If one were to summarize UC President Janet Napolitano’s first few months on the job in the form of a question, it would go something like this: Is there an inequity problem at the university?
Within the past few months, we have seen more and more California leaders posing this same question. First, we learned the percentage of African American students admitted into the university has declined steadily since 1994, according to a report released by the Campaign for College Opportunity — with stark drops at the system’s most prestigious institutions, UC Berkeley and UCLA. Then, after concerns about hate crimes and lower reported perceptions of “respect” from minority students in UC Office of the President’s own Campus Climate surveys, the California Democratic Party’s African American Caucus called for an investigation into racial disparities at the university.
To be fair, these are problems Napolitano inherited. But that is no excuse. The historically progressive state of California should be leading in this area. That it hasn’t does not reflect well on Napolitano’s predecessor nor the UC Board of Regents.
Then, there is the matter of UC workers. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299 represents more than 22,000 patient-care technical workers and service workers at the university’s 10 campuses, five medical centers and other facilities. It is no secret that AFSCME 3299 is not only the UC system’s largest collection of organized UC employees but also composed largely of people of color. That is one factor that has made bargaining with the university these past 18 months so disheartening.
AFSCME has been very vocal about the skyrocketing workplace injury rates suffered by low-paid campus workers. Similarly, we have seen staffing problems in UC hospitals contribute to declining patient satisfaction and, even worse, preventable tragedies and a growing avalanche of government fines due to safety deficiencies. That’s why we have made safer staffing standards our top priority.
That the university has granted such protections to other bargaining units, such as nurses — even since Napolitano has been on the job — but has remained tone-deaf to AFSCME’s request for similar safeguards, reveals a troubling double standard.
Such is the case with other aspects of bargaining. On wages and benefits, the university has refused to offer our members anything comparable to what it has granted to other bargaining units — nurses, researchers, librarians, lecturers and even nonrepresented staf members. Instead, both of AFSCME 3299’s bargaining units — including 8300 wervice workers, most of whom are already income eligible for some form of public assistance — were singled out for the harshest treatment, including unilaterally imposed contract terms that included what amounted to wage cuts earlier this academic year.
Over the last two months, the university has raced to reach settlements with nearly a half-dozen bargaining units. Taken by itself, this is welcome sign. Taken against the backdrop of the UC refusal to adopt a commensurate standard of fairness, compromise or urgency with the bargaining units represented by AFSCME 3299, one is left with a very different perception of what is going on.
To be clear, I am not arguing that the university is employing bias in its approach to bargaining. I can see, however, how the double standard with which our members are being treated — combining that with growing concerns about other disparities involving students could lead one to such a perception. As a seasoned politician who has been elected as a governor and an attorney general, Napolitano knows that in the court of public opinion, perception is reality. So does the governor and a state Legislature that is being asked to give the university more money next year.
The question all of them will need to ask themselves is whether they plan to resolve the well-founded perception of inequity at the university — or perpetuate it.
Kathryn Lybarger is the president of AFSCME Local 3299.