UC unions continue to negotiate contracts virtually during pandemic

Union Protest
Nirvana Ellaboudy/File

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As university services move online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UC labor bargaining has also moved to teleconference.

According to Tiffany Page, a member of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT, Local 1474, while bargaining sessions with UC administration previously took place on various UC campuses, the sessions now take place via Zoom.

Despite the move, many aspects of the bargaining session remain the same, except the adaptation to digital communication. For example, originally, both sides of the negotiations would print out hard copies of their proposals to give to one another during the bargaining session. Now, the proposals are exchanged via email by each team’s chief negotiator. The presence of observers during the bargaining session remains the same.

Additionally, unions continue to hold regular meetings to inform and update union members via Zoom, as well as to send out bargaining updates for their members. The unions have also set up virtual pickets instead of in-person pickets.

However, this shift to Zoom bargaining sessions also comes with a few changes. Bargaining sessions have shortened to two hours, as travel time to bargaining sessions no longer needs to be accounted for.

The shift to online bargaining sessions has also created a controversy concerning video call hosting of the bargaining sessions.

“So far UC has insisted on being the zoom host so when they caucus, they end the zoom meeting and kick all of us off the call (sometimes rather abruptly!),” Page alleged in an email.

Page also alleged that the UC system has yet to accept the union’s request to co-host bargaining sessions so that the union can stay on the call when the UC negotiating team leaves.

The UC system has also been accused of using the pandemic-related financial shortfall to roll back union progress.

“They want us to now adopt a short term contract which is very close to the old contract language,” said Crystal Chang, a UC-AFT Local 1474 member and UC Berkeley global studies and political economy lecturer, in an email. “This is very disheartening and discouraging for us.”

According to UC Office of the President spokesperson Stett Holbrook, the UC system has witnessed a loss of nearly $1.2 billion from mid-March to April.

Significant financial costs have been related to the prioritizing of COVID-19 patients in UC medical centers, among other causes.

“We understand this is a period of anxiety about job stability and finances for our employees,” Holbrook said in an email. “We are committed to keeping them informed and to providing timely information and communication in the coming weeks and months.”

Despite the shift toward virtual bargaining, unions are nevertheless able to continue their negotiating strategies.

Recently, UC-AFT Local 1474 led a successful petition campaign to make lecturers exempt from the UC hiring freeze, garnering more than 1,000 signatures.

UC-AFT Local 1474 has also been negotiating with UC administration for the inclusion of lecturers to the UC system’s COVID-19 response task forces and committees.

“Since we are excluded from these task forces, we have had to use bargaining sessions to try to gather information on the steps the university is taking, which has taken some time away from bargaining our contract,” Page said in the email.

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.