The UC Strike: Fighting for Equality, Fairness, and Respect


Striking workers march outside of the University of California San Francisco Parnassus campus on May 7, 2018. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

From May 7 to May 9, more than 20,000 University of California employees, represented by the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees Local 3299 (AFSCME 3299), the largest union representing UC workers as public employees, went on the largest worker strike in UC history. The strike was approved after more than a year of contract negotiations and the release of a union study condemning the UC system for hiring and wage gaps between female and minority workers and white workers; in other words, for perpetuating inequality between genders and races.

Strikes from AFSCME Local 3299 were joined in walking out on the job, as two other major unions voted to go on sympathy strike. The 24,000 employees on strike were joined by 14,000 nurses employed at UC medical centers, represented by the California Nurses Association, and 15,000 health, research, and technical workers, represented by the University Professional and Technical Employees-CWA, for a total of 53,000 UC workers on strike. Both the UC Students Association and UAW Local 2865, a union representing graduate students working as teaching assistants, have also pledged their support for the strike.  The union has also called on Congressman John Lewis and Senator Kamala Harris, to cancel their commencement speeches at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley, respectively.  Sen. Harris canceled her speech at UC Berkeley in solidarity.

Across the UC system, the strike has led to the rescheduling of more than 12,000 surgeries and appointments, the canceling of classes , and the limiting of dining services. This massive disruption across the state has led  some to bring the motives of the strike into question. However,  UC workers’ motivations become abundantly clear when considering the recent union report on wage disparity entitled “Pioneering Inequality.”

AFSCME Local 3299 found that average starting wages for black women was  $3,946 to $15,785 per year lower than that of white men. This same study also found that the employment of black service and patient care workers in the UC system declined by 37 percent  between 1996 and 2015.  

The report suggests that one of the drivers of this inequality is actually a policy to raise wages. The UC enacted a $15 minimum wage for all directly hired UC workers. However, the policy allows for exemptions if workers are hired from an outside contractor and the Union also claims that the $15 minimum hourly wage cannot adequately provide for families living in communities with UC campuses. Furthermore, the Union suggests that “white and Asian/Pacific Islander workers are more often hired into higher-paying titles, while Blacks, Latinos and Latinas are more often hired into lower-paying job titles.”

In addition to gender and race disparities, the wage gap between top administrators and average workers has grown as well. AFSCME Local 3299 found that ratio between the average salary of the UC’s top 1 percent  of earners and the median salary of all workers has grown from 7:1 to 9:1 between 2005 to 2015. The Union is striking to protest these wage disparities and to demand being treated with the basic principles of “equality, fairness, respect.”

The outcome of the strike and subsequent contract negotiations will have a significant economic and societal impact on the state. The UC system is California’s third largest employer after the State and Federal governments. With its ten  campuses, five medical centers, three national laboratories, and more than 190,000 faculty and staff, the University of California has a large economic impact on the state. As a result, as the AFSCME Local 3299 argues, “inequities within its workforce can drive inequality throughout California.” The UC’s  decisions on worker wages and benefits influence market standards throughout the state.

During negotiations , the UC was prepared to offer a three percent wage increase and wanted to increase both health care premiums and the retirement age compared to the 6 percent wage increase and the opposition to raising premiums and the retirement age propose by the union. The Union cites the increasing  cost of living within the state as the reason behind their wage increase demands.

Since the conclusion of the strike, there is still uncertainty as to how the University of California will react as negotiations continue to remain at an impasse. Currently, there are no plans for a resumption of negotiations.  However, with its huge economic footprint and recognition as a global leader in higher education, the University of California has a responsibility to serve as a model for how large institutions should treat their workers; and that is simply with equality, fairness, and respect.

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