Ryan Nelson

For the third time in less than a year, University of California campuses will be flooded with picket signs and green shirts.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, which represents the UC’s service and medical workers, are planning to walk off the job next week for a five-day demonstration.

If history is any indication, the University will likely gripe about the financial toll of the strike, AFSCME will declare a moral victory, the Earth will continue rotating on its axis and the negotiations will remain at a standstill.

The negotiations have been on a loop for the last year, and still the battle lines remain the same: the UC has offered a competitive bargaining contract and the union thinks it’s not enough, especially in the areas of staffing and wages.

If AFSCME really desires to see the change it wants, it should accept the present deal and concentrate its impressive mobilizing power away from the campuses and toward Sacramento. By lobbying legislators for wage subsidies, caps on executive pay and pensions for public employees, AFSCME can break out of the excruciatingly repetitive cycle of gridlock with the UC.

As it stands, AFSCME’s take on the negotiations is very idealistic. That is, the union is operating on an idea of how things should be: higher wages for workers, less executive pay, et cetera. On the other hand, the UC tends to operate on a platform that’s more rooted in the sobering financial reality of the country’s economic conditions.

Lobbying Sacramento would be the the most effective way to get the wage increases that the union has been striking for.

As long as pensions are being slashed, wages are down and living expenses are rising, the UC’s promised increase of 3.5 percent to salaries that it claims are already 20 percent above market is a fair and responsible move.

AFSCME’s gripe doesn’t seem to lie just with the University, but with that nebulous standard of “the market” as well. UC wages and benefits are above average on nearly every point of contention, but when the baseline is lower than it should be, the increases are not always as great as they seem.

To illustrate, AFSCME itself says most members makean average of about $36,000 a year.

For an adult living alone in Los Angeles County, that would be only a few thousand more than is required for self-sufficiency, according to a 2011 study conducted by the Center for Community Economic Development.

But that baseline is for a single adult living alone. Adding in kids and education, the costs rise. It can leave little room for savings – a responsible fiscal practice that’s always been seen as a step toward the middle class.

But compared to a private sector custodian who makes around $25,000 a year, the deal looks good.

Now, the UC has every right to operate within the prevailing economic standard, and they’re doing it well. Whether or not that framework is right is another story altogether.

That’s why appealing to Sacramento is so important for the union. AFSCME’s strength lies in its numbers. It has about 20,000 potential voters at its beck and call, and a history of mobilization. If it were to take the UC’s deal and use the first couple years of the four-year contract to gather more data and strengthen its case, it would have a strong plea to the capitol backed by numbers that could lead to real reform.

There’s precedent for this. AFSCME campaigned heavily for Proposition 30 two years ago and used its wide constituent base across the state to push for its passage. Reforms ranging from base pay to wage subsidies to capped executive pay should be addressed through legislation from the state, not the UC.

They would likely find a sympathetic state legislature with a Democratic supermajority. This cabal of legislators would be particularly effective if the next governor follows through with Gov. Jerry Brown’s insistence on holding UC administrators responsible for their actions and bloated pay.

The continued aggression between the University and union works to undermine the credibility of both organizations.

Ceding to the conditions outlined in the current bargaining contract may not be the best public relations move, but it can set up one of California’s largest unions to push standards up for labor across the state.

Email Nelson at rnelson@media.ucla.edu.