How We're Setting Our Contract Bargaining Tables to Advance Racial Justice

Employers often use race to divide workers against one another. At University of California campuses and hospitals, AFSCME 3299 members are prioritizing racial justice at the bargaining table. Photo: Michael Avant

Employers often use race to divide workers against one another. At University of California campuses and hospitals, we’re seeing the problem get worse now that President Donald Trump’s administration is unleashing new waves of racism and attacks on immigrants.

Our union, AFSCME 3299, represents 24,000 patient care and service workers. About half of us are Latinos, and a supermajority are people of color. Our co-workers report that they’re frequently attacked based on their race or nationality.

One manager, for instance, calls Latino workers “slaves.” Another told a worker, “If you don’t like it here, go back where you came from.” Workers recently overheard a supervisor characterize all African American custodians as performing poorly; another supervisor responded, “Give me the Black people, I can straighten them out.” In January one of the authors of this piece, targeted as a Latina immigrant, received a death threat on social media.

Workers of color go through countless individual experiences of discrimination like these. Co-workers may accept negative stereotypes too. Even union activists can play into it, as when an activist insists that members from a particular race or nationality fail to participate in the union. Such divisions end up weakening us all, when winning strong contracts depends on our unity.

Beyond individual experiences of discrimination, we’re concerned about systematic threats to members’ wellbeing—especially with the president’s new attacks against immigrants and Muslims. In 2009, UC police went beyond what the law required them to do, collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain, deny union representation to, and deport one of our co-workers.

And our members have observed the number of African American workers decreasing over the years, even while UC is growing.

This spring our union is going into bargaining again. Here are a few steps we’ve taken to set our bargaining tables to advance racial justice:


Over the past couple years, members and officers in our union have laid the foundations to take up these issues. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, in 2014 we formed a Racial Justice Working Group.

The group’s first and most powerful action was asking members to tell their personal stories about racism and police violence. What moved particular leaders was hearing their fellow members share, “This is how my sister was beat up by cops without cause,” or “This is how many times I get stopped in this rich neighborhood on my way to work,” or “Here are the scars on my body from the bullets fired by cops.”

These stories really changed the tenor of the discussion inside our union. It was no longer, “Why are we talking about this issue?”

So we structured our workshops to center on these stories—but also to include brainstorming for action. Members facilitated workshops across the local, beginning with the executive board itself, then at our annual Member Action Team conference, then on local campuses.

Meanwhile we reconvened an Immigration Committee that’s been active on and off for over a decade. The two committees have begun to work together on new local-wide workshops and to demand sanctuary campuses, asking the university to refuse to collaborate with ICE to target undocumented immigrants.


As we prepared to introduce racial justice demands into our bargaining, the three of us set out to learn from other California unions’ efforts. We interviewed folks at UNITE HERE Local 2, at AFSCME Council 36, and at Jobs with Justice.

Local 2 has seen a steady erosion of jobs for African Americans in its hotels, while gentrification is forcing African American workers out of the community. To begin to address this crisis, a decade ago the union won language to increase hiring of African American workers in San Francisco hotels. More recently, the local has helped create a nonprofit called Equality and Inclusion in Hospitality, Inc., that recruits, trains, and places workers of color from ballparks into higher-paid hotel jobs.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a coalition of unions in 2014 won a contract requiring the city to hire 5,000 new workers and target these job opportunities to underrepresented communities, often communities of color.

Community organizations got involved in formulating the campaign demands, which included pushing the city to raise money for city services by renegotiating investment-banking fees and reducing tax-dodging in commercial real estate. L.A. eventually agreed to create a commission to find ways to increase revenue.



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A third inspiration was the agreement won by an alliance including Jobs with Justice San Francisco, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, and the California Nurses. They forced Sutter Health, as a condition of getting city approval to build a new hospital, California Pacific Medical Center, to agree to hire at least 40 percent of its entry-level employees through a local community workforce program.

In each case, community and civil rights groups provided crucial leadership, pushing the unions to make racial justice a priority.


Swinging into Action

Besides member education, our union has been building community ties by participating in labor contingents at marches and joining coalition campaigns for racial justice.

Alongside other unions and community groups we helped push the Alameda County district attorney to drop charges against 14 leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, after they stopped a Bay Area Rapid Transit train in a Black Friday protest. This district attorney had been backed by labor—but we joined leaders from many unions to sit in at her office. Weeks later, the charges were dropped.

Another campaign is in Richmond, California, where UC Berkeley plans to develop a new campus. We helped form the labor-community coalition Raise Up Richmond to fight for a community benefits agreement, where a developer makes specific commitments before getting permission to build.

We’re asking UC Berkeley to commit to hire and train disadvantaged local residents, which would create jobs for many low-income African Americans and other people of color who live near the site. We’re also asking for a “fair-chance” policy to ensure that no applicant is denied a job simply because of a prior criminal conviction.

Since Trump’s election, members have joined local coalitions for sanctuary campuses. Our union worked with the Students Association and other campus unions to draft expansive sanctuary demands, asking the UC president, chancellors, and CEOs to take steps not only to protect immigrant workers and students but also to prevent police violence and sexual violence on campus and not to cooperate with any Muslim registry. To back these demands we have so far held a dozen delegations simultaneously at all our campuses and hospitals.

We’ve also joined with other Bay Area unions, worker centers, and community organizations in a rapid-response network called Bay Resistance. This network has already generated big turnout for protests against the president’s anti-immigrant executive order, Cabinet nominees, and ICE raids. Locally it’s a way for our union to get more members plugged in.

Our joint bargaining team for the two contracts is made up of 21 hospital and campus workers. We surveyed members for three months and met several times as a team to draft and finalize our proposals.

In February we were ready to present our demands. At every UC hospital and campus, delegations of 10-100 members showed up unannounced to present our opening proposals to the local CEOs and chancellors.

Besides ending outsourcing, improving job security, protecting benefits, and increasing wages, we’re proposing to create local-hire and training programs for disadvantaged workers and to ensure that UC follows “fair-chance” hiring procedures.

We’re also proposing to expand our existing immigrant rights language. In a past contract campaign we won nondiscrimination provisions that restrict UC’s ability to use government-initiated immigration-document reverification against members. Now we’re demanding that UC make stronger commitments not to collaborate with immigration enforcement.

Our table is set. Next we wage an escalating campaign, driven by the hundreds of union activists across the state who participate in our Member Action Team program. Each MAT leader checks in regularly with a group of co-workers to involve them in actions, and the MATs meet together regularly to plan and debrief recruitment efforts.

When we talk to co-workers about the racial justice demands, we’re connecting them to a bigger picture—the new threats to our communities and national right-wing efforts to divide and destroy our labor movement.

We’re also talking to other unions and other organizations resisting the Trump administration to share examples of what we’re trying to do. It’s difficult for any single union to win and defend racial justice provisions alone. To establish pattern standards on these issues will take many unions pursuing the same demands.

Luster Howard, a truck driver at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, and Maricruz Manzanarez, a senior custodian at UC Berkeley, are members of the bargaining team. Seth Patel is the local’s lead negotiator.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 456, March 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.