Over the last year, University of California workers have gone on strike three different times. These disruptions have been precipitated in part by the University’s failure to negotiate fair contracts with the workers who make our state’s third-largest employer run every day.
But rather than addressing the eroding economic opportunities at the University, it has insisted on outsourcing what were once good-paying jobs to low-wage contractors and has imposed contract terms that flatten wages and cut benefits for its lowest-paid employees.
The UC has been entirely blind to a deepening income inequality among its workforce.
These same UC workers will strike again April 10. However, at issue this time is something far more fundamental than wages, benefits or staffing levels. It’s about employees’ ability to exercise their right to voice concerns over working conditions – free of interference or employer retaliation – at all.
Less than a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to reverse a generations old-precedent setting the terms of the relationship between public sector workers and the unions that represent them. In its Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 decision, the court ruled workers could no longer be required to pay for services provided by their unions. The anti-worker zealots financing the case theorized that if they could starve unions of the fees they get from nonmembers who still reap the benefits of collective bargaining, they could ultimately weaken the chief institutional adversary to unchecked corporate power. In doing so, they could redistribute more wealth from those at the bottom of the income scale – primarily women and people of color – to those at the top.
In many respects, the gambit has already worked. While most public sector unions – including AFSCME Local 3299 – have actually increased their dues-paying memberships in the wake of Janus, most have still lost revenue from represented “fee payers.” Not coincidentally, as union bargaining power has declined, income inequality today has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age.
Such is the case at the UC, which has gone even further than Janus by actively trying to tip the scales against its own workers. It has also gone further than any public institution in California in lining the pockets of a small group of highly paid administrators and well-connected elites at the expense of its lowest-wage workers.
Its actions are well-documented. The University issued one-sided communications to employees, urging them to drop their union membership, and interfered with union efforts to communicate about bargaining with represented workers. It has monitored employees, threatened them and retaliated against workers engaged in union activities. It has offered financial incentives to encourage workers to cross lawful picket lines. It has threatened arrest and citations against workers for engaging in peaceful demonstrations.
The UC has also effectively condoned physical assault against picketing workers, including an attack by a UC Davis supervisor and another by UC Berkeley police against an African-American worker at a peaceful demonstration honoring the labor activism of Martin Luther King Jr.
Any one of these incidents would be enough on its own to warrant punitive sanctions against the UC. Taken together, they symbolize a far deeper and more toxic shift is underway at the California institution that once claimed to be a national leader on issues like free speech, equality and social justice.
Today, striking workers will stand up to reclaim these principles. Without them, the UC is not just complicit in the economic disparities that are costing too many working Californians a fair shot at the middle-class – it’s the tip of the spear.
Perlman is AFSCME Local 3299’s executive director.