Why my baby is going on strike

My 8-month-old son usually spends his days at a daycare center run by UC Berkeley’s Early Childhood Education Program (ECEP), but on Jan. 10, he’s going to support his teachers and thousands of other UC employees by going out on strike with them.

The teachers in my son’s classroom are members of Teamsters Local 2010, which represents 11,600 administrative, clerical and support workers across 10 UC campuses. The union has been in negotiations with the university since April of last year over the terms of its next five-year contract. Although the two sides were able to agree on some ancillary issues, negotiations stalled when it came to the central question of wages.

The union argues that university wages have failed to keep up with inflation. In real terms, clerical and support jobs now pay 24 percent less than they did in 1999, despite the fact that employees are doing more complex work and are more productive than ever.  As a result, large numbers of UC workers now live in poverty.

According to a study last fall by the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, 70 percent of UC administrative, support and auxiliary workers have experienced food insecurity, meal skipping or hunger because of their low wages — more than five times the rate for the general population in California and the United States.  Over the past year, 80 percent of those employees also reported having to choose between buying food and paying their rent or utilities — one in four said they had to make such decisions every month.

In the face of these dire conditions, in June the Teamsters proposed 5 percent annual wage increases and automatic annual pay-scale step increases to make up some of the ground workers had lost. After months of stalling, the university finally countered in mid-August, offering only 1 percent pay increases. Where the union’s proposal would have raised wages by 27 percent over the term of the contract, the university’s initial offer would have only raised wages by 5 percent, likely failing to keep up with inflation and further contributing to the decline in worker pay. The university also offered annual step increases tied to employee performance evaluations rather than longevity, a policy the union says would make workers vulnerable to favoritism by their supervisors. The union rejected the proposal, and although the previous contract was about to expire, the Teamsters agreed to return to the bargaining table in December to let the university make another offer.

When the university subsequently increased its offer by only 0.5 percent annually, the union threatened to strike. The university then countered with a complex proposal that it said would raise worker pay by 18 percent over the next five years, but much of that increase would depend on step increases based on workers’ performance evaluations. Although the university subsequently countered with a complex proposal that would raise worker pay by 12 percent over the next five years, that position still fails to make up for the years of stagnation that have pushed so many UC workers into poverty and food insecurity. In response, the Teamsters called a one-day strike to protest the university’s unfair labor practices, including what the union sees as bad faith in the contract negotiations process.

I first learned about the strike in an email from the director of ECEP telling parents that we would likely have to find alternative childcare Tuesday. While the strike will inconvenience my family and the 240 others with children at ECEP centers, I support the workers’ decision to strike in the face of the university’s intransigence. Over 90 percent of the teachers at my child’s center plan to join the strike, including the three teachers who work in his classroom. I see the hard work that these caring, experienced professionals put in every day while they provide a safe, nurturing environment for the nine infants in their care. Responsibility for this strike falls squarely on the university’s insistence that it shouldn’t have to pay these workers and others like them wages they and their families can live on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of denying its workers wage increases that might keep up with the cost of living, the university should return to the bargaining table with the goal of making our campuses model employers. It’s a disgrace that so many UC workers have to choose between going hungry and paying their rent. The disruption Tuesday’s strike causes is nothing compared to the disruption substandard wages cause every day to the lives of UC workers and their families. So on Tuesday, even though he hasn’t learned to walk yet, my son will be out on the picket line supporting his teachers and the thousands of others who make the University of California work.

Charlie Sinks is a third year law student and the parent of a child in one of the University’s childcare centers.

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