A Strike Among Healthcare Workers: A Balance by UPTE Members

Written by La Voz San Francisco
We interview J. and D, public healthcare workers at UC San Francisco and rank and file union activists with UPTE (Union of Professional and Technical Employees). UPTE represents 15,000 healthcare, research, and technical workers at campuses and medical centers of the University of California.
La Voz: How did the contract campaign begin and what were the main demands?
J.: When I came into the campaign midway last year in April, we had been out of contract for 18 months. The demands were mostly economic, with three “big ones.” The first one, on salary was for a  five  percent raise each year and annual steps.[1] The counter-offer was two percent with no steps, while cost of living in SF goes up around 4.3 percent each year, and we were just asking for an increase above cost of living and were offered something below. Second was the pensions, because UC is now able to offer new hires the 401K opt out instead of the UC Pension (public pensions)his is interesting for two reasons, first because they have said that this is not going to save them any money, they are doing this to break the union, to make sure there is two-tiered retirement situation and we are not able to fight together. And the third demands was  caps on healthcare premiums. Also another point on the pension, the law firm managing the opt out, Manatt Phelps & Philips, is owned by the UC Regent George Kieffer.[2]
D. I was hired in December 2018, and at that point the campaign had been underway for some time. It is insane what they are offering workers, every year they are hiring more people and they are offering them a lower and a lower step. For my job classification there are 23 steps, and if you get rid of that, people cannot survive. My rent has already gone up six percent since I started working there, but my wages have stayed the same. They are imposing on us next month a contract with only a 3% yearly wage increase. They are hiring workers with lower and lower wages and they are planning to keep them there. They want to be able to raise healthcare costs whenever they want throughout the year by however much they want. And I work with people who have kids, and their kids are on SF Health Plan, which is Medical, they cannot even afford to have their own children in the health plan at UC because it is too expensive.
LV: I hear that because mediation and fact-finding were inconclusive, UC imposed a contract on UPTE.
D.Yes, this is the first time they imposed a contract on us. (It was) imposed last month.
J. I am in the research unit and D is in the healthcare unit, and the bargaining has been out of step with each other, and the fact-finding step for the healthcare unit is finishing after, so imposition is coming next month.
LV: Can you talk about the several strikes UPTE has led, alone or in solidarity with AFSCME throughout the campaign. There have been multiple short strikes,  separated in time? Do you think the union leadership has put forward an effective strategy to win a good contract?
D. It is insane, we have been on strike many times. In May of 2018 we had a 2-day strike, and in October we also had a 3-day strike, and then in 2019, three one-day strikes on our own, but we also did a solidarity strike with AFSCME this year.
J. Yes, the strike on May 16th, was a joint strike of the two unions, but this last strike was an ULP (Unfair Labor Practice) strike about outsourcing practices, it is not an economic strike.
D. I think it is important to know that our union has never called for a strike before. There has been a lot of difficulty sometimes understanding the effect of the strike in some sectors. For example in the sector where I work, community mental health service, not the medical center, you don’t see all the disruptions happening because you are not seeing all the rescheduling of medical appointments. It is pretty remarkable that our union is willing and ready to strike this many times. I think there will be fewer limitations in our strategy if the union was more willing to hear feedback from the members and if we were more disruptive. Management does not care if we march around in orderly pickets at the UC Mission Bay and Parnassus campuses, they don’t care. We get tired, we get our $60 day pay and we go home, and they don’t care. Given what is at stake, we are matching it with these strikes, but the strikes themselves are a little theatrical, they are not disrupting anything.
J. A couple more thoughts on calling multiple one-day strikes for various reasons, is that many members were saying that missing three days of the same pay period was impossible for them, so we hoped that spreading those across multiple pay periods so workers will only miss one day. But that strategy to increase participation did not really work, because each strike has been smaller than the previous one. One benefit of one-day strikes is that when UC has to hire scabs, they have to do it for three days minimum, and they have indicated that these strikes have been extremely financially disruptive. They have to do a lot of rescheduling and hire and pay people for days during which they are not actually working. However, I agree that one of the main problems is that there is not enough disruption. We would usually have a rally in the midday and march around, and take an intersection for 10 minutes, but nothing more than that.
LV: Has the union built a broader campaign to mobilize outside support and community allies, of those who also benefit from the UCSF public services and programs?
D. Maybe at other sites, but from what I am hearing the main goal of the board has been to figure out support from elected politicians. Whereas for example at Citywide where I work we wanted to mobilize with and march with the community we serve, we wanted to be able to feed people when on strike, and may march downtown where the tech offices are to be visible and make some noise. We had a bunch of great ideas but they fell on deaf ears because the union already had its “template”: we do these strikes at these places because we want to attract the support of politicians, we want them to step in and pressure the UC, rather than see that the support we need to build is that of the community, from patients.
J. And they have the politicians thing totally backwards. It is not that we need to invite politicians to our pickets to make our pickets stronger and more exciting, it’s that we need pickets so big and disruptive that they are impossible for politicians to ignore. I don’t think we should be reaching out to politicians, they should be coming to us. And related to the community support, one problem of this campaign is that you are trying to organize tens of thousands of healthcare workers and you are not talking about the fight against the privatization of hospitals and the campaign of Medicare for All. This campaign is becoming a popular demand for lots of Americans who believe insurance companies should not be making huge profits off of people’s health, and we have this university, UCSF, whose hospitals are run as a business, and we should use the strike to talk about that too. We should adopt the education slogan to healthcare and say “healthcare workers’ working conditions are patient healing conditions!” I think about the teachers’ strikes, and the fact that their “common good” demands were not tacked on, they were huge (and) in front, and became very popular, and we also have this opportunity with healthcare, but we missed it with a purely economic contract campaign. That is pretty frustrating for me.
D. NUHW has been very good in that, it has been very successful in organizing healthcare workers in this common good direction. They are a member-driven union that has organized longer strikes, for three to five days, with huge and well attended pickets, and two of their central demands are about patients’ rights. They have linked their contract campaign to cutting long patient wait lines, to preventing suicides and improving mental healthcare for patients, and of course, the national campaign of Medicare for All. This has allowed the union to outreach more to its own base and to the community.
LV: Given this context of a progressive demobilization of the membership, which participates less in the strikes, along with the purely economic nature of the contract campaign, what do you envision could be done to win a good contract? Also, what could and should workers do now that UCSF is imposing a contract?
J. We are in a really tough spot.
D. I appreciate being in a union that is not afraid to go on strike, and I think they need to take a step back and reach out to the dues-paying members and debrief (them) about all of these strikes, about what worked and what did not work, and also following through with some of the conclusions. But also one of the problems is that we are very isolated in our worksites: each workplace has its own meetings, and I don’t know what is their balance, what they are discussing. We need to have weekly meetings all of us together, to have shared debriefs, see our shared issues, and it might take us a couple of months to build a very impactful protest action or successful strike. But we should hold off these one-day strikes and take a temperature check to get ideas from rank and file members, and get serious about organizing together. We feel our leadership is a bit scrambling, coming up with their own ideas alone, and pushing them through without any or much consensus of any of us organizing on the ground.
J. I totally agree with that. The only way I see (an) out is to fully take advantage of those couple months D. is talking about and to build a powerful one-day strike and then follow that pretty quickly with a call for an indefinite strike. It might be a risky call, but we need to make it as long and painful as we can for management, because historically UC has settled contracts to prevent protracted strikes.
[1] Steps are annual wage increases to reward longevity at a particular job at UC, in addition to the cost of living increase
[2] http://ucsdguardian.org/2019/02/18/activists-stage-valentines-day-teach-show-appreciation-workers/

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