Socialist Alternative

UC Workers Strike, Wins Big Gains

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After a long contract campaign that included going on strike five times, 15,000 University of California workers in the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA 9119) union have won a victory. The new contract will give research and technical workers 29% raises over five years and health care workers 32% raises over the same period. UPTE members clearly saw the deal as a step forward, with 95% voting to approve the contract.

UC management insisted, in multiple bargaining sessions, that UPTE’s wage demands were “economically unrealistic,” while initially offering an insulting 6-8% total increase over four years. From the revelation of a $175 million slush fund in the office of UC President Janet Napolitano to the six and seven-figure salaries paid to the bloated ranks of executives and administrators, it was obvious that UC could afford to pay their frontline workers more. 

Also at stake during negotiations were health care costs and the pension. The union defeated UC’s attempts to increase health care premiums and weaken the pension plan – for now. The union did concede to reopen negotiations on the pension and wages during a 30-day period starting April 1, 2021. This represents a potential danger, and requires our union and members to remain vigilant and organized.

UC management, alongside California state politicians, notably former Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, have been constantly attempting to chip away at the retirement for University employees. A defined-benefit pension plan is increasingly a rarity as workers are typically offered a 401k plan by their employers (if they are offered anything at all) which is essentially an opportunity to gamble mostly the worker’s own salary on the stock market. UPTE workers made maintaining the integrity of the pension a central demand in this contract campaign. If UC reopens the contract on the pension in 2021, UPTE will have the right to strike, and we will have to go back into battle. UC nurses organized in CNA have the same reopener in their contract but the window to reopen is scheduled for a year earlier. It would be better not to have conceded the reopener, but at least we should have the same window as CNA to maximize our power

UPTE’s bargainers also appear to have made a small concession to UC management by agreeing to a new procedure for sexual harassment claims. New language requires workers to wait 60 days after the management-controlled Title IX process for sexual misconduct is complete before arbitration can begin. Making the process longer and more arduous tends to discourage sexual harassment victims from coming forward and making claims. Getting rid of any obstacle to the union-negotiated greivance process for sexual harassment should be on the agenda for the next round of negotiations.

There are a variety of problems that were left unaddressed by the contract, from wage discrepancies between workers doing the same job to the planned outsourcing of a whole new facility at UC Davis Medical Center. Building on the progress in member organization and mobilization with working groups and campaigns before the next contract fight will be key to attacking the unresolved issues that workers face on the job. 

New Generation of Organizers

Despite these weaknesses, the contract is strong economically and is the fruit of the labor of hundreds of UPTE activists, many of whom have stepped up and gotten active for the first time during this campaign. In fighting for this contract, UPTE had its strongest picket lines ever, as new workplace leaders organized in committees to win more members to the idea that we have to fight back if we are to get what we deserve from UC. 

Many young UPTE workers are being squeezed by out-of-control housing costs and student debt, and are increasingly looking toward the power of unions to win better economic conditions. UPTE’s leap forward in members hitting the picket lines is part of an international trend of professional workers identifying with the wider working class and embracing more confrontational tactics like going on strike. While the Supreme Court’s anti-union Janus decision certainly had an impact on UPTE’s finances, there was no mass exodus from the unions that the right wing and UC management fantasized about. 

The development of the contract campaign raises some questions about what factors contributed to this victory. Strikes in May and October of 2018 were well attended by UPTE workers and must have given confidence to the union bargaining team that members wanted to fight for a good contract while showing management that the upturn in worker militancy sparked by the teacher strikes had landed at their door. In building for the 2018 strikes, workers were angry at management’s initial wage proposal, and many members, most of whom had never been on strike before, were open to the idea of striking.   

Picket line turnout grew weaker over a series of UPTE and AFSCME one-day strikes in the winter and spring of 2019 as fatigue began to set in. While members in many jobs complained that they had twice as much work piled up the day after a one-day strike, it was clear that the tactic was frustrating to management. In a hospital setting, it’s typically not possible to hire scabs for one day only, and management filed an injunction against UPTE and AFSCME arguing that the one day strikes were illegal. The 2019 strikes undoubtedly caused significant disruption and many canceled medical appointments, but it was clear to the activists that more UPTE and AFSCME members were heading into work as the campaign wore on.  

 Working-Class Unity is Key

Perhaps the most powerful time UPTE went on strike was in May, 2018, when UPTE, AFSCME and CNA all struck together, representing more than 50,000 workers. There was a powerful feeling on the picket line as workers from the three unions marched together. We went out together and we should have gotten a new contract together too. Working together, with a goal of shutting down the campuses and medical centers completely, the three unions could have led a struggle to not just win adequate contracts but to tilt the balance of power at UC toward a unified workers movement.

Workers have learned some important lessons coming out of this contract fight. Most crucially, we can force the boss to give us a better contract if we fight back. We would never have gotten the big wage increases over this contract without mobilizing and striking. UPTE workers may have benefited from a calculation by the California ruling class to defer a battle over the pension for the potentially more advantageous environment of an economic downturn. New California Governor Gavin Newsom and new UC Regents Chair John Perez preferred to go with the carrot over the stick, and come much closer to the union’s wage demands than the previous administration was willing to do. Whether this “carrot” approach will extend to AFSCME workers, among whom are some of the lowest paid university workers, is not yet clear as they remain out of contract. 

Ultimately we need to turn the tide of the whole UC system towards the needs of workers, patients and students. Winning free tuition, an end to privatization measures, fully funded education in all departments, decent wages for the entire UC workforce and quality medical care available to all will take a unified struggle of UC workers and students. Unions should have a cooperative approach to organizing unorganized workers and a shared strategy for contract negotiations, including synchronizing contract end dates, not settling until the lowest paid workers get a contract, and, when necessary, building for a system-wide shutdown of the whole University with a movement approach of organizing mass meetings of workers, students and the wider community at each campus. Maximum unity among workers – with the coordination and solidarity to take action together – is the strongest weapon there is to fight privatization and austerity at UC.  

Erin (left) and a Socialist Alternative member on the picket lines, April 2019.

Erin is a rank and file union activist in UPTE-CWA 9119 and a member of Socialist Alternative. She is a healthcare worker at a San Francisco hospital. Erin went on strike for the first time last May when UPTE struck in sympathy with AFSCME and CNA workers at the University of California.

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