UC System Continues to Kick Union Workers While They’re Down

    UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
    — Last week, the UC system filed a charge against the American Federation of
    State, County and Municipal Employees claiming that the union was guilty of
    unfair labor practices. AFSCME members had been distributing leaflets on the UC
    San Francisco campus to gather solidarity and support for ongoing contract
    negotiations, but not to disrupt the flow of the school’s medical center, as
    the university alleged.

    The recent incident highlights the plight of union rights
    and of free speech, with each incident illustrating the far extent to which the
    university is willing to go to deny both.

    AFSCME represents over 11,000 patient care technical workers
    (lab assistants, nurses’ aides, etc.) and around 7,000 service workers
    (custodians) from throughout the 10-campus UC system. These people are the
    university’s backbone, yet their work is so underappreciated that their
    requests for salary increases and a contract that guarantees wages adjusted to
    cost-of-living increases are consistently denied.

    AFSCME is also determined to have its demands for health
    care and retirement benefits and expenses met. In rejecting the union’s
    proposed $16-million wage increase for the almost 20,000 workers, the
    university claimed that such an increase would raise the average pay rate to
    $20.75 an hour.

    This is simply not true.

    According to Lakesha Harrison, president of AFSCME Local
    3299, the university’s claim is a blatant exaggeration based on statistics that
    purposefully distort its data. Harrison said the numbers
    used to produce the false pay rate of $20.75 include nonunionized nurses whose
    $40 hourly rates manipulated the UC system’s projections. By resorting to
    number tampering, the university has demonstrated that it cannot defend its
    stance with the actual numbers, a sign that the existing numbers must surely be
    in the union’s favor.

    Aside from the mere decimals and dollar signs being tossed
    around by the university and AFSCME, the former has denied the latter. The UC
    system prides itself on being one of the most respected public systems in the
    nation, yet the university has given the union and its members a big, fat,
    proverbial slap in the face. Especially at UCSD, where the medical school is
    highly rated and produces award-winning breakthroughs, patient care technician
    workers are crucial to any success that the university has.

    Existing wages at UC medical centers are disturbingly low,
    as much as 25 percent below the market average, according to AFSCME
    representatives.

    In a society where private health care providers such as
    Kaiser Permanente, Blue Shield and HMOs have come to be dominant, the
    state-funded UC medical centers have experienced elevated turnover rates, with
    many employees leaving to find work in the higher-paying private sector. Unless
    UC negotiators yield to even the most meager of AFSCME’s contract requests, a
    critical component of their prestigious medical system will slowly
    disintegrate.

    Along with clamping down on union rights and ignoring the
    well-being of honest, hardworking union members, the university has shown
    complete disregard for the constitutional right of free speech by filing an
    unfair labor practice charge against AFSCME’s leafleting at UCSF. In a public
    space in front of medical centers on five UC campuses, union members handed out
    flyers and leaflets in a grassroots effort to inform passersby of the contract
    negotiations that have been dragging on since August 2007. AFSCME was trying to
    rally support for their desired wage increases, as engaging the public is a
    time-tested method for furthering a cause, yet the university has attempted to
    halt this peaceful method by saying that union members were harassing patients
    as they entered the buildings.

    AFSCME has not even started picketing in front of UC
    buildings (which might become a reality if the university continues its
    tight-fisted ways) and it is already being charged with unfair labor practices.
    Filing charges against the union for calmly bringing attention to its cause is
    completely unfounded and, in reality, the university should be reprimanded for
    its treatment of the First Amendment. Compromising the union’s free speech
    rights is a shallow attempt to keep AFSCME quiet and slow its progress by
    silencing its attempts at gaining public support.

    The union members are not asking for anything that they do
    not deserve — if anything, they are actually asking for an amount lower than
    what their noble work should demand. However long UC administrators decide to
    stubbornly prolong negotiations is up to them. In the past week, UC-AFSCME
    negotiations have moved to the mediation stage and now a state-appointed
    mediator will attempt to resolve the issue.

    If the university truly cared about maintaining the working
    status of its campuses and upholding the human values that it claims to teach
    within its classrooms, then this stage of negotiations would have never been
    reached. The importance of AFSCME’s work and the integrity of its members must
    be respected, a step that can only be reached if the university finally
    acquiesces to the modest demands of the workers.

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