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‘We put the SEE in the UC’: Optometrists picket against unfair labor practices

Nearly 50 optometrists, health workers and community members are pictured picketing outside Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Optometrists across the UC began a two-day strike Tuesday morning to protest what they allege is unfair labor practices. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Anna Dai-Liu and Matthew Royer

Feb. 6, 2024 5:41 p.m.

This post was updated Feb 6. at 9:44 p.m.

Record rains did not stop UC optometrists from calling it as they see it, picketing outside Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on Tuesday to demand higher salaries, lower patient wait times and good-faith contract bargaining from the UC.

Optometrists – represented by University Professional & Technical Employees CWA Local 9119 – across UC campuses, including Davis, San Diego and San Francisco, started their two-day strike Tuesday morning, alleging that the UC has engaged in unfair bargaining practices. During a rally at noon, nearly 50 optometrists, health care workers and community members from UCLA and UC Irvine circled in front of the hospital, chanting slogans including, “No bargaining, no peace,” while holding signs that read, “If you can see this sign, you support optometrists” and “We put the SEE in the UC.”

The strike is scheduled to end Thursday at 4 a.m., according to UPTE-CWA.

A UPTE-CWA supporter holds a sign that says “UC’S UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICE” in the style of a vision test chart. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

Dr. Timothy Scott Liegler, an optometrist at UC Irvine, said while optometrists joined UPTE-CWA a little over a year ago to address staffing shortages and retention issues, the UC has failed to provide adequate statistics and withheld information from union representatives over the course of the past year’s negotiations. As optometrists leave the UC system for jobs that provide better pay or benefits, patients – including people from some of the poorest parts of Los Angeles and Orange Counties – are unable to receive optimal care, he said.

“We’re not really meeting our role as the leaders in health care, leaders in providing eye care,” said Dr. Vivian Shibayama, an optometrist at the Stein Eye Institute. “We’re the biggest eye institute on this side of the country, and we’re not providing the care at a timely fashion for people that really need it.” 

In a press release, UPTE-CWA said it decided to strike after the union filed an unfair labor charge against the UC on Jan. 10, alleging that the University failed to provide information needed for negotiations to the union in a timely manner, bargained in bad faith and refused to negotiate over placement of individual optometrists.

“When UC refuses to fulfill its legal obligations at the bargaining table, it has a significant effect on optometrist morale, recruitment, and retention,” UPTE-CWA said in its press release. “That translates to longer wait times and overburdened schedules, as well as an adverse impact on the quality of patient care.”

Optometrists often see patients with complex conditions and need to prioritize those with urgent issues, meaning that waitlists can become extremely long, added Dr. Laura Robbins, a pediatric ophthalmologist at the Stein Eye Institute. 

Liegler said that while the strike will impact patients, he believes such action is necessary for the UC to pay attention.

“You have to speak to people in a language that they understand,” he said. “What we found is that this is the only thing they listen to.” 

A spokesperson for the UC Office of the President said in an emailed statement that the University is committed to good-faith bargaining with UPTE-CWA. However, they added in the statement that they believe the union’s actions are unlawful under its collective bargaining agreement no-strike clause, which prevents work stoppages and requires the union to prevent actions that would impede its contract.

The UC filed an unfair labor charge of its own with the California Public Employment Relations Board on Friday, alleging unlawful behavior.

Phil Hampton, a spokesperson for UCLA Health, said in an emailed statement that the system is disappointed that the union – which represents 15 UCLA optometrists – chose to move forward with the work stoppage. However, the system respects their right to union representation and has made arrangements to ensure care continues in the interim, he said in the statement.

An inflatable eyeball is pictured at a booth in which UPTE-CWA members signed in for picketing. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

Shibayama, who has worked at UCLA for 12 years, said while there are only around 15 optometrists at the university, the group that gathered in front of the hospital represented a united and louder voice, including those from UC Irvine. She added that striking is important because as a worker, it represents the efforts required to ensure quality patient care.

“Knowing what your value is, and knowing what you need to take care of the people that you took an oath to take care of, is really important,” she said. “It’s making sure that the conditions are right so that everyone’s being taken care of in a timely manner.”

Shibayama said she hopes the new contracts will help the UC hire and retain even more high-quality optometrists. Liegler said he views working at the UC as a privilege, adding that he hopes the strike will lead the UC to host more meaningful discussions in a timely manner.

Robbins added that she feels lucky to be able to work at the UC, and that she is fighting to be able to continue helping her patients.

“We came here and trained to do this and committed a lot of years and a lot of time to serve our patients,” she said. “I want to be able to continue to do that. I want to be able to continue working with these wonderful doctors I work with that I trust.” 

Contributing reports from Danielle Cho and Amy Wong, Daily Bruin contributors.

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Anna Dai-Liu | Science and health editor
Dai-Liu is the 2023-2024 science and health editor and Copy staff member. She was previously a News staff writer and is currently a third-year neuroscience and comparative literature student.
Dai-Liu is the 2023-2024 science and health editor and Copy staff member. She was previously a News staff writer and is currently a third-year neuroscience and comparative literature student.
Matthew Royer | National news and higher education editor
Royer is the 2023-2024 national news and higher education editor. He is also a Sports staff writer on the men’s soccer and softball beats. He was previously the 2022-2023 city and crime editor and a contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a fourth-year political science student minoring in labor studies from West Hills, California.
Royer is the 2023-2024 national news and higher education editor. He is also a Sports staff writer on the men’s soccer and softball beats. He was previously the 2022-2023 city and crime editor and a contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a fourth-year political science student minoring in labor studies from West Hills, California.
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