BY KATHRYN LYBARGER
There are two parts to the ongoing dispute between the University of California and the system’s largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Local 3299. Both our contract negotiations and the unfair labor practices that our members have faced at the workplace are linked by a single issue: safety.
For the last 18 months, patient care and service workers have negotiated in good faith, seeking to secure a long-term contract with the UC. By the time negotiations broke down in the spring, there were roughly 40 contract articles at issue, including staffing, wages, post-employment benefits and a host of other matters.
On 19 of those issues – including things like professional development, education benefits for our membership and improving dismissal/discipline procedures – AFSCME 3299 has withdrawn its proposals, effectively deferring to the status quo sought by the UC. We did this to encourage UC administrators to move on our priority issue: safe staffing.
On the UC’s priority issue of pension reform, AFSCME has long since conceded to increase employee contributions, impose a higher retirement age for new hires and reduce retiree health benefits. In other words, we gave the UC exactly what it wanted – forcing low-wage workers, UC students and patients to subsidize multimillion dollar payouts for the UC’s highest-paid administrators. Again, we did this with hopes of encouraging the UC to move on our priority issue of safe staffing.
On wages: even though fully 99 percent of UC service workers are income eligible for some form of public assistance, we dropped our demand by a third. Why? Because the absence of safe staffing levels is causing 1 in 10 service workers to get hurt on the job, a figure that’s nearly 20 percent higher than it was in 2009.
Ultimately, we believe it’s better to be poor and in one piece than marginally less poor and permanently disabled. And an extra 1 or 2 percent salary bump isn’t worth a needlessly injured student, patient or colleague.
In other words, AFSCME 3299 members have compromised on everything – even before the UC unilaterally imposed terms on our members this summer.
But we simply won’t compromise on the safety of the people we serve.
Sadly, the UC seems to have made cutting corners on safety a central part of its financial model.
The effect has been well documented: skyrocketing injury rates amongst campus service workers, a growing avalanche of fines and deficiency reports against UC hospitals (where management staff is growing at almost four times the rate of frontline care providers) from state and federal safety watchdogs, and most tragically, the troubling questions surrounding the deaths of at least two UC medical center patients earlier this year.
In May, when UC patient care workers walked off the job for two days, it was because of the UC’s intransigence on safety. Dozens of our members faced illegal intimidation – interrogations from their bosses during performance evaluations, and both written and verbal threats of discipline to try and scare them into silence.
In September, the Public Employment Relations Board issued a formal complaint against the UC for this illegal conduct. Understand, they don’t issue complaints every time a charge is leveled. They issue complaints when the evidence warrants one. And in this case the evidence is so overwhelming, much of it is printed on the UC’s own letterhead.
This illegal intimidation of the UC’s frontline safety advocates continues to this day. Just a few weeks ago, a UCLA custodian with an impeccable job performance record was fired for speaking out on safety. She told her story to the UC Board of Regents during public comment this week.
So when new UC President Janet Napolitano met with AFSCME shortly after taking office and invited us back to the bargaining table, we were hopeful that the UC would finally take our demands for safer staffing levels seriously.
When we showed up to bargain, however, the UC’s grand new proposal was to rescind its demand that already impoverished service workers take a pay cut. Instead, the UC is offering a multiyear wage freeze. As for safe staffing, the UC’s tone deafness continues.
So that’s where we are.
We are holding out hope that President Napolitano will honor her commitment to work toward a settlement.
But until the UC decides to respect the rights of its workers and makes safety a priority, there’s only so far we can go.
Otherwise, AFSCME 3299 is just negotiating with itself.
Lybarger is the president of AFSCME 3299, which represents 22,000 service and patient care technical workers at the UC’s 10 campuses, five medical centers, research laboratories and other facilities.