How do you think the strike affected some of those challenges?

WE HAVE an organization of predominantly Black and Brown members who feel attacked by this administration. We’re a majority women organization, many of whom are very conscious of the way in which women are under attack. And then there is the ever-increasing income inequality that impacts all workers.

How is it that this country has supposedly low unemployment, but such a huge income gap? Then you look at the fact that one in three California workers are working a low-wage job, and that pretty much explains it.

At UC San Francisco, for example, one in six UCSF workers doing our work is a contract worker who is paid lower wages, gets few to no benefits and has no voice in protecting their job. They work for companies in which there is no ladder up and no stability.

Government work has provided upward mobility historically, especially for African Americans and women. That’s being dismantled systematically. It’s a conscious policy choice on the part of the third-largest employer in California when UC decides they are going to outsource work that they don’t deem central to their mission.

To organize people in this environment, we have to give people a chance to fight back on a very immediate and urgent level. We’re talking about the need to defend your wage, the money you use to house and feed your family and help support your kid’s dreams. There’s the need to keep health care affordable, because so many people come to UC for health care. Maybe they’ve got kids who have health issues, or they have their own health issues — without affordable health care, they’re forever in debt.

And a lot of people are not ignorant about what it takes to survive in retirement. They’re not hoodwinked by 401(k)s, which is what UC is trying to transition our pensions to. People came here because it meant a stable life after they stop working, and they’re deeply threatened by not having it.

All these immediate, urgent threats are coupled with things like an emergency layoff clause, which UC is insisting that patient care workers have to accept. The clause says that if you go into work and patient census is down in the hospital, your supervisor can say: “Go home, surprise you’re not working today. Cover it with your vacation or sick leave if you have them. If you don’t, sorry.”

That’s not what people signed up for. These are immediate, palpable threats that you can actually fight when you have a union, and you stand shoulder to shoulder with people. And you can get immediate returns when you get a good contract.

This doesn’t feel as unwieldy to me as fighting the incredibly anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-trans, anti-queer attacks that are coming at us right now. It’s incredibly empowering for workers to actually have a fight that they can actually fight.

Part of the university’s calculus this time is that they’re hoping the Janus decision brings us to our knees. I think they were hoping to see workers shed the union quickly — and that’s not happening.

I think that’s because of the organizing that we did, where we really put the question to our members: Are you really going to join the union? Are you really going to commit to this union? Will you agree to pay more in dues than you ever have before to cover the cost of people who drop out?

We asked our members that last question a little over a year ago, and 86 percent of them said absolutely. So we now have a membership that isn’t passively part of our union. They’ve actively chosen to be a part of it.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t had people drop or try to drop. But when we go to the new employee orientations and get to talk to new employees, between 90 and 100 percent of them join the union.

The Janus decision has actually become an incredible opportunity to deepen member ownership of their union. Plus, it actually asks people to fight. You don’t need a union if you don’t need to fight your boss. If your union’s not asking you to fight, then I’m not sure what your union is for.

SPEAKING OF fighting unions, we’re seeing signs of an increase in labor struggles. The red-state rebellion of teachers in the spring spread to some blue states on the West Coast: Washington state earlier this fall, and possibly Los Angeles and Oakland to come. And there have been nationwide hotel strikes, starting in Chicago and spreading to eight cities, including the Bay Area. Can you talk about UC workers as part of that picture and in relationship to the hotel workers and teachers?

IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE why most workers aren’t necessarily aware of the struggles going on around them, even just down the road. That’s why it was really wonderful to be able to have hotel workers join our picket lines. These are workers who are picketing barely more than a block away from where the office of the UC president is in Oakland.

We also had some of our members on double picket duty. It’s sick that people have to have two jobs, but some had second jobs is at a Marriott hotel that’s on strike — so they were striking twice!

The cool thing is that all kinds of questions get thrown up when we strike. Like: Oh man, can I afford this? Is this going to work? What’s the strategy here? We didn’t get a contract after the first strike in May, so what do we need to do?

You can point to what other workers have had to do, including very recently. There were the red-state teacher strikes. And now there’s the Marriott strike, which is in day number 22. To have these examples of what struggle looks like and to be able to say that we’re not the only one is really great.

Plus striking is effective. The California Nurses Association got a contract that they like because they struck with us in May, and there was the threat of another impending nurses’ strike. The teachers last spring didn’t get all the money they wanted, but they got more than they were ever going to get if they didn’t strike. It’s cool that we have an opportunity to have these conversations that feel really real, and not abstract.

IN ADDITION to the strikes and protests, we’ve also seen the growth of a new socialist movement in the U.S. During the strike at UC, I organized with a few dozen members of the Young Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization to put up a picket line that shut down the Golden Bear Cafe on Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley when AFSCME members walked out. How do you see the relationship between the union movement and this new socialist movement today?

THANK YOU for that action. I didn’t even know that was going on. That was so fantastic.

Honestly, I think there’s a lot of potential in that relationship, and I know a lot of our members don’t come with hardened anti-communism or anti-socialism.

Many of our members smell bullshit in politics. No matter what your critique is about Sanders, he did provide an opening and he inspired support by talking unapologetically about issues like inequality, which workers could really relate to. Workers didn’t smell bullshit with him.

When you have people who aren’t talking bullshit and who are really putting in the effort to learn how to organize and how to talk to workers, there’s so much potential there.

What does organizing as a socialist look like? What does that mean? What does it mean for electoral politics, if anything? I love the way that movement works, and a lot of our members do, too. At the very least, they have no problem with it.

The more that socialists show up to the picket line and do things like help workers shut down a place of work, the more workers are going to say thank you very much. And that’s an opening to say what you’re about.

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