“Fired up, can’t take it no more”: UCR service workers participate in three-day strike over worsening work conditions

By Aidan Rutten, Amani Mahmoud, Mark Bertumen

Stalled contract negotiations and allegations of wage inequality prompted the largest UC employee union, which represents around 25,000 service personnel across all campuses and medical centers, to stage a three-day strike from Monday, May 7 to Wednesday, May 9.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees chapter 3299, or AFSCME 3299, called for the strike in late April after more than a year of stalled contract negotiations. The union is striking against what they see as income disparity, higher health care premiums and the outsourcing of low-paid service jobs.

Leo Tolliver, the AFSCME representative at UCR, stated, “In the next couple of days, we are hoping UC will see and understand how valuable these workers are, that these people need to be compensated fairly for the work they do.”

Two other unions sympathetic to AFSCME, both the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) and the California Nurses Association (CNA), participated in solidarity. Around 200 workers gathered to chant and march at the corner of University Ave. and Canyon Crest Dr., most wearing green shirts and carrying picket signs. The group was also stationed at the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. across from Lot 30 and the Corporation Yard on Linden Ave. Tensions on the ground were palpable, as many of these AFSCME members had worked or are working for UCR. Many participants echoed sentiments of disenchantment with wage disparity, outsourcing and rising healthcare costs.

In April, AFSCME published a report titled “Pioneering Inequality: Race, Gender and Income Disparities at the University of California.” The report highlights wage differences between the highest and lowest paid workers, as well as between minorities and women versus white men in comparable positions. According to the report, “From 2005-2015 … the share of total payroll cost for UC’s top 10 percent of wage earners grew from 22 percent to 31 percent, while the share for the bottom 50 percent dropped from 24 percent to just 22 percent.”

The report also cites data about hiring rates and starting salaries, often emphasizing lower wages received by women and people of color and a disparity in representation among the higher paid positions within the UC system. Spokesperson for the UC Office of the President (UCOP) Stephanie Beechem wrote in an email sent to The Highlander Monday, May 7, “We cannot confirm the accuracy of the report created and written by AFSCME, and it was not part of the independent fact finding that was conducted as part of our negotiations.”

UCOP also believes that service workers in the UC system are paid fairly. “AFSCME service employees at UC — including custodians, gardeners, food service workers and facilities maintenance staff — are compensated at or above the market, and in some cases by as much as 17 percent higher than comparable jobs,” they said.

Jesse Hernandez, an executive board member with AFSCME 3299 and bargaining representative for UCR, feels differently. “They’re saying that we’re greedy. What they’re trying to do right now is say that we as workers are overpaid,” he said. “As overpaid workers they say that we shouldn’t be given a raise at all. Initially they had offered a zero percent increase for five years.” More recently, the UC has offered a 3 percent yearly raise over four years. AFSCME 3299 is bargaining for 6 percent.

Other concerns expressed by strikers and reflected in the bargaining process were rising health care costs, unsafe working conditions, retirement security and outsourcing. According to the “Pioneering Inequality” report, “UC’s own numbers suggest that it outsources work to over 7,000 contract workers—workers doing the same jobs as its lowest-paid career employees but earning as much as $8.50 less per hour.” Hernandez, also a former Latitude 55 worker, helped organize the strike at UCR. He spoke with us about how contracting out jobs affected workers like him.

“We’ve seen throughout the years … our jobs are getting outsourced. I used to work at a Latitude 55 at the HUB,” he said. “Right now, there is no more Latitude 55. Latitude 55 used to be (run) by dining services — they outsourced it. Right now who’s working (it) is the outsource(d) company The Habit.”

According to documents provided by UCOP, contracted out jobs cannot be used to replace bargaining unit employees “solely on the basis that savings will result from lower contractor pay rates and benefits for services customarily performed by bargaining unit employees.” However, exceptions can be made for financial needs or special services.

Hernandez further spoke on the nature and breadth of the strikes. “It’s all across all UCs, so 11 campuses and five medical centers,” he said. “This is an actual strike of service …  but the medical centers are also going out in solidarity on strike with us.” However, UCOP sees the strikes as depriving students of necessary services. “Some of our emergency rooms are having to redirect people with critical care needs to other hospitals because of AFSCME pulling workers off their jobs,” claimed Beechem. “Some patients have extremely serious health needs, and now their much-needed appointments or surgeries will have to wait.”

Though the strike was concentrated near Lot 19, AFSCME employees marched throughout campus as well, chanting, “We’re fired up, can’t take it no more.” Many students marched through Aberdeen-Inverness dining hall as well as the University Lecture Hall while a lecture was in progress.

One striker on the scene was Rodney Thomas, a custodial worker for over 18 years, who was protesting because of the increasing workload that custodians have received, combined with a lack of appropriate compensation. “It’s just too much work for eight hours; we need more workers,” Thomas said. “We’re short-staffed and it’s been that way for eight years because they never replaced people after they left or got fired.”

Another striker at the protest was Marina Garcia, a worker for the Early Child Services (ECS) at UCR, which encourages and enables students to “reach their full potential in all developmental areas.” ECS also helps adults succeed academically and professionally. “We’re fighting for our benefits, like insurance, which has been going up in price while we haven’t been getting raises to make up for it,” Garcia explained. “And in ECS, only three people run the building when four are supposed to be assigned, and as a result we work harder than we ought to.”

Elliot Ruiz was also on the protest site, a lead senior custodian at UCR for almost three years. He took the job to help out his loved ones, but came to notice that what he was making wasn’t enough, especially after nearly two years of no raise. “My girlfriend recently had a stroke, and we’ve had to pay out of pocket because her insurance wouldn’t cover it all,” said Ruiz. “I wasn’t offered what I wanted with the lead position, but I had to get everything I could. I’m here today to see if we can get better benefits, and if my girlfriend can get what she deserves and needs from what we’re doing here.”

On Tuesday, organizations sympathetic to AFSCME came to show their support of the strike, one of which was the University Professional and Technical Employees, a workers’ union for those outlined in the union’s name. Candy McReynolds, an UPTE member at the strike, emphasized that they were there to fight for equality, in line with the reports of unequal pay between minority workers.

The California Faculty Association (CFA), a California State University workers’ union for faculty, also showed their support at UCR on Tuesday, though the organization was not widely recognized as a group in solidarity before the strike. Chris Naticchia, the political action chair for CFA at CSU San Bernardino, was present. “They (the other unions) have done the same for us. When we went on a strike a couple years ago, other unions said they were going to stand with us,” Naticchia said. “I was on the strike committee at the time, and I can’t tell you what a psychological boost it is to get a letter, or a phone call, or a meeting with someone who says they’re going to stand with you.”

The California Nurses Association was a recognized group standing in solidarity with AFSCME, but because UCR does not have a hospital, no one of that union was present on campus.

At 12:10 p.m., a rally speech was started by Leo Tolliver, the union organizer for the AFSCME chapter of UCR. After his introduction, the microphone was given to Ellen Reese, the labor studies chair at UCR. She stated that, as one of the largest employers in California, the UC system has a standard of fairness to hold itself to. “If the standard for us falls, what is that going to mean for other workers?” Reese inquired. “It’s going to push down wages and benefits, promote pay cuts; it’s going to have ripple effects on the economy.”

UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox showed his support of the strikes thanking the strikers for “everything that you do.”           Adrian Dizon/HIGHLANDER

After Reese, Tolliver took the microphone again to talk about a dispute between a striking worker and UCR Facilities supervisor Manny Sanchez the day before. He only paused when the protesters were greeted with a visit from Chancellor Kim Wilcox, who had stopped by to show his support. Tolliver praised Wilcox for all of the work he had done for the worker unions, such as the coalition meetings that took place inside of Wilcox’s own home, and continued on with his speech, pointing out that it is illegal for supervisors to call workers on strike back to work, and announcing that a march to his office on the third floor of the HUB would take place at 1 p.m. later that day to talk to Manny about the conversation with his worker. Tolliver then gave the floor to Wilcox to say a few words.

“Nobody likes a strike,” Wilcox began. “It’s unfortunate that we’re here, but I want to say thanks for everything that you do. This is an amazing campus because of you, and I especially thank the leadership and the membership for this strike and the way that you’ve conducted yourself.”

Reese was available for an interview following the speech and elaborated on her reason behind protesting. “I’m a worker myself, and I believe in solidarity among workers,” Reese responded. “The university functions better when we have morale, when there’s dignity and equality in the workplace, and the issues the union is fighting for are issues we should all care about.”

Reese commented on AFSCME’s findings of disparity among UCR workers, namely between the fair wages determined by the worker unions of the UCs and the actual lower wages of workers that have been “contracted out.” “This creates incentive to contract out more and more work to reduce wages,” Reese explained, “What these people are fighting for is equal pay for equal work.” She also discussed the wage gap between male and female workers, stating that women workers are paid less than their male counterparts.

UCOP, however, claims they have “mechanisms in place to respond to these issues. We encourage any employee who believes he or she is being treated unfairly to bring their concerns to the attention of the proper UC office so that they may be addressed quickly.”

Around 1 p.m., the group began marching to Sanchez’s office. Strikers left their central location, chanting and marching in front of the Student Services building, past Costo Hall and inside the HUB dining hall. They proceeded to travel up the stairs to the third floor of the HUB, and sent in a group of student workers through the doors to have a discussion with Sanchez, who was not in the office at the time. They instead spoke to Dean of Students Joe Virata and HUB Director Brendan O’Brien, expressing their concerns over the treatment of UC workers and asking Virata and O’Brien where Sanchez was and if they could contact him. Neither of those requests were fulfilled, but one student received Sanchez’s business card.

Sanchez was not in the HUB, but the strikers learned his office was located in the Housing, Dining and Residential Services Facilities building on the corner of Avocado St. and Linden St., where they proceeded to march. Upon arriving at his office, the group gathered outside the building and sent a group of students to confront Sanchez and bring him out to talk. But both entrances to the building were locked despite it being normal business hours. The group then walked back to their central location. Housing services did not reply to a request for comment.

The strike continued until 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 9. The immediate effects of the strike meant reduced or cancelled hours for some on-campus dining services. Several campus establishments such as Subway posted signs on the doors publicizing their solidarity,  reading, “We Stand by UC Workers.” Other facilities, mostly those contracted out such as Panda Express, remained open during regular hours. It is unclear at this time what will result from these strikes — whether contract negotiations will continue or more strikes will occur.  

The UC maintains their opposition to the strike, expressing concerns over patients’ health and citing competitive compensation and retirement plans for workers. “In UC’s view, it is highly inappropriate for any union to threaten services to patients and students with a strike as a negotiating tactic,” said Beechem, echoing the language of a memo sent out to UC employees detailing talking points on the strike.

“We take all issues of fairness and equitable treatment seriously. The university has mechanisms in place to respond to these issues. We encourage any employee who believes he or she is being treated unfairly to bring their concerns to the attention of the proper UC office so that they may be addressed quickly.

Hernandez, speaking on behalf of AFSCME 3299, said that this was more than a strike about wages. “We’re fighting for social justice, we’re trying to retire with dignity,” he said. “This affects people’s livelihood … at the end of the day what is it when our jobs get contracted out and … we don’t have a job, period?”

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