A more perfect union: How 7 UC Berkeley faculty members changed history through unionizing almost 50 years ago

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In 1971, seven UC Berkeley faculty members who were part of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, changed the history of labor in the UC system forever by establishing the union lecturers and librarians use to negotiate for their jobs today, almost 50 years later.

They voted to form an AFT council specific to the University of California, creating the University Council-AFT, which currently represents more than 3,300 librarians and non-Academic Senate faculty members such as lecturers, has staff on all 10 UC campuses and continues to enter into regular negotiations with the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, over salaries, job security, job roles and more.

According to the California Federation of Teachers website, AFT represented UC employees without bargaining power starting in 1963. After the council was established eight years later, it did not have the full right to bargain on behalf of its members until 1978, when former governor Jerry Brown passed the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act. The act formally gave UC and CSU employees the right to organize and sparked a vote within the non-Academic Senate faculty and librarians.

In 1982, the lecturers of the UC system formally voted to make UC-AFT their sole representation in bargaining, and the librarians followed their lead a year later with a voting majority of just 12 votes, according to UC-AFT Local 1474 co-chair David Eifler. Eifler stated that UC Berkeley librarians were the first librarians employed by a public education system to form a union in response to liberalized labor laws.

The UC-AFT contracting team began negotiations with the UC in 1983, and a contract was approved in 1984 on behalf of the librarians.

“The University is very interested in negotiating a labor agreement which is silent about governance issues and professional concerns,” the UC Collective Bargaining Services wrote to the union in 1984, according to the union’s website. “We are convinced that if the parties can reach agreement on how these issues should be handled, they can agree to experiment by keeping those agreed upon items outside the labor agreement.”

The contract was not complete in 1984 and has been amended through “reopener negotiations,” which address a small part of an already approved contract, over the years. According to the UC-AFT website, the union decided to leave out more controversial ideas, like a salary scale based upon performance and peer review, when the contract first was approved in 1984.

The lecturers, who negotiate separate contracts from the librarians despite being in the same union, finished negotiating their first contract two years later, in 1986. According to the UC-AFT website, they considered it a success because they were able to overturn a rule allowing lecturers to only work with the UC system for one eight-year term. Instead, the UC system and UC-AFT agreed to three-year renewable terms for the non-Academic Senate faculty.

In 2000, members of the union passed funding to hire permanent staff on each UC campus, with the UCSF members joining the UC Berkeley chapter, UC-AFT Local 1474.

According to the UC-AFT website, 2001 to 2003 was characterized by a struggle to reach a lecturer-focused labor agreement with the UC and involved labor actions on six out of nine UC campuses with councils.

Lecturers renewed a contract with the UC two years later in 2005 and focused on workload and salary, according to the UC-AFT website. The librarians ratified a major contract in January 2006, months after the lecturers’ agreement, and built upon their previous successes regarding expanded professional opportunities, improved leave benefits and comparable salary scales with salary increases and breaks for holidays.

Today, the union continues to be active. In April, the librarians won a contract with “historic economic gains,” according to Eifler, after a year of negotiations, more than 16 bargaining sessions and many demonstrations. The new contract, which officially began in June and was approved with a 98 percent margin by members, involved salary increases for both full-time librarians and assistants and will last until March 2024, according to a UC-AFT agreement summary.

The lecturers began negotiations in the late spring with the goal of gaining increased job security, and an agreement has yet to be reached.

UC-AFT also regularly works with unions representing other forms of labor on campus, including the union for the graduate student instructors, United Automobile Workers Local 2865; the union for clerical workers, called Teamsters Local 2010; the union for technical, health and staff research assistants, called University Professional and Technical Employees-Communications Workers of America 9119; and the union representing service workers and hospital technicians on the UC campuses, called the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299. According to the UC-AFT website, it also regularly works with other unions, including those of nurses and firefighters.

“The librarians are currently working member education and engagement, and support for the lecturer contract negotiations,” Eifler said in an email. “Lecturers are focused on fighting for a new contract that supports living wages and recognition of the essential pedagogical role they play in students lives as non-senate faculty.”

Contact Kate Finman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.