UC Workers on Strike!

Written by Aldous Reno

Lessons and Next Steps for Building a Public University

The strike is the instrument of social change. With it, working class people can collectively win more for ourselves than any acts we could take as individuals. When workers strike, they are undergoing a collective exercise in power. “We are UC, we are the ones who make this happen. Without us, it’ll be shut down. So, we think we should get a bigger piece of the pie.” Derrick is a janitor for UC, a member of the AFSCME 3299 Union, and he has been working with the University for 20 years. He’s been on strike 3 times. The last was in 2014, when the two uncompromised demands were: safe staffing and living wages. The workers went on strike 3 times for a total of 8 days. This time, the service workers are facing even more aggressive attacks to their jobs than at any point in the history of the Union. They’ve been “offered” cuts to their healthcare and retirement benefits, an insulting one-time raise of 2%, and a guarantee that UC will continue to outsource workers at every level (technical, service, and academic). The vote was unanimous, and the workers are on the second day of the strike. They’re joined by UC’s technical (UPTE-CWA 9119), healthcare (California Nurses Association), and education workers (UAW 2865). While workers from all 10 UC campuses went on strike, this article will be based on the strike at the largest, flagship campus, UC Berkeley.
The political context for this strike is one of the greatest threat and greatest opportunity since the 2009 UCB Student Strikes. Following the global financial crisis in 2008, the four months of massive demonstrations are credited with sparking the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, and a wave of political strikes across the globe, all of which put fear into the heart of global capital. Because of the tremendous threat these movements posed to the world order of the ruling class, they were brutally repressed, and now the hammers lifted over the heads of workers and students in 2009 are falling; outsourcing is increasing across all sectors of the University’s workers [X], wages plummet beneath soaring costs of living amidst gentrification of the whole Bay Area, pensions and healthcare benefits are bled dry, and students’ tuition and cost of living is more than twice what it was when the anti-hike protests began a decade ago [X]. UC Regents, themselves millionaire CEOs, claim they’ve made cuts to everything, and now the only way for the administrators to maintain their profits is to cut the livelihoods of the University’s workers and raise the cost of education for students. Actually, in 2015 UC wasted 33% of its total payroll expenditures on only 17% of its employees, administrators who earn more than 15x the average service worker [X]. While UC has continued to outsource and starve its most essential workforce, such as service workers and teachers, it has continued to bloat its administrative staff, more than 100% from 2000 [X].
Nationally, the situation for workers is even more hostile. Executive order after another has terrorized immigrant workers from Central America and the Middle East, black workers experience open violence from police, women and LGBT workers face despicable sexual harassment at every level from the workshop to the White House amidst a #MeToo movement that has yet to reach most working class women. In the wake of the biggest national union defunding law in US history (Janus vs AFSCME), Trump signed his latest executive order that makes it easy to fire federal employees, and requires that federal employers negotiate union contracts in bad faith. “Certainly the administration is being more aggressive, more than ever before.” Noemi is a long time worker and head steward of AFSCME, who did much of the groundwork to prepare members for the strike. She credits the JANUS case, and the pressure that the UC faces from the Trump administration, with why the UC is bargaining so viciously. “But on the other side, we have 3 unions going on strike at the same time, which has never happened before; AFSCME, CNA, and UPTE…are all striking in solidarity.” Eustice, a custodial worker at one of the student dining halls, goes on to explain that this is the first time all three unions have had contracts that expire at the same time. “This is the first time we’re so united. UC will give us our contracts, just like they give us our work schedules, to try to break us up, but this out here today (*he gestures to the picket*), is making us all stronger.”
Not only was it the first time ⅗ campus unions went on strike together in solidarity, but for the first time in institutional memory, multiple socialist organizations began working together with some of the union leadership to support the strike, both materially and politically. La Voz met with the union leaders to discuss the situation, then created a simple flyer in English and Spanish on the main purpose and demands of the AFSCME workers strike, which we handed out to any passersby at the pickets. We helped provide water, chanted on the pickets, and had conversations with our colleagues about the strike. For the first time, an Escuela Popular was organized so that workers could attend workshops throughout the day, with topics varying from immigration and tax law to “What Is Socialism”, the latter put on by three collaborating socialist organizations. After the strike, we called a meeting to plan a forum, which would be centered on the AFSCME workers and their analysis of the strikes’ strengths and weaknesses.
Carlos, a clerk and veteran worker of the AFSCME union*: “I would like to mention also that we used to have so many students, professors, and people from different positions that create a very massive group moving around the university (during the strike)…it was something that really gives so much power to everyone who participates in the action. Thousands of people who were moving around the campus. I would like to see that kind of movement next time (we strike). ”
The reflections of the workers, lessons from past and recent history, and our own observations of the strike can help us make a balance sheet of the strike, its power and its potential, and inform what we need to make the vision of a public university come true. We believe that it’s critical to analyze these elements of the struggle, so that in our next moment, we’ll be more organized, we’ll be better fighters. This process of struggle and learning is the only way that we’ll be able to build up our power enough to not only defeat the UC Regents, but permanently change our society into one that serves people over profits. Carlos adds that “Just to have to go on strike is something we have to enforce, and that was the most important part (about the strike). We have to create the culture that we need to go on strike, every time, if we believe it’s a right. The weaker aspect (of this strike) is we’d like to see more people, and demanding. The way that we demand has to be strong, it was a little weak.”
It’s clear that the main drawback to the strike was relatively low turnout from students, despite that students are experiencing a 2.5% fee hike, an issue inextricably related to the condition of the workers. This is perhaps because the first strike was held at a time when nearly all students were preparing to take their final exams (although other UC campuses still had classes in session). More than anything though, it’s because there has been no organized effort to involve students, either in the strike or in actions building up to it. In the recent past, the AFSCME local has achieved a degree of student solidarity by hiring a staff or intern to take on the role of organizing a student movement, but that tactic isn’t being used successfully this time around.
Another weakness in the strike was the lack of force from the other two campus unions striking in solidarity: UPTE and CNA, as well as the attrition of all workers from the pickets as the 3-day strike went on. While during the first two days there were bigger rallies on the Berkeley campus with at least 2,000 people, this is not so impressive if we consider that at all 10 campuses (with UCB being the largest), 53,000 workers went on strike in total. In 2009, 5,000 students and workers were actively mobilized and able to shut down campus administrative offices multiple times.
The least openly discussed weakness, but nonetheless one we as socialists believe is extremely important to the strength of a mobilization, is whether the political leadership of the strike is within a few union leaders or is distributed amongst the rank-and-file.
While it’s true that workers did help staff all the strikes’ logistical components, there were no strike committees in any of the striking unions, nor were there demonstrations organized by workers apart from the pickets. Similarly, the Escuela Popular is a good idea for a tactic of political education on a picket, but it was only the shadow of what it could be in terms of demonstrating and building worker power. The teach-ins were not conducted by workers, and while their content was theoretically valuable, they didn’t engage workers in a way that allows them to continue to connect to the struggle in their own workplace. For example, one teach-in was a simple plug for an electoral reform campaign, with the main political guidance pointing toward the ballot box.
This May 7-9th AFSCME strike is understood to be the first of at least several, before the UC budges on its despicable propositions to the AFSCME workers. In response to ‘What if the UC doesn’t budge after the strike?’, Noemi shrugs, and says “It never happens that the UC gives us a good deal at the start. It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they don’t want to. We’re gonna continue fighting and showing our faces”, alluding to the need to go on strike again.
The conscious statements and balance of the workers makes one thing clear: the next strike will be most powerful if it’s conducted jointly with other unions as well as with community groups and stakeholders, including the students. As Jeremiah mentioned, the UC works meticulously to prevent them from being able to strike together. Many examples from US labor history, historic and recent, show that the most successful strikes of service workers, especially those working for universities, come when rank-and-file unite in a broad coalition with the broader community, and when possible, other unions.

What Happened Dr. King?

On February 1st, 2018, a hundred AFSCME workers held a rally and picket to demand higher wages for the workers who feed and clean the University. They held the rally on this day to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, which happened in April of 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. travelled to Memphis Tennessee to support the city sanitation workers. 1,300 black men employed by the Memphis Dept. of Public works went on strike to gain union recognition and wage increases. During the several week strike, they faced 400 national guardsman with guns and bayonets, were beaten in the streets, chased into a local church and tear gassed inside, and one sixteen year old boy was murdered by police during a demonstration.
The UC has employed the same tactics many times, and did just that during the April demonstration. When the picket of about one hundred people entered the street at the entrance to campus and took the famed end of Telegraph Avenue, an angry driver attempted to drive into the crowd of striking workers. A black cook named David Cole approached the car to try to talk to the driver, then he was brutally grabbed, dragged down, and busted against the concrete by UC police. The brutality was caught on video. The UC later released a lie of a statement implying that David Cole had become violent, but it’s clear that the arrest was a racist act of union repression, committed with impunity.
In 1968, the workers were fighting for basic union recognition. Though the attempt had been made in years past for the sanitation workers to unionize, it was defeated by a Jim Crow municipal government and poor support from the AFSCME national union. This time, the situation was not much different, and the Memphis Mayor Loeb made it clear his priority was to prevent the workers from unionizing. The strike was powerful enough to win unionization because this time the workers extended their struggle to the broader political movement for Civil Rights in the US, and crossed the threads between anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggle. The workers held mass assemblies and invited community religious leaders, and civil rights groups to participate. It was through these connections that Dr. King was invited to visit and be at the head of several marches, and why he travelled through a snowstorm to deliver his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on what would be the night before his assassination. Following King’s murder, 42,000 people took to the streets of Memphis in a completely silent march demanding that Mayor Loeb recognize the Union. On the same day, the formerly tepid AFSCME national Union pledged its full support to the strikers. Eight days later, the workers had a union.
This critical lesson shows us that for a single struggle to grow into the fabric of a broader massive social movement, it must be organized at the grassroots level with the democratic participation of all community stakeholders. It must be driven by the workers with the workers’ most fundamental material needs included in the demands, and at the same time these demands must be clearly connected to the conditions of the greater society.

The AFSCME Struggle is the Fight for Public Education

From the perspective of the UC administrators, who each make more than 10x what a custodial worker at UC makes plus hundreds of thousands dollars [X] more in benefits, it makes sense to bargain aggressively to keep the workers in poverty. They count on a majority of the workers being women and people of color who can be more easily exploited. That’s why a report recently released by the Union demonstrates that being black and a woman can lower a UC worker’s pay by nearly $16,000/year [X]. This is not simply because the UC Regents are racist, it’s also because the UC is trying to systematically privatize all its labor to continue increasing its profits for its wealthiest administrators.
In the last twenty years, UC, like many universities, has undergone a trend of privatization, meaning more parts of the UC system become contracted to outside companies in order to reduce expenditures. Meanwhile, senior management employee numbers have grown by more than 252%, while UC’s staff overall has only increased by 51% [X] . The UC is negotiating aggressively in all of its union contract negotiations, and it intends to make the AFSCME workers contract the floor under a very low and unbreakable ceiling. Because of this risk, and because of the massive potential of the movement it could become, the AFSCME 3299 struggle is not just the struggle for the marginalized, it’s the essential struggle for public education.

Lessons and Next Steps

Like any instrument, the strike can be used well and bring great rewards, or it can used ineffectively, causing greater harm than good. As socialists, we believe that mass movements and strikes are the primary tactics that will build up the strength of our class, enough to take power from the 1%. We completely disagree with anyone who claims that the strike is an antiquated tool, that it should be done for show and come second to electoral reforms. We don’t believe that workers are too dumb, incapable, and especially that they’re not interested in striking. If workers did not come out to the pickets, if students did not turn out in masses, it’s not because they don’t mind living in poverty, or under massive student loan debt, it’s because we socialists did not plan and we did not organize them well enough. Thus, we believe these weaker aspects of the AFSCME strike are ones that can be resolved through better organizing:
We need a truly democratic space where rank-and-file workers, students, union leaders, and community groups can plan and coordinate for a joint strike in the Fall. We should use the community and connections that already exist organically between us to plan a meeting where all are invited to discuss this coordination. When we say democratic, we mean that it will not be a few voices speaking and dictating, while many are observers who receive tasks to complete. Because of the intersectional oppressions like sexism, xenophobia, and the stresses of poverty that already exist in our society, we must prioritize the fight to create a space where all workers and students can participate in planning and decision making. This means having translation into multiple languages, this means preparing beforehand with workers to play leading roles in the meeting, this means having strong facilitation that will make sure organizing space is held equitably and inclusively.

Dignity is Not Temporary

It’s not enough for the workers and students to win a good contract and tuition-hike delays. We have seen these temporary victories before: In 2011, further tuition hikes were delayed by 3 years. This was done intentionally in response to mass mobilizations so that students and workers would graduate from the institution or leave their jobs. Right now, 40% of AFSCME 3299 workers have never been on strike (meaning there has been a 40% turnover in the workforce since 2014), and are of a younger generation. The UC counts on these “inexperienced” workers to take a 401k instead of a pension, as well as lower healthcare insurance coverage.
Imagine a University that all people can afford to attend, is including the children of the people who make the university run, be they a gardener, a custodian, a librarian, or a teaching assistant. The workers and students who make up the University will have control over whether tuition is charged and to whom, they will set the budget of the University, they will decide how revenues are spent. There will be no millionaire Regents and no corporate influence. The faculty and students will be able to decide what is taught and learned, how the campus is run, and above all they will be able to live decent lives and access the powerful resource of knowledge. We will no longer wait for billionaire executives to concede to giving us completely insufficient 1% raises every five years, will no longer wait for a dysfunctional Title IX office to protect us from sexually harassing supervisors, will no longer go a quarter million dollars into debt for one of several degrees. This is not a utopian dream, it’s simply what a public institution should be, it’s what a better world will look like if we put our heads together and fight for it. Imagine what we as a society could do with a University whose mission is to teach everyone how to speak a new language, how to run a mass meeting, how to grow enough food to feed a neighborhood, a University that not only theorized about poverty, but had the political force to end it.
The primary tactic for workers and students to win this vision together is through the strike, and of course combined with any other methods that raise the consciousness of workers, such as forums, petitions, rallies, etc. Not single, isolated strikes that are done for formalities sake, or strikes where officials release a statement and the workers stay at home. We need militant, democratic, member driven strikes, where committees from each sector coordinate and make decisions together about the actions, demands, and messaging. Additionally, for the strike to be victorious against the divisive tactics of the University, the strike must harness the power of all four campus unions; AFSCME 3299, UAW 2865, CNA, UPTE, and involve the participation of students in one broad movement for the public university.
If the strike is made with all of us, it will be won for all of us.
The next step is to have a meeting for the rank-and-file as well as elected leaders of each campus union to discuss the possibility for striking together. We must involve as many student and campus activists as possible, from campus student organizations, from socialist and leftist groups, and from the nascent undergrad-workers movement.
The AFSCME Strike of May 7-9 showed that the strike is an instrument, but like any effective instrument, it must be wielded with the greatest force, in the hands of as many workers as possible.

Additional Sources:

Vid of 2009: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L4h7fOPO5Cg
Article 2009: https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/25/education/25calif.html
Harvard, strike victory: https://www.thenation.com/article/harvard-workers-went-on-strike-and-won-heres-how-they-did-it-and-how-students-helped/
AFSCME on outsourcing: https://afscme3299.org/documents/reports/WorkingInShadows.pdf
Admin bloat: http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/editorials/sd-uc-tuition-hikes-administrative-bloat-20170105-story.html
INFO on the recent attacks of Trump to Federal workers represented by AFSCME, NTEU and AFGE:

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