Student and campus workers shutting down the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue isn’t a rare occurrence; it happened back in 2013 when American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, or AFSCME 3299, organized a systemwide picket against impending changes to the UC employee pension plan, as well as two weeks ago when students and service workers rallied for a fair contract between AFSCME 3299 and the UC. Not unique, also, is the violence that was inflicted by the university against Crossroads dining hall cook David Cole, who was brutally arrested by UCPD on Feb. 1 for protesting workplace injustices.
While it acutely reveals the force with which the university will silence workers who speak out against problems it creates, Cole’s arrest reminds us that the UC’s relationship with its workers is largely violent. Deployed not merely through brutal and extrajudicial attacks against workers by police, worker exploitation and abuse also occurs when our waged are decreased or stolen, when our shifts are cut or extended without our consent, when we are given the bare minimum to perform our jobs in unsafe conditions, when racial and gendered discrimination bar us from certain duties and promotions and when our labor is outsourced to private contractors who are maliciously for-profit and anti-worker.
Campus career workers represented by AFSCME 3299 are predominantly people of color and/or low-income individuals who work long hours to support families, pay off bills and keep a roof over their head and food on the table. Although we don’t intend to retire in our campus jobs, student workers share a similar narrative to the career workers we work with, especially on the belief that we work for more than we get in terms of pay and benefits.
Although AFSCME is the largest union in the UC system with more than 24,000 workers, it has cause for concern in its upcoming contract fight. Last year, after months of intense contract negotiations, Teamsters – another campus union that represents 11,000 administrative, clerical and support workers across the 10 UC campuses – was pressured into accepting meager wage increases and a new 401(k) retirement plan instead of the higher wages and enhanced pension plans the union had been demanding for more than a year. Following Teamster’s setback, UCOP is likely expecting it can leave the bargaining table with AFSCME under the same position it put the Teamsters in: a contract that favors the UC’s interests over the demands of its workers.
Despite UCOP’s claims that the university has worked diligently to address grievances by service and patient care employees, an internal audit of the UC Berkeley last year found that the campus was not compliant in implementing the guaranteed $15 minimum wage that UC President Janet Napolitano had promised back in 2015 would be in place for all new UC workers by October 2017. A contract deal should have been reached between AFSCME 3299 and the UC by now, but, the possibility of leaving workers with less than what they’re bargaining for puts the union in a tough spot.
That’s the nature of unions and contracts. Union contracts arose to suppress volatile labor with legal promises that aimed at making capitalism comfortable enough to keep the production line moving.
Following World War II, most American unions entered extensive contracts with no-strike clauses that suppressed the ability of workers to take material action against unfavorable labor practices except through institutional channels such as arbitration and grievance procedures approved by their employer. And the largest blow to labor was rung by deindustrialization, which saw unions enter longer and harsher contracts to salvage what they could for workers in industries threatened by the outsourcing of manufacturing and domestic restructuring of the market towards automation and technology.
When the Undergraduate Workers Union was formed last year, our intent was never to pursue a contract with the university nor to gain recognition from Cal Dining, because we are not interested in negotiating with an institution that continues to oppress its students and employees. This is not to argue that unions have no merit, because they do, especially for workers who’ve managed to unionize in a job that will allow them to retire.
A middle-aged custodial worker at UC Berkeley who works the graveyard shift on top of two other jobs to support a family, pay rent and medical bills, and afford groceries and school supplies cannot be asked to clock off the job and occupy California Hall. This is where students become important to the labor battles of the campus workers who make our university run on a daily basis.
The rightful response of workers who are time and time again made to struggle against unjust working conditions is to disrupt business as usual until their collective demands are met by their employer. Until the conditions exist in which we don’t have to fight for basic rights in the workplace, it’s the responsibility of those with the institutional power to push UC administrators to do their job. As students, we have to show up for workers demanding fair treatment and racial justice, protest with student workers demanding living wages and take action alongside each other when the university tries to increase tuition. After all, this is our university!
Cristian Alejandre is a member of the Undergraduate Workers Union at UC Berkeley.