UC Davis Medical Center workers explain why they are on strike
The largest labor union at the University of California, AFSCME 3299, this week filed a second complaint against the university system, alleging a coordinated effort to intimidate workers, sabotage strike activity and push employees to drop their union membership.
Claire Doan, a UC spokesperson, said in a prepared statement that the UC Office of the President has not received a copy of the complaint from the Public Employment Relations Board and was unable to review it or determine whether there is merit to the allegations. But she suggested it’s aimed at influencing protracted contract negotiations that have led to a series of temporary employee walkouts.
“This charge and related press release come on the heels of the third systemwide strike in a year, which again failed to shift the university’s stance on AFSCME’s unreasonable demands,” Doan stated. “That includes asking for 8 percent raises that are nearly triple those given to other UC employees. We hope AFSCME leaders will channel more time and effort into actual bargaining.”
In the 71-page complaint, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 said UC representatives are flouting state labor laws through their actions and communications. Among the tactics alleged in the document:
- Attempts to instill fear in union members with physical confrontation.
- Rewards such as free meals and even a pool party for unionized workers who cross the picket line.
- An attempt to force out a staunch AFSCME advocate by reprimanding her union activity and dealing out unfavorable work assignments.
- A private meeting where a supervisor encouraged workers to “give themselves a raise” by opting out of AFSCME membership.
Much of the complaint to the state labor board alleges UC officials have used communications to indulge in an unlawful campaign to silence AFSCME members. The union’s filing includes one letter sent by UC to employees at UCLA Medical Center and elsewhere.
In part, it reads: “Striking is serious, and impacts the critical services and care we know you take great pride in delivering to the people who depend on you. We believe it is highly inappropriate for any union to threaten services to patients, students and the public as a negotiating ... tactic .... As it has before, UC will seek legal protection for patients against a strike due to the imminent threat it poses to public health and safety. We will let you know if your position is among those that are barred from striking.”
The letter leaves the impression that a union of health-care workers would have no problem undermining public health, AFSCME lawyers stated in the complaint. AFSCME 3299 leaders said it has ensured that each site left more workers available than PERB required in its past walkouts and that it made a contingency plan to have more workers available if necessary.
This and other communications conflict with expressions of solidarity UC officials offered in the lead-up to contract negotiations, AFSCME leaders said.
“Labor Relations, supervisors, and managers engaged in tactics aimed at interfering with employee rights,” their complaint stated. “AFSCME-represented employees were bombarded with communications ... that were rife with misleading statements and outright falsehoods. UC’s strike communications blatantly intended to spread fear and coerce employees into refraining from exercising their ... rights.”
Labor relations expert Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said management typically tries to strike a neutral tone in discussing bargaining situations and acknowledging workers’ legal rights to strike.
“The employer should have no role quite frankly in talking about what the union can and can’t do, particularly during a work stoppage,” Bruno said.
After hearing the language in the UC letters and memos, Bruno said he thought the letter was intended to have a chilling effect on unionized workers and to deter them from going on strike.
The union alleged in its complaint that UC’s representatives are taking the campaign beyond merely words to acts that have put employees’ health and welfare at risk, and it details examples that it says violate California’s Higher Employer-Employee Rights Act:
On Oct. 25, 2018, at the UC Davis campus, a solid waste supervisor allegedly sped his truck toward 16 students and workers picketing on the campus, slamming on the brakes close enough to some picketers that they scattered in fear. He got out of his vehicle, yelled at picketers and pushed some of them, according to the complaint.
He got back into his vehicle, ran it toward the picketers again, then braked again, jumped out of his vehicle and picked up the handle of a picket sign and swung it like a baseball bat. He got back into his car and drove away.
UC campus police responded and took a report, but the supervisor continued to work with AFSCME-represented employees after they returned to work. It was only after video surfaced on Facebook of the incident that the supervisor left his position.
In February 2018 at UC Berkeley, an AFSCME-represented cook was one of a number of picketers faced with an angry motorist who tried to accelerate through a crowd. Campus police grabbed the cook, threw him to the ground, arrested him and charged him.
He was held for several hours before AFSCME attorneys got him out. The charges were dropped against him only after several national political figures expressed dismay. The man had been a regular picketer, but he has not hit the picket line since then.
At UC Merced, managers have given an AFSCME-represented custodian, who also sits on the union’s executive and bargaining committees, unfavorable work assignments and have written her up for talking about union activities with coworkers prior to work. The worker tried but failed to get transfers, and eventually took an unpaid medical leave due to emotional distress.
Such actions, taken together with the UC communications, combine to create “a very hostile brew,” Bruno said.
“The fact that it’s actually happening on different campuses raises its threat level because it looks similar and it appears coordinated,” Bruno said. “These actions are happening in different places, but they’re really not so disparate because they’re all under the control of the employer. They all grow out of a common dispute, and the elements of each are similar.”
AFSCME 3299, which has 24,000 members, represents many of UC’s lowest-paid staff. They include service workers such as custodians, gardeners, food service workers and facilities maintenance staff, in addition to patient-care workers such as medical transcribers, phlebotomists, admitting clerks and respiratory therapists.
The union and UC have been negotiating for two years, and since contracts expired, AFSCME has authorized walkouts May 7-9, 2018; Oct. 23-25, 2018; and March 20.
The union filed a prior PERB complaint against the UC system in September 2018, saying the Office of the President was not sharing contact information for new employees in a timely manner in violation of AB 119 and had used communications with employees to discourage union membership in violation of SB 866.
If the union wins on these complaints, Bruno said, AFSCME-represented workers can argue that their strike is not just about wages or benefits but also involves unfair labor practices by their employer.