UC service workers strike to fight inequality

Saying that their fight against rising inequality will continue, 20,000 University of California (UC) workers ended their three-day strike and returned to work on May 10.

The strike was called by the workers’ union AFSCME Local 3299 after university management announced that it was breaking off negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement with the union and unilaterally imposing new terms of employment on 9000 service workers at ten UC campuses and five medical centers across the state.

Under the new terms, UC service workers, the lowest paid of all UC employees will pay more for health care coverage, wait five years longer to retire, not receive a pay raise commiserate with the high cost of living in California, and continue to face the threat of losing their jobs to outsourcing.

The decision to impose its terms on low-wage service workers comes shortly after a report commissioned by Local 3299 found that inequality at UC is prevalent and increasing.

“A taxpayer supported public university system is not the place where we should expect to see exploding wage gaps, blacks disappearing from the workforce, and an opportunity ladder that seems to prize white males above all others, but that is precisely what is happening at UC—and the trends appear to be getting worse, not better,” said Owen Li co-author of the report titled “Pioneering Inequality: Income, Racial and Gender Inequality at the University of California.

Kathy Lybarger, president of Local 3299, said that the union had been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with UC that it hoped would begin to address the growing trend toward inequality identified in the report, but UC abruptly ended the negotiations.

“Instead of joining us in the effort to arrest these trends, UC has insisted on deepening them—leaving workers no option but to strike,” Lybarger said.

Among other things, the report finds that:

  • Between 2005 and 2015, the ratio between average salaries of UC’s top executives and other UC employees increased from 7:1 to 9:1.
  • Starting pay for women and people of color averages as much as 21 percent less than white males and
  • UC’s outsourcing has led to a 37 percent decline in the number of African American workers at UC.

Outsourcing is the biggest driver of inequality at UC, Lybarger said.

An audit conducted by the state last year found that UC’s propensity to outsource more of its work to private companies has hit low-wage career employees the hardest.

Their jobs have been outsourced to private contractors that pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits than UC.

When the impact of its privatization efforts were called to the attention of UC President Janet Napolitano, she instituted policies that required outsourcing companies to pay a minimum wage, but according to a state’s audit, UC has been lax at enforcing its own policy.

While Napolitano has been driving down wages by outsourcing away jobs, she has been much more generous in the way that she treats her immediate staff.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that another state audit found that salaries for employees who directly work for her “are significantly higher than those of comparable state employees.”

These favored employees during the years audited also received an additional $21.6 million worth of perks that included contributions to their supplemental retirement accounts and stays at expensive hotels while travelling on UC business.

While Napolitano’s closest associates were being treated to extra perks, UC’s service workers, who include custodians, grounds keepers, security guards, and other service staff, have had to scramble to keep their livelihoods intact.

Some UC workers like Juan Donto, a groundskeeper at UC Santa Barbara, must work multiple jobs to support their families.

Donto, who works three jobs, said that having to work so much to meet his expenses has made it hard for him to spend any time with his children.

“It’s not right that the UC is known for its upstanding reputation when their workers have to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet,” Donto said. “It’s not right that Latinos and African Americans are making at least 20 percent less than their white co-workers. I ask you, why does it take an African American woman six years to make the (starting) salary of a white man?”

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UC and union reach one agreement; strike vote to be taken as negotiations over another falter

After more than 20 months of bargaining, AFSCME Local 3299 and the University of California System (UC) reached a tentative agreement that the union leadership called “historic.”

The agreement covers 8,300 service workers at UC’s nine academic campuses.

Local 3299 and UC still have not reached an agreement on a new contract that covers 13,000 patient care and technical workers at UC’s five medical centers.

The union accuses UC of “serial lawbreaking” because of its repeated attempts to undermine collective bargaining at the medical centers and said that medical center workers will vote March 12-13 on whether to authorize an unfair labor practices strike.

“For months, we have been holding off on this (unfair labor practices) ULP strike vote in the hopes that UC’s new president would put an end to this serial lawbreaking,” said Randall Johnson a Local 3299 ULP committee member and patient care worker . “Instead, UC has doubled down, illegally introducing new bargaining demands at the 11th hour that would effectively force UC patients to play a game of Russian Roulette on staffing in order to boost hospital profits. It’s clear that if we don’t stand up to UC’s unlawful conduct now, it will only get worse.”

Last July after more than a year of negotiations, UC unilaterally implemented some terms of its contract proposal at its medical centers. The new terms increased worker health care costs and pensions contributions.

Despite what the union called UC’s bad faith approach to negotiations, Local 3299 continued to bargain.

From the outset of negotiations, Local 3299’s priority has been patient safety and safe staffing levels, but UC has been unresponsive.

To make matters worse, UC recently introduced a new demand that wasn’t previously on the table. UC wants to give hospital administrators unlimited layoff powers in situations that management defines as an emergency.

The union responded that such unlimited powers could worsen patient safety by raising patient to staff ratios.

Heightening union safety concerns is the fact that two UC medical centers, one in Davis and one in Los Angeles, in August were fined $50,000 apiece by the California Department of Public Health for failing to ensure the health and safety of patients.

“These penalties highlight the concerns that our membership has been raising for years–that mismanagement and chronic understaffing has made UC Hospitals increasingly dangerous places for the communities they serve,” said Kathy Lybarger, Local 3299 president  in a statement issued after the fines were announced. “The fact is that instead of investing in basic safeguards for patients, UC Hospital executives are cutting corners on care in order line their own pockets. That’s not how you build a world class health delivery system—it’s how you degrade one.”

Lybarger said that the March strike vote is intended to send a message to UC administrators that the union isn’t backing down from its safe staffing demand. She called UC’s new demand another example of UC’s bad faith approach to bargaining.

She added that UC’s bad faith bargaining wasn’t just a threat to union members “but to the colleagues, patients, and students, who depend of (Local 3299 members) every day” as well.

UC service workers at its academic campus had been prepared to go on strike themselves. They had recently voted overwhelming for a five-day unfair labor practices strike that was to begin March 3.

The strike however was called off at the last minute when UC and Local 3299 reached an agreement that raises pay by 13.5 percent over the four years of the contract, provides more protections against contracting out work, freezes health care premiums for active and retired employees, and eliminates UC’s paid time off scheme that reduces workers’ paid vacation and sick leave by combining the two.

In September, UC unilaterally implemented some terms of its contract proposal. For example, it increased employee and retiree health care costs. The new agreement reduces some of these costs.

But the union did agree to some concessions to reach a final agreement, most notably it agreed to increase worker pension contributions by 1.5 percent.

When Lybarger announced the tentative agreement she recognized the fact that the union had agreed to some concessions including higher pension contributions, but noted that the agreement will “pull thousands of its full-time (UC) employees out of poverty and begin to rectify staffing practices that needlessly put our members and the people they serve at risk.”

“(The new agreement) honors the contributions that career service workers make to this institution, as well as UC’s responsibility to build ladders to the middle class,” said Lybarger.” Our members are deeply grateful to the thousands of students, faculty, colleagues, elected officials, and everyday taxpayers who have stood with us, and stood for the principles of fairness and dignity that bind every member of the UC community.”

UC workers take strike vote to stop pay cuts and employer intimidation

AFSCME Local 3299  announced that 96 percent of its members voted to authorize another unfair labor practices strike against the University of California, which imposed a pay and benefits cut on 21,000 Local 3299 members at UC’s ten campuses and five medical centers.

In September the California Public Employment Board issued a complaint against UC for intimidating workers before, during, and after a previous unfair labor practices strike.

“Our membership stands united for a workplace that is free of illegal intimidation against employees who stand up for the safety of the students and patients they serve,” said AFSCME 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger. “We believe UC should be held accountable for their serial law breaking.”

The results of the strike authorization vote, which took place between October 28 and 30 were announced on November 1. .

In July, UC imposed terms of a new contract on 13,000 patient care technical workers at UC’s five medical centers who belong to Local 3299. The imposed terms froze pay for four years and increased worker pension contributions and health care premiums, which in effect reduced workers’ take home pay. The imposed terms also reduced future retiree health care benefits for some workers, added another tier of pension benefits, and did not address safe staffing level concerns raised by workers.

In September, UC did the same thing to 8,000 maintenance, landscaping, custodial, and food service workers at UC’ s ten academic campuses.

Lybarger said that UC’s cuts fall hardest on workers who can least afford them. Average pay for the affected workers at the 10 UC campuses is $35,000 a year and if their UC wages were their only income, 99 percent of them would be eligible for some form of public assistance.

During a UC Regents meeting, Local 3299 members described what it was like to live on the wages that UC pays.

“I’ve been working full time at UC for 33 years,” said Eugene Stokes, a 53 year-old senior building maintenance worker at UC Berkeley. “I work another job to try and make ends meet, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire. Yesterday, I had to choose between paying the mortgage, or helping my daughter with her tuition. On other days, that choice is between medicine and food.”

While UC is demanding sacrifices from its lowest paid workers, it continues to lavish its highest paid staff with excessive salaries and benefits.

According to Local 3299, nearly 700 of UC’s executives and other highly paid staff have salaries higher than the President of the United States and this year received a 3 percent pay raise.

“Today, UC is being transformed into a symbol of the widening income gap that is condemning growing numbers of Americans to a life of poverty,” said Lybarger. “Taking from UC’s lowest paid, full time workers in order to line the pockets of UC executives is not just an attack on collective bargaining—it’s an assault on basic morality.”

In May, workers at UC medical centers tried to put a stop to this growing level of inequality by voting for and participating in a two-day unfair labor practices strike.

UC, according to the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), retaliated with threats and coercion.

The PERB in a complaint issued in September charged UC with using threats to dissuade workers from participating in the legal strike, threatening workers with adverse action during the strike, and punishing workers who participated in the strike.

In September, UC imposed the same pay cut and benefit reductions on Local 3299 members at UC academic campuses, which led union members to vote for another unfair labor practices strike.

The strike was postponed when UC’s chief negotiator requested that bargaining between the two sides resume and told the union that UC had a new proposal on retirement, wages, and other issues.

Local 3299 responded that the union was willing to restart talks but noted that UC had done nothing to address the intimidation and coercion charges described in the PERB complaint, which led the union to call for the most recent strike vote.

Meanwhile, members of the University Professional and Technical Employees CWA Local 9119 and the California Nurses Association who work for UC held a statewide Unity Day on November 1.

Members of the two unions are facing the same take aways imposed on Local 3299 members.

During Unity Day, UPTE and CNA members will staff information tables at work locations throughout the state, answer questions about the bargaining that is currently underway, and urge members to sign a strike pledge.

“UC is holding wage increases hostage to try to get us to give up on our retirement benefits,” reads the opening sentence of the strike pledge. “Despite four years of budget increases at UC, $500 million in profits at the med centers, and executives making more than ever, UC negotiators want to turn back the clock decades, with historic cuts to our retirement. This is a priority crisis, not a budget crisis.”