The clamorous honks of vuvuzelas, a staple of South African soccer matches, disrupted the usual stillness of the UC Davis Medical Center on Wednesday as unionized workers called attention to their strike over stalled contract negotiations with the University of California.
Samrrah Raouf, a 10-year employee of UC Davis Health, and other workers said they’re concerned not only about UC executives making as much as 10 times what many pickets earn in a year but also about how outsourcing is affecting the security of middle-wage jobs.
Employees in some union-represented positions work long hours because staffing is insufficient to manage the workload, Raouf said – and that’s because the current pay and benefits aren’t attracting enough job candidates.
“It’s union members that clean the floors, union members that draw the blood, union members that process the samples,” said Raouf, a clinical research coordinator, “and if you were a patient here, wouldn’t you want your sample processed by somebody who is not on the 18th hour of a double shift?”
The walkout was the third in less than a year at the UC’s 10 campuses and five hospitals. UPTE-CWA, which represents 14,000 research, technical and health care workers, called for the 24-hour strike after reaching an impasse in bargaining with UC leaders, and shortly afterward, the UC’s largest employee union, AFSCME 3299, said it would walk out in solidarity. Both unions, which together represent 39,000 people, have been negotiating for new contracts for two years.
Steve Telliano, spokesman for UC Davis Medical Center, said: “We understand that employees in the unions have some concern about jobs and job security, so it’s important for us to remind them that over the last five years, we have actually created over 1,000 new union-represented positions here at UC Davis Medical Center. And, in over just the last couple of years, we’ve created over 200 new jobs overall. We currently have 700 jobs that we’re hiring for, so there are plenty of jobs and plenty of opportunities.”
Telliano noted that, by 1 p.m. Wednesday, 74.3 percent of AFSMCE and UPTE-CWA members scheduled to work had shown up for their assigned shifts. The strike did not affected scheduled surgeries or appointments, he said, but some ancillary services may not have been available. The cafeteria, for instance, was closed, so some patients got boxed lunches, Telliano said, and some walk-in patients had to go to a different location to get blood drawn.
The unions picketed both the UC Davis Medical Center campus along Sacramento’s Stockton Boulevard and the UCD campus near Toomey Field in Davis.
“For over a year, the University of California has continued to ignore the well-founded concerns of the workers that make this the finest research institution in the world,” said Jamie McDole, president of UPTE-CWA 9119. “By shortchanging the frontline workers who make UC run every day, administrators are showing a profound lack of commitment to the students, patients, and taxpayers that this institution is supposed to serve.”
The University Professional and Technical Employees-Communications Workers of America 9119 represents such workers as art therapists, case managers, audiologists, animal technicians, lab assistants, art models and pharmacists. AFSCME 3299’s membership is made of low-wage workers such as admitting clerks, anesthesia technicians, MRI technologists, cooks, gardeners and security guards.
Wednesday’s job action drew the attention of presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the nation’s most outspoken critics of the growing gap in pay between executives and their rank-and-file employees. He will speak at a rally at UCLA.
Claire Doan, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, said: “If UPTE and AFSCME leaders had channeled as much effort into negotiations as they do into organized theatrics, we’d have a deal by now. Three disruptive strikes in less than one year come at a cost to everyone – patients, students and UC communities – while doing nothing to help unionized workers get closer to a contract and wage increases.”
UPTE-CWA spokesperson Dan Russell said UC leaders continue to ignore their employees concerns over wage inequality, job insecurity and employment benefits, and that is what is standing in the way of a contract agreement. AFSCME and UPTE-CWA joined the California Nurses Association in walkout in May. Nurses ratified a contract deal in September that gave them 15 percent wage increases over five years, and as part of that agreement, they said they would not launch sympathy strikes. Members of AFSCME 3299 voted to hit the picket line in October, and UPTE-CWA joined them at that time.
Members of AFSCME and UPTE-CWA have said they are deeply concerned over the 2017 findings from the California State Auditor that UC’s Office of the President was paying exorbitant salaries to a number of executives.
In one example of the pay disparities, the auditor noted that 10 top executives were paid a total of $3.7 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year, more than $700,000 over what their highest-paid state peers earned. The auditor recommended that the UC set targets for reducing some executive salaries, a step that the UC said it already had begun with compensation surveys in 2016.
“UC has … worked to worsen income inequality,” said AFSCME Local 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger. “Thousands of UC workers represented by UPTE recognize that the university’s efforts to flatten wages, cut benefits, and eliminate middle-class career pathways are hurting families and our members are proud to stand with them in solidarity.”
The technical and research units of UPTE-CWA rejected the UC’s last, best and final offer in late February. The health care unit remains in negotiations but hit the picket line in solidarity with their co-workers. The terms of the UC’s offer to UPTE-CWA included:
- Annual wage increases of 3 percent from 2020-23, plus raises of 3 percent in April and October of this year. In a sign of just how rancorous negotiations are, the two sides disagreed over the contract period, with Russell saying that the UC’s offer extends through only September 2022.
- A one-time payment of $1,250 upon contract ratification.
- A $25 cap on monthly health insurance premiums for the UC’s Kaiser and Health Net Blue & Gold plans.
Doan said the UC pays UPTE-CWA and AFSCME workers at or above market rates, with average annual salaries at $64,764 for clinical research coordinators, $67,195 for business technical support analysts, $116,028 for clinical laboratory scientists and $167,708 for pharmacists.
On average, Doan said, UPTE-CWA members are earning 20 percent more now than they did five years ago and AFSCME members, 21 percent more. Labor is the UC’s single largest expense, Doan said, and administrative leaders cannot justify wage increases of 26 percent over a four-year contract.
In terms of job security, Doan said, UPTE-CWA membership has grown by 7 percent over the last five years, and AFSCME added 17 percent more members over the term of its last deal. The UC is legally barred, she said, from contracting out jobs solely to generate savings on wages and benefits, and it must find jobs for any workers displaced by service contracts.
Yet, in August 2017, the California State Auditor reported that the University of California, Davis, and other UC campuses have used outsourcing to minimize hiring new employees. The auditor found that many contractors also paid far below the university minimum wage and did not offer comparable benefits.
Through outsourcing, AFSCME leaders said, the university is basically helping to lower the prevailing market wages that the UC uses as a comparison for employee pay. Rank-and-file workers deserve raises that allow them to provide for a family in one of the most expensive states in the nation, said AFSCME 3299’s Mohammed Akbar, and if UC executives want to control costs, they need to set the example by doing so at the top.