Striking a Fair Deal for All

Failure of Contract Negotiations Forced AFSCME Local 3299 to Protest Last Week

Harmony Larson/Illustration

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Employees of the University of California picketed at all ten campuses and several of the five medical centers from June 14 to 18 as another step in our struggle to end near-poverty wages for workers who feed, clean and maintain the campuses. UC executives have dragged its unions through negotiations without movement. When my union members voted to strike, UC management, coached by one of the worst union busting law firms in the country, went to court, misled the media and blamed the workers.

The problem for workers represented by AFSCME is the problem of most of the underpaid work force at UC, easily the biggest employer in every host community. While agreeing publicly that we are underpaid, the suits who run UC test the tolerance for poverty of its low paid work force, and for many years these employees took what was offered. But the economic crisis has forced us to throw down the gauntlet; we must have prevailing wages, seniority steps and no more increases in fees for workers and students.

We heard not a peep from UC brass after a five-day walkout, but new UC President Mark Yudof and Regent Richard Blum did make short statements about the AFSCME strike on day two at the UC Board of Regents meeting. A few workers were thankful for the chance to speak at the meeting, but The Santa Barbara Independent reported that many of the regents left the room during public testimony.

In a short press conference, Regent Richard Blum quoted an offer of $140 million over four years. Sounds big, but with 20,000 workers, it works out to about $165 a month at the end of four years. And there's a catch: The money was not offered to the entire work group; service workers are still waiting for an offer.

After messages about the strike being illegal or about how the pending state budget crisis failed to move UC interests, newly inaugurated President Yudof resorted to blaming the union bargaining team, who had negotiated for 10 months, for not talking.

After some fine quotes praising his workers reprinted in the Independent, he perhaps revealed the university's current spin. "The problem is that the AFSCME people have not come to the table," he continued, "They won't bargain. And in order for us to reach a resolution, I'd say to the union that they need to come back to the bargaining table. But right now, we don't have anyone to bargain with."

This statement comes after we exhausted every stage of the process up to a California state-appointed neutral fact finder who evaluated the service workers' labor agreement and the UC's arguments, reporting: "UC has demonstrated the ability to increase compensation when it fits with certain priorities without any demonstrable link to a state funding source. It is time for UC to take a broader view of its priorities by honoring the important contribution that service workers make to the UC community and compensating them with wages that are in line with the competitive market rate."

As stated in a press release, "At UC, patient workers are concerned that lack of competitive pay is contributing to high-turnover, staffing shortages, and over-reliance on temps, compromising patient care as extra time is needed to train the constant flow of new staff. For service workers, wages are as low as $10 an hour, forcing many to work two to three jobs or rely on public assistance to meet their families basic needs."

And we heard nothing from the executives, so we invoked our strike vote. Who wants to support an institution that negotiates through coercion and won't answer your basic questions? The money, time and effort used to fight this alone could have improved conditions for all UC employees and those in our responsibility: staff, our visitors and our students.


Hank Chapot is a gardener at UC Berkeley. Reply to [email protected]

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