Skilled Craft Workers Launch Indefinite Strike

Livable wages and increased staffing top list of demands

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Photo by Elena Neale

Forty-nine members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 skilled craft workers began an indefinite strike on Jan. 6. They don’t plan to resume normal work operations until their demands are met. 

The AFSCME Local 3299 K7 unit represents campus electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other skilled craft workers. The strike for a fair contract follows two years of bargaining with UC Santa Cruz. Strikers say they will continue until the university presents a contract that delivers livable standards.

“It has become so crystal clear that the university is unwilling to move,’’ said Kathryn Lybarger, President of AFSCME Local 3299. ”Going on an open-ended strike is our way to show how serious this is.”

Other units represented under AFSCME Local 3299 held strikes throughout the UC. Within the past few years, both the patient care technical and the service worker units have organized workplace strikes in response to labor practices they deem unfair. 

K7 workers began bargaining for a better contract in response to substandard pay and low staffing levels, said John de los Angeles, spokesperson for AFSCME Local 3299.

“We are fighting for what we deserve. We haven’t had a raise in three years, we’ve been without a contract for two years,” said Joe Baxter, UCSC electrician and negotiator on the K7 unit bargaining team. “It’s scary for some of our members, but we are strong and united. Just today, 90 percent of our members were here at one point or another, which is very encouraging.”

Unity has been at the root of the strike. K7 unit members unanimously voted to hold an open-ended strike, said mechanic David Shankland.

Workers discuss mechanical failures around campus. Photo by Elena Neale

“[The strike] doesn’t let the university prepare for a ‘return date’ for us. So, whatever breaks on campus won’t be fixed until we return,” Shankland said. “It could be your dorm shower, heater, restroom. It could be researchers, their whole lives’ research in a walk-in cooler, maybe that could be cancer work for children, right now is in jeopardy because we’re not at work. [The university] is going to have to try and find someone to save someone’s life’s work.” 

Baxter said that during a fact-finding meeting prior to the strike, UCSC cited similar wages for skilled craft workers at UC Merced. But taking cost of living into account results in significant differences in disposable income between workers at UCSC and UCM. An average Merced house costs about $250,000, while an average Santa Cruz house costs almost $1 million.

Baxter argued UCSC K7 wages should match those of UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco. Skilled craft workers at UCSC currently earn 25 to 30 percent less than those employed at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.

“We’re approximately $14 [per hour] behind our brothers and sisters in San Francisco and Berkeley,” Shankland said. “[…] I live in low-income housing. I have to work two jobs myself, we all have second jobs. We get off of work here and go to our second jobs, every single day. It shouldn’t be that way.”

K7 workers are also striking to bring attention to understaffing across various departments within the unit. 

“Just for an idea of the kind of stress they’re being put over, over the last several years as the administration of the university, as well as the student population has grown, the K7 unit has actually shrunk,” said AFSCME Local 3299 spokesperson John de los Angeles. “As an example, there are four plumbers on this campus. Four plumbers for over 600 buildings, and over 5.9 million square feet of space.”

Baxter is also concerned about outsourcing as more employees leave and retire.

AFSCME Local 3299 skilled craft workers and supporters gather at the base of campus on Jan. 8 to strike for a new contract. Photo by Elena Neale

Despite the gridlocked bargaining process, spirits were high as K7 unit members held their strike. They’ve yet to hear a response from the university.

“My son is going to a state university because I couldn’t afford to send my son to the university that I work at,” Baxter said. “Aside from me, a lot of our members have a hard time — they would like to buy a house in the community, and yet they can’t due to the resources that the university is providing us at this time. […] We work really hard up here and take a lot of pride in our work. We just want to go back to work, that’s all we want.”

Additional reporting by Julian Barragan.