U.S. senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke in support of University of California unions during a strike Wednesday.
Sanders spoke to more than 400 striking workers, students and supporters about the importance of labor unions at a University Professional and Technical Employees-Communications Workers of America rally. UPTE-CWA 9119, a union that represents about 14,000 research and technical workers in the UC, went on strike to call for increased wages and an end to outsourcing contract work. UPTE and the UC have been negotiating since 2017.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 service workers joined the strike in solidarity. The University Council–American Federation of Teachers did not, but expressed its support for UPTE.
Sanders said he thinks the UC must be a fair employer in addition to being a strong university.
“The University of California must be a model employer, it must be an employer that respects its workers, and it must be an employer that treats its workers with dignity and it must sit down with its unions and negotiate in good faith,” Sanders said.
Claire Doan, a UC Office of the President spokesperson, said in an email statement the University considers strikes disruptive to both the campus community and the negotiation process.
“If UPTE and AFSCME leaders had channeled as much effort into negotiations as they do into organized theatrics, we’d have a deal by now,” Doan said.
Anthony Duncan, a UCLA grounds equipment operator and member of AFSCME, said he thinks strikes are the only tools the unions have to fight for their demands.
“We just have to hit them in the pocket,” he said.
Doan added union demands for pay increases over four years are inconsistent with the pay increases of other UC employees, and the University cannot justify increasing the wages of members of these unions without increasing the wages of other employees.
Joaquin Chávez, statewide vice president of UPTE, said the union is pushing for pay increases to compensate for increased living costs. He added the union wants to protect the grievance process for sexual harassment complaints, which he said the UC is attempting to change.
“The specific goals of this strike are to fight for a contract with dignity for research and technical workers,” Chávez said. “We have a number of specific demands and we are fighting off some very regressive demands from the University.”
Sanders added he thinks the impasse with the UC is not unique because working class people across the country are struggling to obtain a living wage.
“I wish I could tell you that the University of California is the only employer not paying its workers a living wage,” Sanders said. “ I wish I could tell you that here at the university it is unique that the entity is trying to privatize and outsource jobs, but if i told you that, it simply would not be true.”
Bryan Valdez, a member of AFSCME, said the unions hoped the strike would convince the UC to stop contract outsourcing.
“They keep throwing money on the table for us, but it’s not really about the money, it’s about job security,” Valdez said. “We can have a raise but a raise is no good if we can get fired right after,”
Despite union members’ concerns about outsourcing, the UC is not allowed to outsource jobs for the sole purpose of saving money in wages or benefits, Doan said.
John de los Angeles, an AFSCME spokesperson, said a 2017 California State Auditor report stated the University’s service contract workers receive less compensation in wages and benefits than full-time employees despite performing similar work. The cost difference leads to the displacement of full-time employees when the UC hires contract workers, according to the report.
“There’s evidence of problems specifically around outsourcing, and you don’t have to take our word for it,” de los Angeles said.
Henga Hooshmand, a member of UPTE, said she thinks the UC prefers contract workers to full-time employees because they do not have to pay for contract workers´ benefits.
“You know, they’re short-term and (the UC) just gets rid of them whenever it’s convenient,” she said.
Nicole Shoraka, a member of UPTE and occupational therapist at UCLA medical center’s Neurological Rehabilitation and Research Unit, said she thinks relying on short-term employees hurts the UC in the long run.
“At the end of the day, if they keep contracting workers out, they won’t be able to maintain the quality that they boast,” she said.
Students at the rally said they wanted to support the unions and see Sanders. Attendees said they had driven as much as two and a half hours to hear Sanders speak.
Marisol Oreas, a UCLA vocational nurse, said she thinks the rally and Sanders’ appearance on the picket line is indicative of a bigger movement against injustice and inequality.
Jenny Ceron, a nurse and member of AFSCME, said she is a fan of Sanders but that she thinks people would have participated in the picket line even if he had not spoken at the rally.
“I do think it’s a bonus,” she said. “But regardless, I think everybody was all out here already willing to strike and ready to fight for what we deserve.”
Giselle Garcia, a third-year anthropology student, said the unions’ cause feels personal because she has worked closely with union members.
“I’ve worked at Rendezvous for two years and most of the workers would tell me like, ‘They don’t give us enough hours’ or ‘They mistreat us,’” Garcia said. “Whenever I see workers being mistreated, I see my mom, I see my dad, I see my grandparents.”
Sanders said he hoped to see the UC continue negotiations with the UPTE and AFSCME earnestly.
“Brothers and sisters, what you are doing is enormously important. You are showing the rest of the country about the importance of standing up and fighting back, you are showing the rest of country what economic justice demands,” Sanders said. “I conclude by urging this university, this great university, in the strongest possible terms: Sit down and negotiate with your unions in good faith.”