AFSCME Votes to Strike

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“A fight,” “a struggle” and “a nasty battle” are descriptions used by just several of the 22,000 members making up the University of California’s largest union. Tabling at UC Santa Cruz’s Quarry Plaza and College Eight, the members discussed the prolonged nature of the wage and contract negotiations between UC workers and UC administrators.

On Feb. 12, select UC workers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299 participants, known as Member Action Team (MAT) leaders, were pulled out of their usual jobs on “union leave” in order to assist with the strike authorization voting process. They encouraged other UC workers and AFSCME 3299 members at UCSC to vote in favor of a future five-day strike.

“[The urge to strike] shows the deaf ear the UC turns toward its workers,” said second-year student and AFSCME 3299 promoter Javier Bremond. “Hopefully it doesn’t get to the strike.”

Composed of about 21,000 UC employees, AFSCME Local 3299 is a microcosm of AFSCME’s 3,500 local unions dispersed across 46 U.S. states. AFSCME was founded in 1932 in the state of Wisconsin during the Great Depression when unemployment ran rampant. Many workers who were employed endured labor conditions devoid of any contract rights or benefits, as well as the possibility of dismissal at any time, due to the non-binding nature of their contracts.

If a strike ensues, it will mark the second AFSCME 3299 strike this academic year and the third protest movement in nine months. On Nov. 20, UCSC employees and AFSCME affiliates marched in the rain, hoping their voices would be heard.

The UC administration settled with every union except for AFSC- ME 3299 and the patient care workers, Bremond said. The strike vote means there’s going to be a bigger strike if the administration continues treating the UC workers unfairly.

UC spokesperson Dianne Klein provided a memo sent from UC as- sociate vice president and director of governmental relations, Steve Juarez, to Gov. Jerry Brown, which proposed a wage increase for service workers by 16 percent over four years and patient care workers by 20 percent over four years.

According to Juarez’s nego- tiation memo, the offer on the table also includes a freeze on escalating health care rates during the term of each worker’s contract, as well as revised contract language on layoffs and contracting out, which provides greater job protection.

“We are encouraging the union to agree to these new terms and to cancel any plans for a possible strike that would only make it more dif- ficult to ultimately reach an agreement,” Juarez wrote.

After the votes from the UC- wide strike authorization are tallied and finalized, AFSCME 3299 leaders will issue a 10-day notice to the UC, and then UC workers are free to strike, said UC Santa Cruz custodian Nicolas Gutierrez.

By law, unions have to give a 10- day notice. After the 10-day interim period the UC workers and AFSCME 3299 members can go out at any time they decide is optimal to pursue their rights for fair wages, seniority language protection and protection from contracting out.

eniority language protection entails a contract agreement from the UC administration that ensures veteran UC employees like Gutierrez are given priority in remaining employed if any type of financial emergency were to arise within the UC system. An agreement to refrain from contracting out means the UC will abstain from canceling current workers’ contracts, even in the event of a financial crisis.

Currently UC workers’ contracts include the right of the UC administration to release any worker and terminate his contract in the instance of an alleged UC financial emergency.

“UC has the right to lay us off in the case of an emergency,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve got to have a little bit of protection on both sides.”

As the UC workers express their labor discontents in the form of a potential protest, they also must take hours off and consequently lose pay to participate in the strike. The strikes are intended to disrupt the status quo of UC operations, such as food and custodial services.

AFSCME 3299 members aim to prove to the UC that the workers are not dependent on the administration’s financial discretion, but vice versa — UC administration is dependent on the students and the workers, Bremond said.

“It’s hard with the rallies,” said 10-year food service worker María Padilla. “It’s not only hard for the workers because we lose money, but it’s a lot of energy. Last time the weather was not very nice for us, and a lot of people got sick.”

Despite the unpleasant weath- er, the result of the Nov. 20 strike was successful, since it captured the UC’s attention, Bremond said. Since October, UC reached agreements with seven unions representing 27,000 employee, which clearly demonstrates the university’s willingness to bargain in good faith with our labor unions, UC spokesperson Dianne Klein said via e-mail.

“I’ve been here for almost 20 years now, and every time we ask for some kind of wage increase, UC al- ways neglects and says ‘no,’” Gutierrez said. “It takes a lot of sacrifice from a lot of workers, it takes a lot of action and a lot of rallies. It takes going on strike sometimes, and it takes a lot of student participation.”

Padilla said she’s praying for something good to come from the bargaining, as her bi-weekly checks are diminishing in part to the university transferring workers’ take-home pay to the UC Retirement Pension (UCRP). The UCRP guarantees retirement income and provides retiree health benefits, yet Padilla is disconcerted by the lack of immediate funds.

“They took out 1.5 percent from the [bi-weekly] check to the pension — for me it was around $80 that I see less in my check,” Padilla said. “It’s kind of hard living like that, especially the rent, because Santa Cruz is so expensive. You can’t afford more than $1,700 rent.”

The UC claims both patient care and service employees receive wages that are at or above the market for comparable jobs. It’s vital for the UC administration to grant the UC workers the raises they’re requesting, Padilla said, especially considering the fact that expenses like the price of parking and insurance have increased.

“That’s why we always have two jobs,” Padilla said. “Basically we work here afternoons, and [at night] we work downtown at restaurants, or at the boardwalk — these are the choices we always have.”

As a student, Bremond commented that the majority of his peers view the AFSCME 3299’s strikes as complaining. Contrary to this view, Gutierrez has found the students to be an alliance to the UC workers, weathering the same financial storm together.

“We have a really good, strong connection with students on campus, which helps us out, because what affects the worker affects the student,” Gutierrez said. “What affects students, affects us as workers as well. It’s kind of a struggle for both workers and students.”