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

— 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

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

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.