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What happens if UC health workers strike again? Commencements, state funding could be hit

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The University of California and the AFSCME 3299 union representing 24,000 service and patient-care workers have no plans to return to the bargaining table and each side is blaming the other for the impasse and an ensuing three-day strike that began on May 7.

UC spokesperson Claire Doan said the university isn't budging for now on the 2 percent, across-the-board raise it gave service workers for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

"AFSCME (3299) will need to return to the bargaining table with UC in order to negotiate any additional increases as part of a multiyear contract," Doan said.

The 2 percent wage increase, imposed on April 20, was soundly rejected by AFSCME service workers and provoked union negotiators to call for a limited-duration strike, said AFSCME 3299 spokesperson John de los Angeles.

Labor researcher and lecturer Kate Bronfenbrenner said unions choose strike periods when an employer is vulnerable.

"Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, when he was in charge of the coal miners, he very famously waited and waited and waited to take the coal miners on strike," Bronfenbrenner said. "He would always wait until inventory was at its absolute lowest, when they needed coal the most....Typically, you go on strike when the contract expires, right? But he chose to strike when the employer needs the work done the most."

The AFSCME 3299 workers were joined on the picket line May 8-9 by thousands of UC employees from the California Nurses Association and the University Professional and Technical Employees-CWA. Together they represent 29,000 nurses, case managers, physical therapists and pharmacists and other health-care professionals, and they also have been involved in protracted contract negotiations with the university.

In this instance, service workers could hit the picket line again as students move out or move onto campus, as commencements season begins or when UC hospitals have an especially heavy patient load. The union must provide a 10-day notice of its intention to strike, and the two sides typically negotiate the minimum number of workers needed to maintain safe conditions for patient care.

The service bargaining unit, which has been without a contract for more than a year, includes 9,000 individuals whose work includes custodial services, groundskeeping and security. The union also is bargaining for its patient-care unit's contract, which expired in December.

As the strike unfolded in Sacramento, UC Davis Health said its business operations had not been impaired by the hundreds of workers who showed up on the picket line daily, but AFSCME pointed to growing political and student support. From the picket line, California Sen. Kevin de León urged UC President Janet Napolitano to bargain in good faith.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris dropped out as commencement speaker for a UC Berkeley commencement scheduled last Saturday, and students at the commencement carried picket signs as they walked across the stage.

Bronfenbrenner, who is at Cornell University, said many people think labor actions are risky for unions, but research has shown that, even if a union loses its battle for higher wages or job security, a messy strike typically pays off for that union and other unions in the nearby region.

She cited a study of French labor data showing that, even if unions accepted wage concessions after a strike where picket lines were crossed, terms were likely to be better when negotiators went into bargaining on subsequent contracts.

Employers tend to forget the impact of a strike if one hasn't happened for awhile, Bronfenbrenner said, but a fresh memory of a work stoppage makes them less likely to want to go through it again. In the case of AFSCME 3299, however, de los Angeles told The Bee, the union also went on strike over its two prior contract negotiations with UC .

AFSCME 3299 negotiators have sought wage increases of 6 percent, a freeze on health-care premiums, traditional pensions for all regardless of hire date, and job security that eliminates contracting out jobs for which its members are trained.

"Our top priority has been and continues to be the outsourcing of our jobs," de los Angeles said. "The UC has failed to acknowledge that is even an issue, which is a huge problem if they want to get together and talk with our negotiators. UC really needs to acknowledge our biggest concern, which is outsourcing."

A 2017 report from California State Auditor Elaine Howle showed that UC campuses have signed outsourcing contracts for services such as janitorial, security and valet parking and some contractors have paid wages below even the university minimum wage. AFSCME 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger said UC uses market wages when determining wage increases for its workers, and these contracts are suppressing market wages. At the same time, she said, the number of African Americans in high-wage jobs is declining at the university as their number is growing in these low-wage contractor positions.

Doan said AFSCME leaders are demanding a nearly 20-percent pay raise over three years — twice what other UC employees have received. The university cannot justify such an excessive raise to taxpayers.

"Labor is the largest single expense in UC’s budget, and AFSCME service workers are already paid at or above market rates," Doan said in the prepared statement. "UC feels that it is highly inappropriate that AFSCME is now using a strike as a negotiating tactic. This is after union leaders rejected, without conducting a vote among their members, UC’s proposed multiyear wage increases (3 percent annually for four years) and excellent health and retirement benefits."

Doan said that UC leaders decided to go ahead and increase wages for service workers by 2 percent on April 20 because those employees had gone so long without a wage increase, but de los Angeles said that AFSCME 3299 negotiators saw the move as a bad-faith attempt to subvert negotiations.

De los Angeles said AFSCME 3299 negotiators will convene at some point to discuss next steps.

Editor's note: This story was updated May 14 to reflect state Sen. Kevin de León's current title.

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