Last week, Chancellor Gene Block awarded Rev. James Lawson our university’s highest honor, the UCLA Medal, for his contributions to nonviolence and social change. The UCLA Medal has been awarded to many people who have, for better or for worse, changed the culture and the political climate we live in. These include novelist Toni Morrison, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Bill Clinton, and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald.
But the award last week went to someone who has undoubtedly changed our culture and politics for the better. Rev. Lawson has been an unstoppable force for racial and economic justice in the U.S. Lawson is called the “architect of the American civil rights movement,” and has organized against racism and worker exploitation for more than half a century.
Block and UCLA tokenized Lawson’s enormous contribution and the various movements he represents by giving him the UCLA Medal.
The university’s award to Rev. Lawson is a mere symbolic gesture, as UCLA itself actively contradicts and undermines the values Lawson fought for by perpetuating racial and economic injustice by exploiting its workers.
The University of California is in contract negotiations with several labor unions that represent tens of thousands of workers. These unions are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and AFSCME Local 3299, representing service and patient care workers, with University Professional and Technical Employees-Communications Workers of America 9119, representing lab technicians and health care employees, and University Council-AFT, representing academic librarians and lecturers.
The negotiations for each union, some dragging on for nearly two years, look very similar: The unions are fighting to secure wage increases that keep up with cost of living, protect their pensions and stop the UC from outsourcing their jobs to subcontractors.
Across the board, the UC is offering wage adjustments of 3 percent to AFSCME Local 3299 and UPTE-CWA 9119, while inflation in Los Angeles is at 4 percent – effectively giving pay cuts to its lowest-paid employees. Furthermore, the UC has gross pay inequities that occur along racial and gender lines. AFSCME Local 3299 released a report this year showing that black women get paid on average $3,946 less per year than their white men counterparts. These pay inequities begin in the hiring process – with the University hiring black women in lower-paying titles than white men – and are then reinforced by selectively promoting workers in ways that perpetuate racial and gender inequity.
Instead of admitting the racism and sexism inherent in its hiring practices and the pay disparities they create, the UC has responded with disrespectful denials that are easy to see through.
In other words, the UC and its campuses systematically undervalue the experience, labor and value of people of color – black women, especially – while claiming to champion the virtues of diversity and equality.
It’s hard to see these injustices as anything but the kinds of injustices Rev. Lawson has dedicated his life to fight. Any institution that pays black women less than white men for the same job and then denies it when presented with the statistical facts is an explicitly racist institution. We don’t need to belabor how this goes against the work of Rev. Lawson, an organizer who has fought against racial and economic injustice his entire life.
Moreover, Rev. Lawson has, for decades, been an organizer of various labor movements. He has particularly supported AFSCME workers for decades. For example, he had a key role to play in the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, when sanitation workers – mostly black – sought to receive recognition of their union, AFSCME local 1733, after two workers were crushed to death in a garbage compactor. Rev. Lawson recognized that worker exploitation is facilitated by racial dehumanization and organized talks between the AFSCME 1733c leaders and Memphis officials. He recognized that same dehumanization in March when AFSCME Local 3299 went on strike here throughout the UC campuses.
The irony is that UCLA is awarding Rev. Lawson with its highest honor in the wake of the largest series of AFSCME strikes on UC campuses and at a time administrators have continued to deny workers the respect, dignity and fair contracts they deserve.
In light of the UC’s numerous moral deficiencies – failing to offer its workers decent wage increases, denying the racist and sexist pay inequities produced through its hiring and promoting practices and denying the dignity of its laborers – the UCLA Medal can only be viewed as a cynical public relations stunt that attempts to rebrand the university as aligning with the anti-racism and labor work of Rev. Lawson.
We have to call last week’s award what it is: The tokenization of a black movement and the struggle against a racist and capitalist system, which the UC – as one of the largest employers in the state – is part of.
The UCLA Medal award is a hypocritical, disingenuous and disrespectful show toward the legacy of social justice that Rev. Lawson embodies. It’s only part of a broader racist and sexist system which, apparently, UCLA has no problem turning its head from.
Hatun and Mohebbi are undergraduate members of the Student Labor Advocacy Project of UCLA.