One-Day Strike Disrupts University of California
More than 7,000 service workers at campuses from Berkeley to San Diego pulled a one-day strike April 14, protesting the University of California’s (UC) hardball stance during contract negotiations.
The workers, who are members of AFSCME Local 3299, have been without a contract since January 31. They are demanding pay increases and a clearly-defined promotions system with more opportunities. Under the current system, they say, discrimination and favoritism are common.
The strike disrupted cleaning, building maintenance, and food services throughout the UC system, as workers picketed, marched, and held rallies.
“Turnout was amazing,” says Local 3299 President LaKesha Harrison. “People were up at 4 a.m. [on the UCLA campus], when the delivery trucks started coming in. The drivers wouldn’t cross the lines.” Harrison reports that more than 1,500 people came out for an afternoon rally at UCLA.
At the UC-Davis medical center, management was forced to bring in the retired manager of environmental services to dispose of hospital waste that untrained scabs couldn’t handle. Cafeteria service was shut down or disrupted at medical centers and campus buildings statewide.
AFSCME strikers were joined on the picket lines by students and other campus workers. The Coalition of University Employees (CUE), which represents clerical workers, had a large presence on the lines, as did the University Professional and Technical Employees/CWA (UPTE) and UAW (representing graduate student instructors). Teamster drivers and other union workers refused to cross picket lines across the state.
“The support we got was overwhelming,” says Harrison, “from other unions, students, the whole community.”
Melvin Johnson, a senior custodian at UC-Davis, notes that the issues at play for AFSCME members reach other UC workers as well. CUE at UC-Davis, is in the middle of a heated contract battle, he said.
RAISES = RESPECT
Harrison says AFSCME’s biggest issue is that the university won’t guarantee any wage increases at all. “It doesn’t matter what we ask for,” says Harrison. “They keep refusing to give any guarantees.”
Johnson agrees that low pay is the top issue. “People know when they’re not being respected,” he says. “We’re being paid like we’re living in the ’80s.”
Harrison says that next to pay, the union’s priority is more opportunities for promotions.
“We call it a ‘chance to advance,’” she explains. “Other hospitals have programs where you can start as a janitor and move up to a plumber or a painter. UC always has openings that our members could fill, but when it comes to hiring, they bring in folks from outside. They’re never looking to promote and train.”
Another key issue for many workers, says Johnson, is implementing step raises based on seniority. “Right now, a new worker can come in and make as much as me. I’ve been here for 10 years.” And working conditions are abysmal. “We have problems with short-staffing—lots of people get injured.”
While the University claims that state budget cuts leave them with little money for raises, only 20 percent of the UC campus budgets come from the state government. And campus medical centers—where many of the strikers work—are not at all dependent on state funds and appear to be very profitable, judging by the $2.4 million they doled out in executive bonuses in 2004.
Local 3299 members at UC haven’t received raises since 2002.
MOBILIZING IN TEAMS
Johnson believes the strike—the first in the local’s history—marks a significant step for the union. “When I first started, people weren’t involved in the union that much,” he explains. “People didn’t know what kind of rights they had.”
Johnson points to Local 3299’s Member Action Teams (MATs)—shop floor groups of eight to 20 workers that coordinate activity in the workplace and the union—as crucial to engaging members.
Johnson is an MAT leader, and he says that during the lead-up to the strike, the MATs helped coordinate actions, from getting members to wear union colors to turning people out for rallies.
Harrison agrees. “During strike preparations, this is our peak time to see if these action teams work. We can see it paying off—you can tell one person about an event and count on 10 or 20 more people showing up.”
The local will build on the strike with further actions. Says Harrison, “The strike is a one-day event—not the end of our campaign.”
To learn more about Local 3299’s Member Action Teams, check out Chapter 15 in A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2.