Cross-Union Solidarity Boosts Clerical Workers on Strike
"We are Family” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” rang out from the P.A. system as one thousand clerical strikers ignored Oakland police officers to dance in a four-lane downtown city street. The songs were a fitting recap of the lessons we had taught ourselves, other University of California staff, students, and the administration of the country’s largest public university system.
Since we were in front of UC President Richard Atkinson’s office at the time, we can only hope he got the message as well.
This August 26-28 unfair labor practice strike at UC Berkeley and at the president’s office received an unprecedented level of cross-union solidarity-which was exceptionally important due to the large number of unions representing different campus workers.
The Coalition of University Employees walked out during the first three days of the fall semester to protest bad faith bargaining by the UC administration over CUE’s second contract. The strike was truly member-run, and we watched scores of clerical employees step forward and take ownership of the strike, developing confidence and new skills. We also enjoyed significant support from community, political, and religious leaders.
CUE is an independent and member-run union representing 18,000 administrative assistants, library support staff, cashiers, and childcare workers throughout California. The striking local represents 2,300 workers at UC Berkeley and, in Oakland, the system-wide Office of the President. A significant majority of CUE’s membership statewide are women and people of color.
This strike was the beginning of a process that threatens to spread, as strike committees are organizing on at least half of the remaining eight campuses.
At a rowdy meeting in May where CUE members voted to send out a strike ballot, we also committed to support the nurses represented by another non-AFL union, the California Nurses Association. CUE members in the hundreds committed to honor CNA picket lines for their planned one-day strike, which in the end was averted when the nurses’ contract was settled.
When it was our turn to strike, CNA returned the favor and announced their own sympathy strike despite employer threats of legal action and discipline.
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CUE formed in 1995, and in 1997 replaced AFSCME as the union for clericals at UC. However, AFSCME still represents other, non-clerical staff at UC. In spite of this history, many AFSCME members did come out to the picket lines to show their support-and AFSCME staff encouraged them to do so on their breaks and before shift. On the other hand, they were the only union that worked to enforce the “no-strike” clause in their contract, and even went so far as to call people in the evenings who had honored the picket lines to tell them they needed to cross the following day and show up at work.
Graduate student instructors, represented by the United Auto Workers, also have a “no strike” clause but jumped in and did phonebanking to call their members out of the classroom and onto the picket lines, where they were active and visible in large numbers. The Union of Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE/CWA) announced the strike to their members, encouraged support, and promised union protection if anyone risked discipline by exercising their right not to cross a picket line, but did not actively organize their membership to support the strike.
SEIU Local 1877 janitors working for private subcontractors at the university met with CUE Vice President Lucy Montanez. The janitors-along with friends from Hotel Employees (HERE) Local 2850 and EBASE (a union-friendly community organization)-helped solidify early morning pickets.
Early-morning tactical squads of clericals holding strike sanction signs provided by the teachers union (AFT) caused union construction crews to honor picket lines, with the result that the strike closed down many large construction sites across campus.
TEACHERS AND PARTNERS
Lecturers, represented by the AFT, were our closest partners in the strike. Their three-day job action protesting UC’s bad faith bargaining began with the first two days of classes, at which lecturers held discussions about the meaning of the strike. On the third day, hundreds of classes were cancelled and AFT members joined the picket lines. This, as well as the support of a campus Student Labor Action Coalition, was key in organizing undergraduate student sympathy.
The AFT was also critical because they successfully petitioned the Alameda County Labor Council for strike sanction. The AFL-CIO constitution only grants strike sanction to affiliated unions. And while some union workers (such as many Teamster UPS drivers) will refuse to cross a picket line on principle, other union members (such as the majority of building trades members we encountered) ask about official strike sanction before making up their minds.
MORE STRIKES TO COME
As we go to press, it is likely that CUE members on four or five additional UC campuses (Davis , Riverside, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco) will engage in a two-day strike action as early as October alongside the AFT and, this time, possibly UPTE-CWA. AFSCME is considering strike action at UC Santa Cruz, where their members do not have a contract. Also, CNA and UAW have indicated it would not be unreasonable to expect the same exceptionally high levels of solidarity across the state that the clericals received at UC Berkeley.
The first clerical-initiated strike in University of California history and strong sympathy strikes by other campus unions remind us of the vibrant labor movement of the past. More important, they point the way forward for building a truly rank-and-file-run movement to force public employers like universities to live up to their responsibilities to workers and students. As one popular slogan directed at students read, “Our working conditions are your learning conditions.”
Michael-David Sasson works as a scheduling assistant in the Computer Science Division at UC Berkeley and is president of CUE Local 3. Margy Wilkinson is the chief negotiator for CUE statewide. This article is not an official CUE statement.