For three days, service workers at UC Santa Cruz vacated the dining halls, buses, medical centers and campus grounds and instead gathered at the base of campus to speak out against widening inequality in a UC-wide labor strike — the largest strike in UC history.
UC students and lecturers joined in solidarity with the AFSCME 3299 demands for higher wages, better health care and increased job security across all campuses and medical centers.
Support came from other UC employees and unions as well. On May 7 and 8, University Professional & Technical Employees-Communications Workers of America (UPTE-CWA) and the California Nurses Association (CNA) joined in a sympathy strike. With these unions, AFSCME patient technical care workers and the service workers all striking, the number of strikers exceeded 53,000.
Nicolas Gutierrez, a senior custodian at College Nine, is one of the 600 UCSC service workers represented by AFSCME 3299. He said he’s been involved in numerous contract negotiations with the UC and ongoing struggles for livable wages during his over 20 years working at UCSC.
“I’ve been here for 23 years and it’s always been a fight to make sure we’re treated fairly, make sure we’re treated with respect and dignity,” Gutierrez said. “UC never gives anything willingly — you have to fight for it.”
The strike comes after over a year of bargaining for new contracts, during which AFSCME’s demands were not met and no contractual agreements were reached. Workers across the UC voted 97 percent in favor of the strike. A day after the decision to strike was finalized, on April 19, the UC Office of the President proposed a contract AFSCME 3299 previously rejected.
“The offers are completely tone deaf to the issues the workers have been raising,” said AFSCME 3299 spokesperson John de los Angeles. “[…] For over a year we’ve been raising concerns over widening inequality, with respect to income, with respect to race and with respect to gender.”
Union workers are also responding to AFSCME 3299’s Pioneering Inequality report, which revealed stark economic and pay disparities along racial and gender lines.
The union’s official strike notice was delivered in person at all campuses. In the following 10 days, union members, organizers with the Worker Student Solidarity Coalition and others prepared for the strike, which was publicized to begin at 4 a.m. on May 7 and end at 4 a.m. on May 10.
By 3:30 a.m. on Monday, students had already gathered and begun to block both the Main and West entrances of the UCSC campus. Workers joined shortly after, at about 4 a.m.
AFSCME 3299 union members are not allowed to block campus as part of a strike, as mandated in their contract, which expired on June 30, 2017 but remains in effect until a new one is signed. Union members stayed at the base of campus, using crosswalks to picket without blocking traffic.
Students attempting to block campus emphasized that their actions were in support but independent of the union’s picketing.
At the base of campus, crowds numbered about 350 at each day’s peak. The picketing was punctuated by mid-day rallies, which incorporated community building, music and dancing among workers, students and other supporters. Lecturers, students and workers in solidarity spoke about the importance of livable wages and a UC that respects its workers.
Throughout the strike, the UC’s position on the contract offer and strike remained the same.
“Unfortunately, all union leaders have accomplished with this strike is hurting care for patients and services for students,” said UC media specialist Stephanie Beechem. “The strike will do nothing to change UC’s position on AFSCME’s unreasonable demands for excessive raises and benefits.”
AFSCME 3299 maintains its intentions were not to target students and patients. Union spokesperson John de los Angeles said the union organized patient protection task forces at medical centers in case of emergency. At UCSC, students organized alternative ways to access food during the strike, including additional hours for the on-campus SUA food pantry, and union members provided meals for all participants each day as well.
In response to AFSCME’s demands for a 6 percent raise each year, the UC said this is more than raises generally provided to other employees. But union members find this stance doesn’t account for service workers’ lower baseline salaries — AFSCME 3299 represents the lowest paid workers in the UC.
“As we’re struggling to make sure that inequality gap closes, the [UC] Regents gave the chancellors raises of 3 percent, which wound up being $27,000 per year,” Nicolas Gutierrez said. “For us, it would take a 37 percent raise to make that kind of money per year. When they say they’re offering us 2 percent, that doesn’t even take care of inflation.”
Student and Union Solidarity
AFSCME 3299 interns Sabina Wildman and Sarahí Gonzalez Ramirez have been preparing for the strike and helping with other actions since January. Gonzalez Ramirez accredited her instant connection to the union to her mother’s experience working as a janitor.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to speak up for my parents, due to my age, due to certain restrictions,” Gonzalez Ramirez said. “I don’t want these workers to feel that, I want to at least stand up for them. Once I have the power, once I got the time, I’m going to stand up for my mom.”
Many other students resonated with this connection and spoke of feeling like the workers were family. During a rally on May 8, Student Union Assembly President Max Jimenez spoke about her proximity to workers’ issues.
“My parents are also workers, and so I’ve heard a few times when workers would say, ‘You remind us of our children.’ I feel that same way because I feel like I’m also fighting for my parents,” Jimenez said. “This fight is an intergenerational fight, and students are also being exploited for their labor.”
Students recognized similarities between the workers’ struggles and their own.
“Look at the way that the [UC] treats the workers and the exploitation of their labor. […] We are similar to that,” Gonzalez Ramirez said. “We pay so much money, we travel so far and we don’t get the adequate resources available to us. This institution, it’s literally run as a business. It’s not a university anymore.”
Workers expressed feelings of gratitude for the student support and acknowledged that students are the reason they enjoy and do their jobs, not the administration.
“Each and every student here, you’re my boss. You’re the reason I get a paycheck. […] In 23 years I’ve been working here, I do not know the person that signs my fucking check,” said senior custodian and AFSCME 3299 member Nicolas Gutierrez. “So you’re my bosses.”
Police Presence, Arrests and Citations
Early morning hours of May 7 saw high tension and confrontation between police and students. About 125 police officers from the UCSC Police Department, Santa Cruz Police Department and California Highway Patrol were present on and around campus during the 3-day strike, said UCSC Police Department Chief Nader Oweis.
The officers prevented students from completely shutting campus down. They did so by using “tactical lines” to separate protesters and issuing dispersal orders, so students could not remain in the streets.
At the West Entrance, starting at about 5:20 a.m. police broke protesters apart and separated them on each side of the street. About 12 students were cited for “vehicle code violations” throughout the day.
Police arrested two students, Jeremy Saunders for felony assault on an officer and Juan Davil-Santiago for a misdemeanor of obstructing an officer.
When UC Police Department arrested UCSC student Saunders for felony assault, four police officers carried him by his hands and feet into a van. AFSCME 3299 member and bus driver Kevin Parks, who witnessed the arrest, claimed Saunders had unintentionally bumped into the officer from behind as the student walked by carrying a speaker.
At the East Entrance, by about 6 a.m. on May 7 students moved up from blocking the road near the base of campus to the intersection of Coolidge and Hagar drives, where they walked in a continuous circle, attempting to block traffic.
After a car slowly proceeded into some of the students, hitting them but not injuring any, they linked arms to form a diagonal line. Police did not respond to this incident.
About 30 minutes later, officers issued a dispersal order. No arrests or citations were made at the East Entrance.
Student protesters at both entrances were upset and frustrated by the level of police presence.
“The level of police presence […] for an action that directly is in support of people of color, low-income communities, Black and brown communities, is extremely troublesome,” said SUA Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Katherine Lȇ.
Union members and representatives shared similar sentiments.
“It shows a lot about how the UC is feeling about workers raising their voices,” said AFSCME 3299 press representative for UCSC Mary Virginia Weston, “and how they’re viewing students’ right to free speech.”
Traffic was flowing in and out of campus at both entrances by 6:45 a.m. on May 7 and students moved from Coolidge and Hagar drives, on the east side, to the base. Loop buses, however did not run. The METRO bus drivers’ union chose to respect the picket line and members did not drive further than the base of campus for all three days. Classes before noon on Monday were canceled.
By 1 p.m. on Monday, students from the West Entrance also convened with workers at the base of campus, garnering a crowd of about 350. This was decided after the second arrest because students felt the heavy police presence made it unsafe to remain on the west side of campus.
“The students are very passionate of the circumstances that we are in. I think we just needed a reminder of what we were striking for,” said second-year student and AFSCME intern Sarahí Gonzalez Ramirez, “and once we got that reminder, there was a sudden shift to it.”
On Tuesday morning, a small group of students, self-proclaimed as autonomous of the union, attempted to block the West Entrance starting at about 6 a.m. Cars still drove through as police officers separated protesters onto the sidewalks each time one approached.
Sabina Wildman, AFSCME 3299 intern and UCSC third-year, approached the group and explained that the union wanted to avoid more student arrests and preferred the students join the strikers at the base. After some discussion, the students left the entrance to join at the base.
No citations or arrests were made at the protest on Tuesday or Wednesday but the number of police officers present remained the same, said UCSC director of media relations Scott Hernandez-Jason.
The strike is over, with no new offer or concessions from the UC, but AFSCME 3299 doesn’t consider this fight to be over. As it stands, the UC has informed the union that it will implement its current offer this summer, said AFSCME 3299 spokesperson John de los Angeles.
If the union chooses to strike again, it will be a decision first reached by the bargaining team and the union would once again need to provide a 10-day official notice to the UC. Although next steps are uncertain, workers and students are ready to continue.
“I’m sure that if we have to strike again we’ll prepare for a second strike. Because we’re not going to stop until we win this contract,” said College Nine senior custodian Nicolas Gutierrez. “We cannot afford to stop until we win this contract.”
Additional reporting by City on a Hill Press staff.