BY ANKITA BHAT
The University of California. From the outside, it marvels. Every month, a new set of newspaper headlines boast of a new building, resource, or department accomplishment. In the spotlight, one can see the magnificence that results within the confines of a higher institution – a period of life that exposes students to career-building opportunities. Yet, while students are taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them by the university, UC workers have found it increasingly difficult to find their own. According to John de Los Angeles, communications director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, “The University [of California] is eliminating mechanisms of social mobility, and that is a threat to the American Dream.”
From Oct. 23 to Oct. 25, less than six months after the previous union walk-out, more than 20,000 AFSCME 3299 workers woke up students and campuses alike to the demands of the workers, loud and clear. The service workers who participated ranged from custodians to gardeners, cooks to truck drivers, lab technicians to nurse aides. They all carried the same goal: equality and security.
For any labor contract to be established, union bargaining teams must meet with labor relations one year in advance to discuss the contract’s parameters. These bargaining teams are elected by the members of the union and are given full discretion to reach a decision. The team is then split into groups and sent to different campuses.
But conflict arose when the bargaining locations were unilaterally moved off campus, making it difficult for workers to attend and view negotiations during their breaks. Workers were suddenly shut out of the conversations.
When there seemed to be no compromise between both parties’ demands and the contract was declared an impasse after a year, the bargaining process moved towards the Public Employment Relations Board, which provided a mediator to bring both parties closer together. When the mediation failed, a “fact-finding” mission ensued in which both parties presented their positions, and a fact-finder provided recommendations to both parties. When these recommendations provided no path towards agreement, the recommendations were made public and the university had the option to circumvent the workers and set certain terms and conditions of employment. This forced the union to move to their last resort: a strike.
This strike, a physical representation of frustration of months of negotiations between the union’s bargaining team and the UC, was supported by 96 percent of AFSCME 3299’s membership. Carrying similar claims to its previous strike, AFSCME called for wage increases, better protections, job security, safer staffing, and an end to discrimination in the workplace. In the previous school year, the university had initially offered workers an annual increase of three percent over four years. The UC would also provide an annual cap of $25 for any monthly premium increase along with a raise in the retirement age to 65 to qualify for full benefits for those who chose a pension over the 401(k) plan. After this deal was rejected by union leaders, the university unilaterally authorized terms on workers, including a 2 percent raise for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The union was furious.
The debate has left the administration and workers at odds, each carrying a headstrong view that puts them in direct opposition of one other. The UC believes the actions of the union are “organized theatrics and intentional disruptions [that have done] nothing to shift the university’s stance on their unreasonable demands,” according to Claire Doan, spokesperson for the University of California. To the UC, all the union wants is “more money — more than any other group at the university,” and although the labor relations team is willing to be flexible, “an eight percent pay increase for each of the four years is not possible for a taxpayer-supported institution.”
But the union’s goals are far more complex; increased wages mean nothing if they are not partnered with fairer employment practices. The main issue AFSCME continually brings up with the UC is the practice of outsourcing jobs. As emphasized by de Los Angeles, “what good is a [greater] wage if your job is outsourced tomorrow?”
In August of 2017, a California State Audit Report revealed that the UC had entered service contracts in order to limit hiring already existing employees but also avoid the hiring new employees. By making these decisions, the administration highlighted the lack of guidelines the UCs have to address the displacement of employees and the limit of the benefits to employees. The report concluded with the auditor critiquing the increased lack of accountability and credibility currently held by the administration.
A recently released supplemental research brief, following the work lives of black and Latinx employees in comparison to the work lives of white employees, found black and Latinx workers face an even greater impact when it came to the disparity in the workplace. This brief came as a follow up to the overall demographic analysis, Pioneering Equality, which found that the treatment of people of color follows similar trends when it came to the difference in salary, involuntary job loss, and promotions compared to their white counterparts.
The absence of more equitable career ladders for people of color is likely to contribute to the growing income gap at the UC and puts an unfair burden on those who take the same workload of volunteer hours, both in training and experience, as their white counterparts without receiving call-backs for the higher positions they may have applied for. The disproportionate involuntary firings, promotion opportunities, and difference in salaries have put people of color at a disadvantage. The newly opened positions are then outsourced to contract companies with workers who receive lower wages and fewer benefits. During the time of the study, 71 percent of black workers who lost their jobs worked in food service or custodial positions, yet the UC spent over $54 million per year outsourcing this work through 99 different contracts between 2013 and 2017.
The public conversation has tended to steer away from the involuntary job loss and the outsourcing within the system while in turn limiting the pressure against the UC to consider and overturn the one area within their institution where progress seems to have been limited for years. When the conversation is about pays and figures, it’s easy to counter with more numbers. But when the problem is systemic, it takes more than just a pay increase to change. Hopefully, the UC will choose to practice the progress it preaches.