Wednesday, November 20, 2013

University of California Workers Strike for the Future of our Community

The weather was grim, and the rain hadn’t stopped falling since before midday on Tuesday.  But members of AFSCME—a union representing service workers at University of California campuses and medical centres—were undeterred.  On Wednesday, they took to picket lines at Berkeley, joined by members of UAW, the union representing graduate students at the University.  Union members set up picket lines up and down California: in Davis, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Riverside, Orange, Irvine, and San Diego.
AFSCME 3299 is striking in protest of what it describes as UC’s “coordinated campaign of illegal intimidation, coercion, and threats against UC Patient Care and Service Workers who participated in a two day walkout back in May over unsafe staffing levels at taxpayer supported UC hospitals”. 

UAW 2865 would normally be prohibited from striking, but because the union’s contract has lapsed amidst negotiations with UC, we voted to authorise the union leadership to join AFSCME in its strike, using the opportunity to air our own grievances against UC. 
Student workers published a report titled Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Management and the Decline of UC Education, lambasting the administration which has created a new, lavishly-paid layer of bureaucrats whose primary responsibility often appear to be manoeuvring the people who do the actual work of teaching, researching, and maintaining the campuses out of their jobs.  This new cadre of administrators have been taking home bonuses at a time when the wages of workers and teachers on campuses have stagnated.  They have engorged themselves on the University at the same time that the tuition of undergraduate students has skyrocketed.
Amongst UAW’s demands are that graduate students get paid competitive wages relative to competitor universities, that UC provide relevant information on hiring to the union, that student-parents receive childcare and dependent medical benefits, and that graduate student researchers are also permitted collective bargaining rights. 
At Berkeley, workers mingled in the rain beneath a sea of umbrella that bobbed in time to the music emanating from under a tarp-bedecked speaker, keeping those on the picket line entertained in between breaking into chants of “Whose University?  Our University!”.  Dutiful undergraduates marched by, eyes on the ground, studiously avoiding those of the people who teach them, feed them, and pick up after them, looking prepared to sell their own mothers rather than miss a class for the health of the institution they call home.
Not all students, of course, have given into the weary apathy which is the understandable default of people being squeezed for $15,000 per year in tuition and fees and contemplating massive debts upon graduation, but as AFSCME and UAW members commandeered the steps of Sproul Hall and threw up banners reading “Students for Dignified Labor”, “Solidarity”, and “Public Education!”, it provided a perfect image of the dilemma confronting students.
Above the union’s banners flapped a schedule of events for the coming “Big Game” against Stanford.  Who, after all, would find the idea of standing in the rain learning about the relationship between the constituent parts of a University and its administration more attractive than watching the school football team get the daylights thumped out of it by the Stanford team?  In his treatise, The Goose-Step: a Study of American Education, Upton Sinclair mocked the militarism and one-upmanship which characterised the sporting culture on Berkeley’s campus in the ‘20s.  He described how, “if Stanford has a stadium, the University of California must have one”, leading the administration to strong-arm students into making “pledges” for the payment of the stadium (Sinclair 373). 
If every student who tuned into the Cal-Stanford game over the week-end devoted a little attention to the administrative mindset and state politics which are mangling our University, they might realise that the nature of the University they cheer on in its sporting endeavours is undergoing serious change.
That change will likely take place too slowly for students to see during their four years at Berkeley (aside from in their rising tuition).  But absent their attention and efforts on behalf of the institution that is struggling to serve them, students will look back and find the University of California a changed and diminished institution: one which neglects to care for its employees, casualises the labour of teaching, turns a place of learning into a market that prices some Californians out, and ceases to be substantially supported by the public which it serves. 
They should take seriously the struggles of campus workers, who are trying to hold the line against these changes, and stand with them as they ask UC and the state to honour their obligations to our community.

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