Q&A: Last Week’s UC-Wide Workers’ Strike

By Glen Martin

The three-day strike of UC’s ten campuses and five medical centers is over, and the 24,000 service employees represented by AFSCME Local 3299 have, presumably, gone back to work, cleaning buildings, preparing and serving food in the dorms, and generally performing all the quotidian and often dreary chores required to keep the greatest public university complex on the planet functioning. The picketers were joined in a sympathy strike by 29,000 nurses and other medical staffers.

The bedrock issues, though, remain unresolved. The workers maintain they are being economically squeezed to death, forced to perform increased work for no extra pay, endure cuts in benefits and stand by helplessly while their positions are eliminated and their jobs transferred to contractors willing to work on the cheap. University administrators, for their part, seem disinclined to yield, insisting service worker earnings already meet or exceed market rates and that the union’s demand for a 20 percent pay hike over three years is unreasonable. Such fiscal and fiduciary concerns aside, the strike threw the real world stresses of service workers in high relief, with the strikers enjoying wide support from UC students and faculty.  

Hoping to get a sense of the situation at street level, California contacted Oakland-based John de los Angeles, AFSCME Local 3299’s spokesman, as he picketed with workers on the UCLA campus for the last day of the strike. Davina Woods, a senior custodian at UCLA and a member of the union’s bargaining team, also contributed her thoughts.

How would you evaluate the impact of the strike?

de Los Angeles: Just here at UCLA and [its associated] medical center, we’ve had thousands of people picketing. And I’ve been in touch with all the campuses, and it’s basically the same story. As far as results, we haven’t heard directly [from UC negotiators], so we have to get back with our bargaining team and evaluate our next moves.

Woods: We’ve been really encouraged by all the support we’re getting, particularly from the students. They have a lot of sympathy for us, and a lot of them have stood with us on the line. And that isn’t the only way they’ve shown their support. You know, when you’re working, a lot of times students will come up and thank you for what you’re doing, for keeping the buildings and the campus clean. They really appreciate it, and that means a lot to us. Typically, we get more support from them than we do from management.

Davina, what’s your personal objective for this action?

Woods: Basically, it’s about respect. We just want respect where it’s due. Service workers are the backbone for the university. We keep things running smoothly. Without us, things would just grind to a halt. And I take my job very seriously. My personal objective is to maintain a clean and safe environment for the students and staff.  But part of respect is fair pay and benefits for the work you do, so as an active member of the AFSCME bargaining team, I’m also determined to secure a fair contract for my fellow workers, myself and our families. That’s why we’re out here. For me personally, health care is the biggest thing. The university wants to raise our premiums, and that would make it very hard to take my kids to the doctor, or to go to the doctor myself. I’m over 50 years old, and I’ve been at this job for seven years. People get hurt doing this kind of work. It’s a real worry.

Please describe your work. What’s a typical day?

Woods: [Laughs] A typical day?  It’s physical – very physical. You’re always pushing and lifting and pulling, always moving. At the end of the day, you’re really tired. But I’m okay with it. I like my work. It pays my bills. But when we see cuts in our wages, when we see our workload increase—well, it’s ridiculous. Basically, the policy of the university is to reduce the workforce. When people retire or quit or are injured, there’s resistance to replacing them. So that means the workload increases for the people who remain. It’s called ‘swinging.’ Like, when somebody leaves, I have to go and clean their building and then come back and do mine. And it’s not just that I don’t get any extra pay—it’s that our pay is actually reduced, and we lose more and jobs to independent contractors. We survive paycheck to paycheck, and I tell you, we’re tired of just surviving. We want to be able to live, not survive. We deserve that much.

de Los Angeles: When you get down to it, our biggest issue is outsourcing. It cuts across all other issues, including the downward pressure on wages and the spikes in health care premiums. [Outsourcing also affects] racial and gender inequality. Since 1996, UC’s African-American service workforce has declined by 37 percent. If you’re an African-American custodian working for the university these days, it’s unlikely you’re directly employed and a member of the union. It’s almost assured you’re going to be an independent contractor working for poverty wages, without access to health care, and vulnerable to out-and-out wage theft. Last year, we conducted audits of the university’s self-imposed minimum wage standards, and we found that they are not being adequately enforced. It’s not that [administrators] won’t address it—they won’t even acknowledge it. All of this is driven by the ongoing trend in outsourcing.  And it’s gotten to the point that it’s intolerable.

Woods: We’ve tried to be patient. We’ve been working without a contract since last June. But we’ve been negotiating a year and haven’t really gotten anywhere.

de Los Angeles: The last straw was on April 20 th , when the university just went ahead and imposed their preferred terms on the workers. They raised health care premiums, lifted the retirement age, flattened wages, and continued outsourcing. That’s why we had to call a strike. We didn’t want to. We limited it to three days, because we knew it would impose some inconveniences on people. But we really had no choice.

But will anything substantive come of it?

Woods: I do know it’s having an impact. They’re feeling the pressure. This isn’t a bee sting—it’s more like a punch in the nose. We’re just hoping we get the call to come back to the table for some serious negotiations.

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