Thousands of unionized workers statewide will hit the picket line Wednesday at five University of California hospitals in a one-day strike over what they allege is a coordinated campaign of unfair labor practices designed to discourage labor participation and mute protesters.
“As UC’s employees have worked to voice concerns over outsourcing and income inequality over the last several months, the University of California has worked even harder to unlawfully silence those voices,” said Kathryn Lybarger, the president of AFSCME Local 3299, in a prepared statement. “Through illegal actions, UC has trampled state law and created an unwelcoming workplace that undermines workers’ ability to exercise their rights.”
Unions representing roughly 39,000 UC workers will picket the UC’s five academic hospitals from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, and their marches may occasionally delay traffic near UC Davis Medical Center, 2315 Stockton Blvd., in Sacramento. UCD leaders say they expect minimal impact, so patients should keep their appointments for surgeries and other procedures. The hospital will serve bag or box lunches to patients.
University of California spokeswoman Claire Doan released a statement saying that the AFSCME’s charges are merely a blatant attempt to justify yet another strike, the union’s fourth job action in the last 12 months. Union leaders will try – and again fail – to extract bargaining concessions from the university through economic pressure, Doan said, at the expense of students, patients and communities around the state..
“UC has focused on reaching an agreement, while AFSCME is intent on staging strikes,” Doan said. “We have offered numerous competitive proposals, all of which union leaders have rejected without allowing a member vote. Meanwhile, AFSCME leaders have not presented any substantive counteroffers since bargaining started in 2017.”
Two bargaining units of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced the strike March 29, shortly after filing a 71-page complaint about the UC’s actions with the Public Employment Relations Board. PERB enforces collective bargaining laws and regulations in California.
Labor expert Robert Bruno told The Sacramento Bee that the union’s allegations, if found to be true, are troubling because employees are being targeted on different campuses. That raises the threat level, he said, because UC officials’ communications and actions appear coordinated.
“These actions are happening in different places, but they’re really not so disparate because they’re all under the control of the employer,” said Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “They all grow out of a common dispute, and the elements of each are similar.”
In the PERB filing, leaders of AFSCME 3299 made a number of allegations, including that:
- Supervisors have rewarded unionized workers who cross the picket line with free meals and even a pool party.
- Management attempted to force out a UC Merced custodian who serves on the union’s bargaining committee by reprimanding her union activity and dealing out unfavorable work assignments. The worker took an unpaid leave, citing work-related stress.
- In a private meeting, a UC San Diego supervisor encouraged workers to “give themselves a raise” by opting out of AFSCME membership.
- Various UC representatives have attempted to instill fear in union members with physical confrontation.
In a February 2018 demonstration at UC Berkeley, pickets faced down an angry driver attempting to accelerate through the crowd, the PERB complaint alleged. UC police grabbed one of the pickets and threw him to the ground to arrest him, according to the filing. Charges were dropped against the picket, but he has not returned to a picket line since then, the complaint said.
On Oct. 25, 2018, AFSCME pickets reported to UC Davis police that a manager twice charged his vehicle at them and then exited the vehicle to yell at them and shove some strikers, the complaint said.
UCD spokesperson Melissa Lutz Blouin stated that a UCD employee parked near pickets who were blocking the driveway to the Tercero Dining Common when a delivery truck arrived. She said university police responded to the scene but were not able to get witnesses to provide information on what occurred.
A single AFSCME representative later made a report to the campus police, Lutz Blouin said, but police said it did not contain enough information to investigate. They did provide the information they received to the Yolo County district attorney, she said.
A video showing some of the alleged confrontation later appeared on Facebook, Lutz Blouin said, but AFSCME officials would not supply the raw footage to campus police or to the university. The Bee requested a copy from Davis-United Students Against Sweatshops, the group who runs a page where it is posted, but none has been provided.
- Human resources executives and other UC leaders have sent out communications to employees telling them union strikes are undermining patient safety at UC’s academic medical centers.
Before each strike, AFSCME noted, it has voluntarily left more workers on duty than PERB required, and it has set up a contingency plan to allow the UC to call in additional workers in the event of an emergency. The complaint said UC officials have not returned requests to meet and discuss preparations.
This complaint was AFSCME’s second to PERB alleging that UC is violating state labor laws. In September 2018, AFSCME told PERB that UC officials were stymieing union access to contact information for new employees in violation of AB 119 and discouraging union membership in violation of SB 866.
AB 119 contains a provision requiring public-sector employers to provide unions with employees’ contact information, including their names, personal email addresses and personal cellular telephone numbers. SB 866 requires that public-sector employers meet and confer with union representatives about the content of some communications distributed to employees. If the union delegate disagrees with the content of communications, SB 866 requires the employer to include a union statement that will be distributed with its communication.
The state Legislature passed the laws in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME ruling, which prevents public-sector unions from requiring employees to pay dues. The high court said such a requirement violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.
AFSCME Local 3299 has been negotiating for two years with the UC over new contracts, and the last contracts for the union local’s two bargaining units expired more than a year ago. Negotiations have reached an impasse, and the UC unilaterally has imposed contract terms that include a 2 percent cost-of-living increase.
AFSCME 3299 represents 24,000 patient care and service workers, many of them among UC’s lowest-paid staff. Their number includes custodians, gardeners, food service workers, facilities maintenance staff, medical transcribers, phlebotomists, admitting clerks and respiratory therapists.
They voted to give their union leadership the authority to call strikes, union officials said, and AFSCME leaders did so last year in May and October. In March, AFSCME leaders authorized a strike in sympathy with the research, technical and health care workers in UPTE-CWA 9119.
The 15,000 members of the University Professional and Technical Employees-Communications Workers of America have approved sympathy strikes with AFSCME employees, and they will be picketing Wednesday as well. UPTE-CWA represents such workers as art therapists, case managers, audiologists, animal technicians, lab assistants, art models and pharmacists on the UC’s 10 campuses and five medical centers.
The unions told The Bee that their bargaining teams have sought concessions that would limit outsourcing of jobs, a subject explored in a 2017 report by State Auditor Elaine Howle, and increase wages by as much as 8 percent annually, including step increases when employees advance to new grades.
UC officials said such increases would far outstrip the annual 3 percent wage increases it has agreed to pay nurses and other employees, but AFSCME contract negotiators say the UC could afford to give its lowest-paid workers a meaningful pay increase if it wasn’t paying exorbitant salaries to executives. In 2017, Howle’s office reported that UC executive and administrative salaries outstrip those of their peers in comparable positions in other university systems, something the UC Office of the President told the auditor it already had begun to address.
Bruno said it is not uncommon for management and labor unions to reach an impasse in negotiations, look for ways to break it, and forge a compromise.
“Even when it looks like there’s no solution possible, that you couldn’t possibly find a way forward,” he said, “certain dynamics can enter the picture that cause the parties to see the dispute differently. They frame things in a different way, and all of a sudden, a solution appears.”