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Legality of strikes, negotiations plague lecturers’ union

By Shane Nelson

March 17, 2003 9:00 p.m.

The lecturers’ union has been saying all year that it
planned to strike at UCLA ““ first in January and then in
April ““ to put pressure on the University of California at
the bargaining table.

But with the legality of a strike in question, the union will be
busier trying to recruit members rather than planning to leave
classes.

The University Council”“ American Federation of Teachers,
which represents the UC’s 3,000 lecturers hired on a
term-to-term basis, originally planned to strike statewide with the
clerical-based Coalition of University Employees.

The two unions have been negotiating with the UC over issues
like wages and job security for more than two years. Other unions
have promised to join in the protest to the extent that their own
labor contracts allow.

“It is important that we work together to improve our
conditions. We have different contracts, but similar
problems,” said Rita Kern, statewide president of the
University Professional & Technical Employees, representing
researchers, technical employees and health care workers.

Under state law, unions are wholly responsible for negotiating
wages, hours and working conditions for their members.

While the negotiation process can be as lengthy as necessary,
the UC-AFT’s three years of negotiation is
“extraordinary,” said Benjamin Arron, a nationally
recognized authority on labor law and a UCLA School of Law
professor emeritus.

That much time bargaining demonstrates the union isn’t
strong enough to force the employer to reach a decision, he
said.

Sometimes an employer will deliberately stall the process. When
the union fails to reach an agreement, the employer expects union
members will become so frustrated and dissatisfied that they will
drop their membership or file a petition to have the union
decertified, Arron said.

“The behavior is unfair … but employers get away with it
a lot of the time,” he continued.

Protesting their employer’s bargaining tactics, lecturers
and clericals have already struck on three occasions over the last
year at six UC campuses and at the UC Office of the President in
Oakland. UCLA has yet to participate in any strikes.

The UC filed formal complaints against UC-AFT and CUE for
striking at UC Berkeley in August and at five other campuses in
October with the state board that oversees labor relations.

State law prohibits striking when bargaining the terms of a new
contract. It is allowed after both parties declare impasse, the
point at which both parties decide they can’t get any closer
at the table.

But the unions said after their contract has expired ““ as
is the case for UC-AFT, CUE and UPTE ““ they can strike to
protest unfair labor practices.

Arron said the legality of strikes “is still a much
embattled question. I don’t think the employment statutes say
it is legal to strike, but none of them say it is illegal either.
It usually boils down to whether the circumstances say it’s
illegal.”

Until the hearing, the UC maintains even threats of strikes are
evidence of bargaining without a committed intention to reach a
mutual agreement.

Another reason lecturers have decided not to strike this April
has to do more with its allies ““ the clericals.

In December, the UC declared it was at an impasse with CUE and
asked the state Public Employment Relations Board to sanction the
declaration, in effect forcing the two parties into a
state-facilitated mediation whereby they might resolve their
differences.

The board didn’t agree, but instead of going back to the
table, CUE agreed to an informal mediation with the chair of the
State Mediation and Conciliation Services, Micki Callahan.

In doing this they also agreed not to talk publicly about the
proceedings or to strike.

The union can end mediation at any time if it is confident the
UC wasn’t taking the process seriously, said Claudia Horning,
statewide president of the CUE.

UC-AFT has trouble organizing multi-campus events, so it needs
CUE’s support on the strike lines, said Rob Hennig, a chief
negotiator for the UC-AFT bargaining team.

While some campuses have UC-AFT chapters ““ such
as the Santa Cruz chapter which staged protests that prompted the
cancellation of most classes in an October strike ““ others
hardly participate in union activity at all. UCLA falls into the
latter category.

At a Feb. 26 coalition rally outside Murphy Hall, for example,
few attendees were from UC-AFT.

The other problem with organizing, said Kevin Roddy, UC-AFT
statewide president, is the academic culture of independence.
Lecturers are used to a degree of freedom, making it
“difficult to talk them into the strength they would get from
a union,” he added.

Though all lecturers pay a portion of their salary to the union
each month in a “fair share,” only 37 percent are
card-carrying members, Roddy said.

“That’s not as impressive as CNA, which is much
more, 85 or 90 percent. You think twice about crossing that type of
strength,” he added, speaking of the California Nurses
Association who ratified their last contract after four months of
negotiations.

Along with the service workers’ and teaching
assistants’ unions, CNA has pledged its sympathy and support.
Service workers ratified their contract last year after months,
while the TA union is set to begin negotiating their second one at
the end of this month.

Roddy said he still hopes the coalition can come together after
a negotiation length that has dispirited members.

“If we do (strike), it will be because our situation has
gotten so evil “¦ It doesn’t take long to plan, but it
would have to be very big in order to convince them we are
serious,” Roddy said.

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