University of California Support Workers Strike, Gain Sympathy Strikers

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

After more than a year of unsuccessful bargaining with the University of California system, AFSCME Local 3299 — representing some 9,000 service workers performing vital functions at all 10 UC campuses — struck throughout the university system on May 7-9.

The strikers, including food service and security workers, custodians, and gardeners, were joined in sympathy strikes by over 29,000 patient care workers. The AFSCME local represents some of those workers, while the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United represents 14,000 University of California hospitals registered nurses.

The University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), representing another 15,000 UC workers, also joined the sympathy strikes.

The sympathy strikes brought the total of workers walking out to approximately 50,000.

What forced the support workers to eventually walk was the university system’s unilateral imposition, late last month, of higher health care premiums, a higher retirement age for new workers choosing a pension rather than a 401(k), more outsourcing of jobs, and a 3 percent annual wage increase the union said was far from matching rising living costs.

Following UC’s announcement, Local 3299 said the strike vote was 97 percent favorable. The local is calling for a 6 percent annual pay increase, no higher cost for health coverage, and full pension benefits at age 60.

Also energizing the strikers and their supporters is a recent Local 3299 study revealing starting wages of black and Latino workers to be about 20 percent lower than those of their white counterparts.

Although the university said many surgeries and medical appointments were postponed because of the strike, the unions formed a Patient Protection Task Force of striking health care workers ready to respond to requests for emergency patient care help. The task force includes California Nurses Association RNs.

At a noontime rally on the UC Berkeley campus May 7, most pickets sported bright green shirts bearing the slogan, “We Run UC!”

Local 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger pointed out that Local 3299 is “the largest union of the third largest employer in the world’s fifth largest economy.” Recalling many times over the decades when the union “has pushed the university, kicking and screaming, to do the right thing,” Lybarger said, “Many students and community members are drawing a line in the sand once again: They will not outsource our jobs, they will not impoverish the people who do the work here. We are holding the line on the last, best middle-class jobs here in California.”

Union and community solidarity was evident in the crowd and among rally speakers.

Alameda Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Josie Camacho vowed the support of the county’s 135,000 union members: “We will stand with you, fight with you, and we will not go away, University, until justice is served.” California Labor Federation Executive Secretary Art Pulaski pledged the backing of the state’s two million union workers. When the University of California claims to be “building a better future,” he said, “they should practice what they preach.”

“You can’t build a better future by withholding wages, especially of the lowest-paid workers. Or when you force up the cost of health care to your workers, especially your low-wage workers. You cannot build a better future when you contract out the work of your low-wage workers and pay even lower wages to contract workers,” he said.

University administrators tried to stop the nurses’ sympathy strike, the California Nurses Association reported. A state Superior Court judge threw out the management’s request for an injunction against it.

“UC Student Health nurses are ready to sympathy strike to support our fellow UC service workers,” Michelle Kay, a nurse practitioner at the UC Berkeley Tang Center, told CAN. “We all play a critical role in making UC the institution it is. All UC workers deserve job security, safe working conditions, economic and retirement security and we stand united with all UC workers demanding justice and fairness from UC administration.”

“UC Davis Medical Center nurses support our fellow UC workers in their demands for a strong contract and justice in the workplace,” said RN Melissa Johnson-Camacho. “As nurses, we know that in order to provide the safe patient care our communities need we count on our co-workers and they count on us.”

Other unions at the May 7 solidarity rally in Berkeley included the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, SEIU Local 1021 which represents workers in local governments around northern California, and SEIU United Service Workers West. Berkeley sociology professor Michael Burawoy, who chairs the Berkeley Faculty Association, told the workers his organization “enthusiastically supports your strike. We all know the university is being especially miserly in its bargaining with you, and at the same time is feathering its own nest.”

Burawoy said administrators’ salaries have gone up by 64 percent in the last decade, and on the Berkeley campus, the ratio of top earners’ income to lowest income is 20 to 1.

“A strike is important for many reasons: a show of strength, to broadcast the plight of workers, to focus struggles,” he said. “But it also serves to remind the campus of your importance, of how dependent we are on you. Nobel Prize winners get all the glory, but there will be no Nobel Prize winners if there are no service workers. You do the invisible work of Nobel Prize winning. You are ALL Nobel Prize winners!”