Reporting by HUMJUNE GEO, ELIZABETH HARRIS, ABBIE JENNINGS & LAUREN ROMERO
On Nov. 20, students, workers and union members gathered together to protest unfair labor practices at the University of California. The strike was the result of many grievances among UC workers.
Earlier this year, the patient care unit of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) carried out a two-day walkout in protest of unsafe working conditions. The patient care unit — comprised of nursing aides, respiratory therapists, licensed vocational nurses and other health care workers — failed to agree with the UC on a contract that would stop job cuts and put a halt to chronic understaffing in UC medical centers.
In response to the strike of the patient care workers, the UC threatened to reprimand those taking part in the protest, according to a complaint filed by the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). The intimidation tactics of the UC led workers to strike on Nov. 20 in protest of unfair labor practices.
“Management always intimidates with threats of future punitive consequences … Ironically, yesterday and the day before, UC is using threats against an unfair labor practice strike,” said UCSC senior custodian and AFSCME member Nicolas Gutierrez. “An example of this is with time cards, which are always filled out on Friday. Workers were asked to fill them out on Tuesday, which means if Wednesday’s hours are left blank, the UC would know which workers went on strike. This is just one example the UC trying to intimidate its workers.”
After over 18 months in negotiations, the UC reached an agreement on a contract with the patient care workers represented by the California Nurses Association. Although they agreed on issues including substantial wages and protection for sick time and vacation days, the UC has not yet addressed the dangerous understaffing at many UC health institutions, and has imposed pay cuts on the lowest earning employees — the service workers.
Many of the unions within the UC expressed similar issues with UC management. Earlier this month, United Auto Workers 2865 (UAW) and the UC failed to come to an agreement on contract terms increasing wages and benefits for student workers.
UAW, which represents over 12,000 teaching assistants, readers and tutors across the UC, joined the AFSCME workers on the picket lines, empathizing with AFSCME’s struggle.
UAW member and teaching assistant Jeb Purucker said the UC’s tactics are detrimental to employees across the campus.
“The unfair labor practices show the UC has messed up priorities that put the squeeze on workers and students,” Purucker said. “When cuts come around, they always cut from the bottom. When we try to stand up, the big guns come out, with threats and intimidations. We come out to support each other, and forging connections between workers and students will have strong future effects.”
Days before the strike, the UC made an attempt to block the strike through the courts.
“UC asked AFSCME-represented employees if they planned to come to work, as is our normal procedure, so we could adjust staffing as needed and ensure we could still care for our patients during the strike,” said UC vice president of human resources and programs Dwaine Duckett in a press release.
On Nov. 19, the courts decided to throw out their attempts and affirmed recommendations of both AFSCME 3299 and PERB to continue with the protest.
“It is our hope the UC will take the court’s rejection of its efforts to silence workers together with the PERB’s recent complaint outlining UC’s illegal intimidation of workers — to stop its serial law breaking and finally take seriously the staffing crisis that is putting workers, patients and students at risk, both on campus and inside UC hospitals,” said AFSCME 3299 president Kathryn Lybarger in a press release.
Although AFSCME’s right to strike had been affirmed by a superior court, other employees and members of the union were still not able to protest. Rosario Cortes, AFSCME member and senior custodian at Merrill College, stood with her colleagues on the picket lines but said many others were not given the opportunity.
“There are some workers that are still on probation — those people are the ones who decided to come inside and cross the line,” Cortes said. “I am very, very proud that I was here, and that I showed the UC that I am not afraid of them. I still have integrity to go to my job. I know that every day is a fight, and I will be there for my workers and for the students as well.”
Despite the negotiations and the blocking attempts, the strike continued across eight UC campuses and all of the UC medical centers. AFSCME’s Patient Care Technical and Service workers were supported by sympathy strikes of UC students, elected officials and graduate student workers represented by United Auto Workers 2865.
Students of the UC also stood in solidarity with the AFSCME protesters and helped organize the protest.
Benjamin Mabie, an undergraduate who worked closely with AFSCME to help coordinate the protest, said UC students strongly relate to the struggles of the workers.
“We are all uniquely targeted by the UC and affected by the repression, but there is this capacity for us to work together in solidarity that is really powerful,” Mabie said. “It’s almost about making their struggles our struggles in a way that we can generate a collective power that is going to be able to really pressure the university to concede to what we need.”
Second-year Augusta (Gus) Alexander, who was also at the strike, echoed Mabie’s urgency for solidarity among the UC.
“I am here to stand in solidarity with workers, TAs and everyone else who is frustrated,” Alexander said. “We hold positions like chancellors and regents at such a high standard, but we need to have a shift in perception on how we view different jobs on campus. I’m here to demonstrate that I understand how important our workers are.”