A united fight against Cal

November 6, 2018

Frank Jones reports on a three-day strike in October by University of California workers, who are winning increasing support from UC students.

“They want service workers to be even lower, although it’s already the lowest level of employment. But we are the most important workers in the university. If there’s nobody cleaning the surgery rooms, patients are at risk. If we don’t cook meals, students cannot live here nor can they have classes. We maintain the medical centers, the therapy places, we are the spine of this university. We demand respect.”
— Maricruz Manzanarez, UC Berkeley lead custodian and member of AFSCME Local 3299

SOME 24,000 members of AFSCME Local 3299 and 11,000 workers represented by University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) Local 9119 launched a second three-day strike against the University of California (UC) system last month, following a similar job action in May.

As a show of solidarity, many graduate student workers in UAW Local 2865 canceled or moved classes off-campus. Some UC librarians and members of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), who held their own protest a week earlier, also refused to cross picket lines.

The strike started at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, October 23. At UC Berkeley (UCB), 200 pickets gathered at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. AFSCME and UPTE picketers and supporters marched through the student gym and rec center, the Tang health center and on to a dining hall where excited picketers turned back two scab food deliveries.

University of California staff strike against outsourcing and exploitation
University of California staff strike against outsourcing and exploitation (AFSCME 3299 | Facebook)

Student solidarity pickets went up at Sather Gate. On Wednesday, 150 UPTE workers kept the Bancroft and Telegraph university picket going while most workers attended an inspiring 1,000-person rally at the UC San Francisco (UCSF) picket line, where they were joined by striking Marriott hotel workers. Jovanka Beckles, a DSA-endorsed candidate running as a Democrat for California State Assembly, visited the picket line Thursday.

Local 3299 is demanding annual cost of living increases of 5.5 percent to deal with California’s rapidly rising cost of living, as well as a freeze on health care premiums and copays. UC is only offering 2 percent raises and no limits on premium increases and co-pays.

The union is also looking to stop the contracting out of union jobs, to guarantee overtime pay for daily overtime work, and to limit parking cost increases to under 2 percent, while the university wants to remove combined severance and recall rights for laid-off employees, pay overtime only when workers exceed 40 hours in a week, and retain the right to jack up parking costs.

“There is more than enough money in California that can pay for their contract and improve education,” said Wendell, a lead janitor at UC Berkeley. “It’s ridiculous that the chancellors and regents make more than several workers’ salaries combined.”

Manzanarez made the case for why the strike was necessary:

Now we don’t have a contract and the university proposal conveys benefits cuts and a meager salary. They also want to change our pensions, convert them to 401k, which means it’s a lottery. It’s betting our retirements to the well-being of companies, and if there is bad luck, as in 2009 to lose it assuming the losses of capitalism... The premiums for health care are increased...They want to give us a 3 percent raise, but parking increases 10 percent and health care increases between $25 and $30.

THIS PAST strike saw an increase in student solidarity compared to the strike in May. A week before the strike began, students formed a solidarity committee, which publicized the strike through leaflets and held down pickets.

The UC Berkeley chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and independent solidarity activists provided the initial impetus for the committee, which started out by flyering the campus about the strike.

On the first day of the strike, the committee picketed Sather Gate, the main gateway to campus. The next day on Wednesday, a couple dozen students formed a solidarity picket that shut down the Golden Bear Café.

“Golden Bear Café is a very popular cafe on campus where people can get food and coffee and even buy books,” explained KT, a UCB undergrad and ISO member, “and so by picketing them today we are preventing them from making a lot of money. AFSCME workers work here and they’ve walked off the job and so we’re trying to show solidarity by strengthening their strike and trying to bring down the university.”

“The closest thing that I’ve done to this was last weekend with the Marriott strike, which was essentially the same thing, being out and showing solidarity so that people can actually get living wages and be able to live their lives,” said Nedra, an undergraduate at nearby Mills College.

“It’s important because we need to make sure that more people know that this is going on, and so the more people that come out the more attention this is going to get and it’s going to be in people’s faces.”

Importantly, the Cal Black Student Union (BSU) decided not to hold an event at the café after being contacted by the student solidarity committee.

The structural racism at the UC is an argument for ongoing solidarity: just 3 percent of UCB students are African Americans, who make up 7 percent of California’s total population. Latinx/Chicanx folks make up just 14 percent of undergraduates but are 38 percent of the state.

These numbers mirror the racist pay practices at UC, where Black and Latinx AFSCME workers make 20 percent less starting wage than white workers. Outsourced workers make even less, and while there is not official data on the demographics of these employees, 96 percent of respondents to AFSCME’s contractor survey were people of color.

During the first three-day strike in May, it seemed that job actions between Local 3299 and graduate student workers in UAW Local 2865 might coincide. The graduate workers ratified their contract in August, however, and the administration sent out letters in October warning Local 2865 members to continue classes as normal.

UAW leadership informed their members that they have a legal right to respect picket lines as “individuals” but said that the union couldn’t legally organize its members to do so. The strength of the rank-and-file graduate student network needed to collectively organize “individual” acts of solidarity is uneven, and therefore so was strike support.

Some departments like Sociology showed almost complete solidarity, with members canceling classes or teaching off campus, but that wasn’t the case for many other departments.

With more advance planning, the solidarity committee could be a part of organizing more class cancellations, basic strike education, strike fund and picket support. The student solidarity committee plans to keep meeting in case the administration refuses to negotiate fairly.

THE UNIVERSITY hasn’t moved on the union’s major demands since May, and if management continues to hold out after the October strike, it will raise important questions for UC workers about next steps. Some are already feeling frustrated.

“Co-workers are not feeling too good about the strike,” said Sylvia Heredeia. “They feel like they are just management’s toy, given that this is the second strike and there are still no contracts in place. The strike should be longer until they actually get the contract...People are also beholden to other obligations (bills, family, etc.) so it is a tough call as to what is possible.”

Most picketers who spoke to Socialist Worker wanted to disrupt the university for longer than three days if necessary. Like Heredeia, however, all were concerned with the hardship this would mean for their co-workers.

Local 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger explained to Socialist Worker last week that short strikes in the hospital sector can be very disruptive, but not all the bargaining units are striking medical facilities.

As UC workers figure out their next steps, students should continue to organize labor solidarity, not only to help win social and economic justice for AFSCME and UPTE workers, but also to give their fellow students lessons in how the university is run according to the logic of capitalism, and how we can come together to fight for different priorities. UCB undergrad and YDSA member Aleah put it well on the Golden Bear Café picket line:

When the university is simultaneously trying to increase class sizes and increase tuition, while they are decreasing wages and cutting benefits, those are two sides of the same coin — the greed and corruption of the leaders of our universities. So the regents and the chancellors have demonstrated their absolute unwillingness to recognize the value of putting people over profit.

When we fight for workers’ rights, we are pushing back against that in a way that supports us fighting for our own issues, decreasing tuition, eliminating tuition, getting the educations that we deserve. I want to be at a university where I’m getting the education that I deserve and the people who work here are getting the wages, the conditions and the livelihoods that they deserve.

Xavier Durham, A. Robertson, Alex Schmaus and Alessandro Tinonga contributed to this article.

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