Good reporting on organized labor is hard to come by these days. The mainstream media all-too-often seems bound by the ‘everybody knows’ perspective about unions being an anachronism, interested only in getting higher wages on the next contract.
Coverage of this week’s limited strike throughout the UC system is no exception. I’ve noticed the focus on medical facilities in reporting, with an emphasis on questions concerning patient care, with the back and forth about demands for higher pay framing almost every story I’ve read.
There is a much bigger story here to be told; this work stoppage is reflective of growing realization about social and economic injustice going beyond the confines of the workplace. I’m going to do my best to cut through the haze and go beyond the bread and butter demands.
The three-day strike at the University of California called by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), representing 24,000 employees throughout the State began Monday (May 7) and will run through Wednesday (May 9).
Two other major unions at UC are going on strike in solidarity with AFSCME Local 3299 starting on Tuesday:
- California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU) with 14,000-plus members
- University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA), which has more than 15,000 members in the system.
These unions are pushing back against the “divide-and-rule” strategy of the University, which is responsible for creating the tiered workforce at the heart of this dispute.
Both CNA/NNU and UPTE-CWA are also in contract negotiations with the UC.
AFSCME’s decision to strike was ratified by 97% of its members. Some 98% of CNA/NNU’s members voted to take part in a sympathy strike. Those walking out run the gamut of job titles; from gardeners to nurses to researchers.
This kind of union solidarity has been in short supply in recent years. A growing wave of teacher strikes in states with limited protections for unions has inspired some younger workers, who in the past might have been indifferent.
The Trump administration has made it clear they intend to negate the bureaucratic processes labor has used to increase protections in the workplace and resolve conflicts. Right-leaning groups, who see any form of collective action as socialism, are using the courts to strip away rights labor spent years fighting for.
So this is bigger than just workers vs. bosses. This goes beyond short-term gains.
In critical care situations, there are union nurses at work. Workers are striking across departments throughout UC, not just hospitals. Both unions and lower level management have worked hard over the mandatory 10 day notice period to compensate for any disruptions.
It’s not like this work stoppage came out of the blue. From the Daily Californian:
AFSCME Local 3299 spokesperson John de los Angeles called the strike a reaction to the UC’s decision on April 20 to impose union contract terms after a year of negotiation and a lack of agreement between the two groups. The contract terms would delay retirement by five years, continue outsourcing jobs and allow the university system to raise health care premiums.
“UC’s latest offer is completely tone-deaf to these issues,” de los Angeles said. “Workers really have no other power than to strike.”
Looming over the strike’s legitimate issues including pay, health insurance, and pensions are larger conflicts, including the increasing use of contractors, a perceived need to strengthen sexual harassment protections, uncertainty about university cooperation with ICE, and evidence decreasing diversity in the workforce.
AFSCME maintains that retiring members are being replaced 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 union maintains this and other instances involving contract workers puts a burden on their members to train and cover the extra work contractors don’t have the experience doing. They point out that many of these contractors are immigrant workers who face especially horrible working conditions due to racism.
In 2017 Senator Ricardo Lara, along with Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, introduced SB 574, the Equal Pay for Equal Work act. The bill, which was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, required UC to evaluate contractors’ compensation packages (benefits, wages, health care) when reviewing bids to outsource UC work.
As part of the process of bringing this legislation forward, Lara asked state auditor Elaine Howle to investigate the university’s current hiring practices.
- UC had no explanation for its decision to displace full time employees with contract workers.
- Many contractors were being paid less than the UC minimum wage policy.
- UC couldn’t substantiate $109 million it claimed to have saved from contracting out.
A study by AFSCME found
- Over 7,000 contract workers are doing jobs that UC employees are trained to do.
- Contract workers were making as much as $8.50 per hour less than UC employees doing the same work, and many of them get no benefits.
- There are now 37% fewer black workers at UC than there were in 1996. Surveys at two large campuses showed that black workers were more likely to be working in the casualized contractor workforce than as direct UC employees.
Last fall, the Mercury News looked into the Fair Wage/Fair Work plan, a policy announced by UC President Janet Napolitano in 2015 making the University of California the first public university in the country to voluntarily set a $15 minimum wage.
What they found was a serious lack of commitment toward enforcement when outside contractors were involved:
- …a series of internal audits of contractors conducted by the campuses and obtained exclusively by this news organization show that they sometimes go unchecked. Many of the companies that are supposed to prove they’re obeying UC’s wage rules never submit that proof to the campuses and some campuses don’t have standard procedures in place for reviewing contracts.
- Not one of the five companies UC Berkeley tested could initially prove they were in line with the new policy. The campus noted in its report that other campuses “have had similar problems.”
- This news organization reviewed internal audits from all 10 campuses and found evidence of problems at each one.
Last month, the Mercury News followed up on a study commissioned by AFSCME indicating women and Blacks were often paid less for service jobs, such as groundskeeping or custodial work, than their white and male peers.
According to the study, Black women are being paid a starting wage 23% lower than white, male coworkers. The resulting in an annual income difference was as great as $16,000.
Denise Dixon, an African-American hospital assistant at UC San Diego, knows the feeling.
“We’re not represented well at all,” said the 49-year-old mother of three, who has worked at UC checking in patients and verifying insurance information for 16 years.
Like Bedford, Dixon, who earns $26 an hour, works with a younger white man who has been there a short time and does similar work but earns slightly more.
“I think it’s a slap in the face, actually,” Dixon said.
Armed with this kind of knowledge, the Union-Tribune’s (for example–other papers are basically the same) coverage of the strike, which largely focused on the potential for disruptions in patient care, looks different.
Claire Doan, director of media relations for the UC Office of the President, put responsibility squarely on the unions in an email Sunday with no last-minute negotiations underway.
“If AFSCME leaders were serious about an agreement, they’d be at the table right now instead of preparing their picket signs and trying to use patient care as negotiating leverage,” Doan said.
The issues of economic, racial and social injustice being raised by the unions were missing from the article, which makes the union’s response quoted in the UT seem self-centered and hollow:
In its own statement, AFSCME was defiant, accusing the university of trying to silence its workers.
“UC’s attempts to block this strike were just another desperate attempt by Administrators to silence workers who are exercising their legal right to speak up against widening inequality at the university,” the statement said.
I’ll close with an excerpt from the statement of solidarity issued by the California Conference of the American Association of University Professors:
Who Are We Fighting For AFSCME 3299 members are 85% women, immigrants, and people of color. This fight is not only about economic equality, but also racial and gender equality.
- Among UC’s low-wage workers, Black women face the greatest income disparities, and Black service workers have to work on average 6 years before reaching the starting wage of their white male counterparts;
- Black and Latinx employees make starting wages 20 and 21 percent less, respectively, than white folks hired to similar positions;
- From 1996 to 2015, there was a 37% decline in the share of Black workers in AFSCME-represented titles at the UC, which may be partly explained by UC’s contracting out practices;
- Today, there is a higher percentage of Black UC outsourced workers at UCLA and UCB than UC career service workers; and
- The UC continues to ignore the intersectional Sanctuary Demands first delivered by workers and students in January 2017. A year later, UCB cook David Cole was assaulted by UCPD while peacefully protesting for his contract on Feb 1st, underlining the UC’s poor treatment of Black workers. UC also rejects the proposed targeted local hire for formerly incarcerated workers––to ensure that our good union jobs are accessible to formerly incarcerated people.
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