Showing UC who makes the university run

May 16, 2018

Elizabeth Maskasky reports on last week's three-day strike by workers across the University of California system to demand a living wage and greater respect.

"THEY SAY, 'Who are you AFSCME workers that say you're special?'" said Maricruz Manzanarez, a University of California (UC) custodian and longtime organizer for her union AFSCME Local 3299.

"Goddamn it," she continued, "we are special!"

Manzanarez was addressing a crowd of picketers during last week's historic three-day strike of more than 50,000 of the lowest-paid UC workers across the state.

"The workers are very grateful to see everyone coming out and supporting us because that means a lot to us," Manzanarez said. "It means that even though our employer sees us as nobody, we are actually somebody."

Local 3299, which represents 24,000 cooks, custodians, patient technicians, and many service and administrative workers across 10 college campuses, led the strike. It was joined for the final two days by nearly 30,000 members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU) and of the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE).

The demands of the strikers--who are disproportionately Black and Latinx, in addition to being poorly paid--include a 6 percent salary increase, a freeze on rising health care premiums, equal pay across gender and racial lines, strengthening protections against sexual harassment, and an end to subcontracting jobs to nonunion workers.

Striking workers at the University of California take to the streets of downtown Berkeley
Striking workers at the University of California take to the streets of downtown Berkeley (AFSCME 3299 | Facebook)

The UC administration has so far refused to budge from an insultingly low final offer of a 3 percent wage increase and $750 lump sum payment.

"INEQUALITY AND classism" were the key issues in the strike, according to UC Berkeley custodian Winston Presley. "We just feel unappreciated, every time," said Presley, who has worked at Berkeley for the past 24 years.

"Every time we're in negotiations, it's the same thing with the university. They want to pay all top-tier workers, and then when it comes down to us low-class workers, they don't have any money left. Now all of a sudden, they're concerned with the budget."

According to a recent AFSCME Local 3299 report, from 2005 to 2015, the salary for top administrators grew by 64 percent; the pay gap between the top 1 percent of employees and the median salary grew from seven times to nine times; and UC employees who are Black women receive starting salaries that are from 10 to 23 percent lower than those of white men.

The union investigation also looked at UC's increasing reliance on outside contractors, some of whom have been found to be violating labor laws. The report found that contract workers are paid up to $8.50 an hour less than union members performing the same exact jobs.

The report notes that administrators argued during 2013 contract negotiations that "it was improper for [UC] service workers to earn much more than McDonald's workers...[E]ven though it receives over $3 billion in state taxpayer dollars, the university claimed fast food workers were an appropriate 'market comparator' to AFSCME-represented employees."

Many workers described daily frustrations, including long commutes to the costly neighborhoods where campuses are located and the difficulty of covering basic California living expenses on a UC salary.

According to Tameika, a Local 3299 hospital worker:

For me personally, [the strike] was for my son. If there aren't scholarships available for him when he's older, then I have to pay for his education. I'm not making enough to provide for my child, to find my son a home like they buy their children homes, to send my son to college like they send their sons to college.

This is why we're striking today...We don't make enough for the cost of living. I'm a San Franciscan, born and raised, and I live in Concord, California, because I can't afford to live [in San Francisco].

Strikers in southern California have the same concerns. For Ivan Aila, a senior custodian at UC San Diego, the main concern is that "rents keep going up in San Diego." Another UC San Diego employee who works as a dishwasher said, "I haven't received a cost-of-living raise in two years. And the cost of living is going up."

Another key issue is UC's plan to replace the existing pension with a 401(k) plan for new hires. "These new workers need to have protections that the university wants to take away from them," said Manzanarez. "Younger workers, 25 years old, they don't know what looks better for your future...

"The 401(k) system won't give them anything if the market crashes again. Which I think it will, the way we're going."

IN ADDITION to monetary demands, many Local 3299 workers feel disrespected and abused.

Presley described a dispiriting workplace environment created by custodial short-staffing--which has been a dangerous problem at UC hospitals--a lack of available daytime shifts, and limited opportunities and transparent avenues for promotion.

Erika, a UC San Diego senior custodian, talked about how co-workers in her understaffed department suffer from back pain, repetitive strain injury and sprained wrists. Adding insult to injury, she said that workers have to find their own parking every day and pay for it out of pocket--and they're docked a full 15 minutes pay for showing up even one minute late to work.

Fueled by these and many more grievances, pickets were spirited over the course of the three-day strike, in some cases running for over 12 hours at a time. Strikers chanted, "Who runs the university? We run the university!" and "No Contract? No Peace!"

In the Bay Area, the UC workers' numbers were bolstered by hotel and restaurant workers from UNITE HERE Local 2, post-doc workers from United Auto Workers Local 5810, some students and faculty, and members of local socialist groups, including the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America and La Voz de los Trbajadores.

The student presence on the picket lines was fairly small, possibly because the strike took place in the middle of finals. Local 3299 has been a vocal supporter of tuition freezes and improving conditions for exploited student grad workers, so there are reasons to hope for larger student solidarity in the future.

One challenge facing the strike is that so many UC workers can't afford to go three days without pay. While the strike authorization vote passed the by an overwhelming 97 percent, attendance at picket lines in the Bay Area and San Diego generally didn't exceed a few hundred people.

This relatively modest, though spirited, turnout contributed to a mixed mood among the strikers. Some expressed optimism that the UC would buckle to their demands, while others were steeling themselves for a much longer fight, even though contract negotiations have already lasted a full year.

Across the picket lines was a strong sense of solidarity and a sentiment that this strike was important for all workers.

"We were hesitant to come out because any time you step away from your research, it means you have to do that work next week," Robin Friebur, a UPTE researcher, said of the thought process behind her union's decision to join the strike.

"But work is work--screw it, this is people's lives. This is people's kids who are coming up. We're striking in solidarity with them, but we're up next. Negotiations on our contract are ongoing, and if we get a settlement, it's probably going to be months away."

THE THREE-day strike didn't force UC to back down, but it did strengthen the bonds of solidarity among university workers, along with their resolve to demand as much respect as the highest-paid UC regent.

"Our fight is just," said Juan, a UC driver and AFSCME member. "We're striking for our benefits as workers, but also as parents. We want to give our families a better future. And to help each other here at the company, at the worksite. And to tell the other workers, we're not alone. We are a union, and we can fight for our benefits, for our future.

"We make this university run," he added. "I'm a driver, so I take employees from one place to another, and that makes a difference. Even in a small way, but it makes a difference. And we believe that we deserve better benefits as workers, and as parents."

As the strike ended on Thursday morning and workers returned to their daily grind, Kathryn Lybarger, AFSCME Local 3299 president and a lead gardener at UC Berkeley, sent her co-workers a message on Facebook:

Striking is a matter of strategy and power, and also of the heart. Striking lets individuals come together and realize that when we were standing alone--pushing a broom, answering a call button--we were not really alone. All along were the people working down the hall from you, across campus from you, who believe and feel as you do, and here they stand with you, joyful and unafraid. It strengthens the heart and scares the boss.

For everyone who struck UC this week: Today, as you go back to your regular life, UC will try to erase that truth, just as they tried to scare or intimidate you before you decided to strike, because we have now scared them. But this is a new "regular" because we all know what we did. The beat of your fellow union member's heart matches yours. You know this. Commit to stick together and keep fighting--this is how we'll win.

Ragina Johnson, Frank Jones, Benjamin Knob and Bruno Ruviaro contributed to this article.

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