Our picket lines showed us how we’ll win

November 12, 2018

Last month, members of the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) union, which represents 40,000 workers throughout the University of California (UC) system, went on strike for the second time this year, alongside AFSCME Local 3299.

John West and Jessica Weaver are socialists and members of UPTE Local 9119 — John works as a staff researcher in a chemistry lab at UC San Francisco and Jessica as a clinical social worker working in supportive housing. Here, they share their experience of being on the picket line and talking to striking workers what led them go out on strike.

WE ARE rank-and-file members of UPTE Local 9119, and we went on strike together for a better UC.

The University of California system employs almost 200,000 people, making it the third-largest employer in California, which itself is the fifth-largest economy in the world. UC is a public university that is run by a board of highly paid regents who are appointed by the governor. It is totally undemocratic and one of the major economic and political forces shaping our lives.

The central demand of our union in this battle is a 5.5 percent annual raise for the 40,000 employees that UPTE represents. UC refuses to budge from 2 percent per year. The cost of living in San Francisco rose by 4.3 percent last year, so in real-life terms, UC is asking its employees to accept a smaller paycheck every year and to shut up about it.

UC’s claim that its lower offer is only keeping up with wage standards is meaningless: As the third-largest employer in California, UC sets those standards, as much as any other economic actor in the state. This strike is about getting a better contract for UPTE and AFSCME, but it is also a fight against the eroding standards for California jobs set by UC and the California ruling class.

Campus workers strike at the University of California
Campus workers strike at the University of California (UPTE-CWA | Facebook)

One of the challenges facing UPTE as a union is the myriad of classifications that it represents.

One example of this is the staff researcher position, which was once a career job. However, UC has successfully hollowed out this position to be a stepping-stone for graduate school, so our classification has an extremely high turnover rate.

The result is a research staff that has been convinced to prioritize a letter of recommendation over a fair contract or the long-term health of our pensions — in other words, a workforce that’s less likely to go on strike.

At the same time, by pressuring researchers to leave after a few years and get another degree, the university opens its own labor market and drives down the wages of its most highly paid employees, by training their replacements in ever-greater numbers.

UPTE WORKERS came out to show solidarity with their AFSCME co-workers, but also because they have the same grievances: about wages not keeping up with the exorbitant cost of living in Bay Area, about pensions, about working conditions.

One worker told us that he has been working at UC San Francisco for 20 years and has had to have a second job to afford to live in San Francisco. Many others have been forced to leave San Francisco and spend two to three hours a day commuting. Those are unpaid hours on an expensive and packed public transit system for workers who already have an emotionally demanding job.

Many of us cannot afford to live where we work — and where we live has limited jobs with lower wages than San Francisco. UCSF is second-largest employer in San Francisco, behind the city and county. It provides a large amount of mental health services.

Another challenge for our union is the fact that UC departments and programs are funded very differently, leading to vast inequality among union members.

For example, the majority of community mental health services provided by clinical social workers are funded by the City and County of San Francisco and Medi-Cal reimbursement, rather than the UC Medical Center. The result is that hourly wages that are $10 an hour less than for medical social workers.

These positions are serving the most vulnerable populations, and have unreasonable productivity demands and limited opportunities for upward mobility. For mental health workers who don’t have master’s degrees, there is even less opportunity to increase wages over time.

Because of this, there was sizable participation in the strike by workers at a variety of mental health clinics, causing significant disruptions.

Ironically, UC is actually one of the main forces raising the cost of living wherever is opens a campus. Mission Bay, the site of our picket during the October strike, was an industrial neighborhood before the rail depot and canning industries fled from San Francisco in 1960s.

UCSF’s multibillion-dollar redevelopment of Mission Bay has been the tip of the spear of gentrification in the neighborhood, and has been followed by all kinds of luxury development.

The story is similar at UC’s other campuses. By refusing to build decent housing for students — only 22 percent of undergraduates and 9 percent of graduate students are housed by UC Berkeley, for instance — UC forces students into California’s desperately tight rental market to compete with the same people that UC employs to keep its campuses running.

In other words, the University abdicates responsibility for the social crisis that it has helped create.

GOING ON strike at UC requires undoing the work of its managers to isolate university employees from each other.

UPTE represents staff researchers, clinical lab scientists, pharmacists, social workers, speech pathologists, x-ray technicians, stagehands and many more. Seeing each other on the picket line was a reminder that we have dozens of job classifications, but the same boss.

Our fates are entwined with each other and with our co-workers in AFSCME, and our power to change our lives comes not from individual efforts confined to our workplace, but by collectively withholding our labor and shutting down the entire UC system at a tremendous cost to our shared employer.

The climax of the strike came at midday on Wednesday, October 24, when we were joined at Mission Bay by striking workers from the other UCSF campuses, as well as a contingent that bused up from UC San Cruz.

More than a thousand strikers in UPTE blue and AFSCME green led a rowdy march all around Mission Bay. When construction workers at the multimillion-dollar UC developments being built along our route saw us march by, they walked off the job and joined us. Before returning to the picket site, we spilled from the sidewalks and took the main intersection on campus, with chants of “We Run UC!”

Moments later, we spotted a smaller crowd approaching ours from downtown: a contingent of 50 or 60 Marriott hotel workers with UNITE HERE Local 2, joining us from their ongoing 24-hour pickets. A huge cheer went up from the march, and we all took up the hotel workers’ chant that spoke to all of our circumstances: “One job should be enough!”

One of the main grievances voiced at the picket line was UC’s apathy toward its mission statement of providing quality public research and health care.

UCSF researchers and technicians are proud of their work and are frustrated by the disregard that UC shows toward recruiting and retaining the quality frontline staff that makes it possible.

In his 1964 pamphlet on UC Berkeley’s chancellor, titled “The Mind of Clark Kerr,” socialist Hal Draper wrote about how the subordination of the public university to the interests of capital is just business as usual:

The use of the university...is to have a relationship to the present power structure, in this businessman’s society of ours, which is similar to that of any other industrial enterprise. There are railroads and steel mills and supermarkets and sausage factories — and there are also the Knowledge Factories, whose function is to service all the others and the State.

The mission statement of public service that drew many of its employees will remain a farce as long as the university is a Knowledge Factory operating in the service of profit. The strikers on the picket line were starting to see this.

STRIKERS FACED pressure from the UC. In the preceding weeks, administrators sent manipulative e-mails blaming workers for putting patients in danger by striking, and reporting on the number of canceled appointments after the strike ended. Dozens of California Highway Patrol, UC police and private security guards shadowed us for all three days, often filming picketers on a camcorder to intimidate our rally.

At UC Los Angeles, a man driving a pickup struck and injured three AFSCME picketers before attempting to flee the scene. Across the Bay from us, UC Berkeley illegally retaliated against striking UPTE stagehands, removing them from performances because they had missed technical preparation days that coincided with their strike.

We must resist all of these provocations from police, the right wing and the administration in the same way we fight for a better contract: collectively.

There is no plan by UC Regents to address the kind of funding needed to meet the demands of UC workers. But it is clear to everyone that UC is flush with capital to invest, and workers are starting to organize to demand that we get closer to what we deserve.

Being on the picket line showed us a glimpse of what is necessary and helped us identify fellow workers who we want to continue to organize with to fulfill our Union’s slogan: UC for the many, not the few.

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