Justice for David Cole: AFSCME’s Struggle for Racial Justice at UC Berkeley

By La Voz East Bay
The struggle for workers’ rights and racial justice came to a head at UC Berkeley on Thursday, February 1st when David Cole, a 51 year-old African American campus employee and AFSCME 3299 member, was violently detained and arrested by UC Berkeley Police (UCPD) during an AFSCME-initiated picket action.  The picket, which brought out over 150 students and workers from several campus unions including UC-AFT, UAW 2865, UPTE and the Teamsters 2010, was 2018’s first major labor action at UCB. In addition to the demand for a fair contract, the action commemorated the first day of Black History Month and paid homage to the legacy of two Black AFSCME members whose deaths sparked the 1968 Memphis Sanitation workers strike.  The violent actions of the UCB police and the complicity of the university administrators in this violence show us that in terms of the university’s priorities, not much has changed in the intervening years. The parallels between these two eras of struggle – 1968 and 2018 –  were laid bare in a widely circulated video documenting Cole’s arrest by UCPD in which he was detained, aggressively thrown to the ground, and pinned to the street.  Cole sustained injuries to his head, nose, and leg.  He was hospitalized, then taken into custody and booked by Berkeley police department for trumped up charges of resisting arrest, obstruction of justice and vandalism.  As several witnesses interviewed by local media as well as the video corroborate, Cole was attempting to protect other peaceful protesters from threatening motions of a driver and did not resist arrest, but was merely confused as why he was being so aggressively handled by the police.  Students and workers from the aforementioned unions responded that day by rallying outside of the Chancellor’s office California Hall, one of the main administrative buildings on campus, to demand Cole’s immediate release and that charges be dropped.
AFSCME 3299 represents 24,000 workers across the University of California system, making it the largest UC union.  3299 represents  custodians, cooks, maintenance workers, gardeners, among others on the campuses. as well as Patient Care Technical Workers at the UC medical centers. This union, which is comprised largely of workers of color, is one of the most militant at the UC and represents some of the most exploited workers on campus.  After months of  contract negotiations, they have reached impasse as the UC has failed to move on their demands of benefit protections, fair wages, job security, job training, educational opportunities, and career growth.  Insultingly, UC offered a 0% salary increase over the next 5 years.  In order to win the needed salary increases and other benefits, the union is preparing for an economic strike.  Other campus workers and students must prepare to stand in solidarity with AFSCME workers in their fight for dignity.
In response to the students’ and workers’ pressure, the UC Office of the Vice Chancellor sent out a disgraceful email throughout campus defending UCPD’s repression against Cole, painting him as a criminal, and de-contextualizing the union action and racial justice commemoration in which he was participating. The message also ignored the pervasive racist campus climate that students, faculty, and workers of color face at UCB. During the February 1st action, workers and students took to the streets – a traditional and common action done at most UCB protests and pickets – and were forced to relocate onto campus after at least one car drove towards the direction of the peaceful crowd.  The UC has painted things very differently in their email claiming that a,
“vehicle then pulled forward and stopped on Bancroft Way. At that point, the UC employee began to advance in the direction of the driver…The driver of the vehicle flagged down a police officer for assistance and complained that the UC employee had damaged his car. The driver requested a citizen’s arrest and under California law, UCPD is obligated to arrest the individual on the citizen’s behalf. When a UCPD officer attempted to detain the UC employee, he became uncooperative and disregarded instructions from the officer. The officer requested assistance and he and other UCPD officers then moved to physically detain him.  Due to the UC employee’s resistance, multiple officers were needed to take him into custody.”
To put the UC’s budget priority in perspective, just this past September, the UC administration spent $4 million dollars on police security to protect white supremacists and neo-nazis, including Milo Yiannapolous, during the so-called “Free Speech Week.[1]”  And let us not forget the $175 million discovered by a state auditor last April that the UC Office of the President (UCOP) hid away in secret reserves while waging tuition hikes on the students.[2]  UC’s commitment to protecting racists and reactionaries, while repressing black workers on campus and financing the executive class on the backs of students and workers speaks volumes to who the UCPD are there to serve and protect.
AFSCME (and several other campus unions) has been in contract negotiations with the UC since last Spring and has reached impasse after seeing no movement on some fundamental workplace demands around job security, wage increases, and career growth opportunities. This is following last year’s Teamsters’ contract negotiations, where, after months of tension, representatives of the 11,000 administrative, clerical and support workers across the 10 UC campuses were pressured into minor wage increases and 401(k) retirement plans instead of the wage increases and enhanced pension plans that the union, in order support its workers in dealing with rising cost of living in California, had been demanding for more than a year. AFSCME’s impasse also comes on the heels of UC pressuring the American Federation of Teachers to accept a meager 1.5% wage increase in their last librarian contract – the same amount given to all non-union staff. The message to workers in the UC is clear – we are de-valued, demeaned, and degraded on the job. But we are not demoralized, and demand better.
UC rejection of all of AFSCME’s key demands (including UC’s proposal of a O% wage increase over five years) means that the union has filed with the state labor board for impasse, where the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) will evaluate each party’s case for why no more movement at the table can be made and, if PERB sees fit, appoint a mediator. If after a series of steps no agreement can be brokered, UC can unilaterally impose their “last, best, and final offer” and AFSCME 3299 will have the right to strike. The union remains committed to seeing this fight through to the end, to secure a future for students, patients, and families.
In an interview immediately after his release from Berkeley Police with local news outlet KPIX 5, David Cole stated: “I have three stitches in my eye, one in my nose. My leg is bothering me, my foot is bothering me. But I’m going to be okay. I just want to thank you to Local 3299 for helping me…hopefully this ordeal will get over with and be done and we will win our contract”. Mr. Cole’s resolve is a message to all workers in the UC system that we can come together and fight for and build a better workplace and education system where workers like Mr. Cole – and all workers – do not have to face the violence, intimidation, and systematic disrespect that UC currently exacts on those who challenge its norms.
Over 100 workers and students rallied and picketed together on February 8th to support AFSCME 3299 demands’ that the University drop all charges against David Cole, a full and fair remedy for unjust actions taken and injuries sustained be granted, suspend the officers involved pending an independent investigation, and implement system-wide police reforms to protect the rights of all students and workers engaged in non-violent protest.
Speakers from this day of action emphasized both the specificity of David Cole’s violent arrest – that it is no coincidence that the police targeted one of the few Black men at the action – as well as the universal nature of the action. Stated Abdullah Puckett, internal vice president of the Black Student Union, “We’re letting the [UCB] administration know that we don’t tolerate this type of thing.  We in the Black Student Union are standing here today to say that we are united with the workers who make it possible for Black students to be in this institution.  Just like it was people who looked like us who built these institutions, even though people like us weren’t allowed to go to these institutions”. He also noted the connection between the police state and slavery – that the police force as we know it was developed to enforce and protect the system of slavery and cannot be separated from these violent, anti-black, anti-working class roots.
Professor Nikki Jones, Associate Professor in the African-American and Diaspora Studies Department at UC Berkeley spoke to the fact that this month marks a 50-years anniversary in wake of urban uprisings across the country, the vast majority of which were sparked by a negative police encounters. She explained that “President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission to answer three seemingly simple questions: what happened, why did it happen, and what can be done? In answering the president’s charge,” she noted, “the report did not shy away from the topic of race or racism.  Instead, the federal report linked the problems of racism to histories of racist violence, racist housing policies in American cities that turned ghetto neighborhoods into tinder boxes for the uprisings the commission was called on to explain and ultimately prevent in the future.” We must hold this analysis as we look at the recent events of anti-black and anti-worker violence at UC Berkeley.
A leader from the Black Staff and Faculty Organization highlighted that  “Workplace discrimination is alive and well at Cal. There’s lots of experiences of Black staff and other staff of color that are dealing with numerous issues with managers with the broader institution the same way students are.  And so ultimately, we need to see our struggles, all of our struggles as workers, as students, all interconnected. Because the same system that isn’t giving justice to David Cole right now, is denying justice for a lot of staff on this campus, and a lot of faculty on this campus.” Emphasizing this solidarity,  Michael Avant Executive Vice President of AFSCME 3299 concluded that Cole, “came out for freedom of speech…and the UC system tried to take that away brothers and sisters…Now it’s time for us students and workers to continue to stand together, to continue to stand together as one, because we are one”.
[1] Associated Press.  LA Times: February 5, 2018
[2]Gutierrez, Melody.  SF Gate: April 25, 2017 https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Auditor-rips-UC-for-keeping-millions-in-secret-11097470.php

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