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UPTE-CWA and AFSCME workers are holding a one-day strike March 20 not just over wages and benefits, but over a larger social struggle for dignity in their work

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

The two major unions that represent about 40,000 workers at the University of California plan a one-day strike after months of months of failed negotiations. The unions, UPTE-CWA and AFSCME, represent a wide range of workers, from psychologists and art therapists to cooks, gardeners, and security guards. The union struggles are about wages and job security, but they’re about more than that. They’re about income, gender, and racial disparities that take place in jobs in that university system, along with low wages and job outsourcing.

We’re joined today by Joaquin Chavez, who is an audiovisual technician at UC Davis, and vice president of UPTE-CWA Local 9119 representing, 16,000 workers, technical, research, and healthcare workers, at the University of California. Joaquin, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Great to be here, Marc.

MARC STEINER: So take us back a little bit. I understand that in the last year there have been two sets of failed negotiations, two walkouts, by both your unions, each supporting the other union. Talk about, very quickly, about that history, and what’s leading up to this walkout on Wednesday of next week.

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Right. Well, we began negotiations ourselves back in May of 2017 for research and technical workers, and for the healthcare workers shortly after. So we went on strike in May and October of last year. We were joined by AFSCME 3299 in that first strike in May, and once again in October. The California nurses actually joined us for the May strike last year, and settled their own contract with the university.

MARC STEINER: So talk about the differences with these unions. I mean, the other university systems have one union representing lots of people, all kinds of different work. But you have several different unions here. Talk just real quickly about what the differences are between your unions and who you represent.

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Well, it’s interesting, because the the history of workers in unions at the University of California is a bit complex, and there have been some fractures historically and some recombinations. And as a result we have a lot of different unions representing workers at the UC system. So across the state we have our union, which represents a lot of people who do frontline work in technical support, in research, and of course the healthcare workers, as well. And we represent particularly licensed healthcare professionals, people doing work in primary research, whether it’s bench chemists, things like that. And of course, a lot of people who do attend to the various technical functions that support those three missions, both for education and research as well as for patient care, the UC health system.

MARC STEINER: And the other union, AFSCME, represents more low-wage workers. Is that right? Or is that incorrect?

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Well, there’s a lot of overlap. And actually, a lot of our workers work side by side doing very similar jobs. So we see a broad range of different classes of workers across both of our unions. And in that sense we’re very similar. We have that shared history.

MARC STEINER: And so you’re supporting one another and your walkouts. You’re working collectively on this issue. So let me ask a couple of very specific questions here. The university itself–and respond to this statement. The university said through their spokeswoman, Claire Doan, that UPTE leaders have neither represented a realistic counteroffer, nor have they let their members vote on UC’s proposals. And the university has offered, apparently, to your union, a 3% wage increase from 2020 to 2023; a one-time payment of $1250 once the contract is ratified, and a $25 cap on healthcare premiums with UC’s Kaiser and HealthNet blue and gold plans. So that’s their offer. Why is that insufficient? And how do you respond to their representation that you have not allowed your own workers to vote on this, and nor have you come up with a counteroffer that makes any sense?

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Well, the first problem with what Claire Doan said was just a narrow point. But they’ve misrepresented the kind of offer that they actually gave to us on February 13. And they’ve claimed that there are two additional years of raises in their in their communications with the public, which is not accurate, and it’s not found in the actual offer that they sent.

But that’s just the narrow point. The major problem has been that UC has been unwilling to recognize the service and dedication that people pay by choosing to work at the UC system itself. So a lot of people work at the University of California knowing that they could earn a lot more money in private industry, and they do it because they believe in the public mission. Many of us are UC alumni. And so we have a certain attachment to the institution and a dedication to its mission. I myself turned down a job which would have paid me 50% more so I could continue doing the kind of work.


JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Because I cared about doing that kind of primary support for education. So I do audiovisual technical service for classrooms. I make sure that students have working technology in the rooms, that they can see projections from their teachers, so that they can have audio, they can have microphones in a lot of our large, you know, various large lecture halls. It’s necessary to have sound reinforcement. I do that kind of work, which may not be as visible, and it may not be as recognized as some of the primary work in education. But it’s crucial for the educational experience of students.

MARC STEINER: So what is it that the unions want that the university is not giving, is what I’m trying to get to.

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: There are a few problems. And one of the primary issues that we’re dealing with is that the UC system underfunded their pension system for about 20 years. And rather than make up for the difference which they themselves were responsible for, in our last round of contract negotiations several years ago we were not prepared to engage in the same kind of fightback that we’ve been doing over the last couple of years. And so we were forced to accept certain concessions. And our workers sacrificed a lot of personal income in order to continue their retirement, and in order to bring the pension system back to health.

So the UC is coming back, even though we have restored the health of that pension system, and they’re trying to get us to accept a two-tier retirement plan that would sell out all the future workers, and force them to work five more years just to have the same kind of benefits that their co-workers have paid into the system for.

MARC STEINER: I just had a couple of things here. One was that–two other issues here. One was that, in terms of what you’re talking about now, that the state auditor criticized the UC system because they did not report the actual surplus they had. I think some of the argument workers are making is that some of that surplus could have gone into giving the workers what they need for retirement, and more, and that the wage disparities are just huge at the university. So talk about those two issues, real quick.

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Right. Well, it’s been consistent in negotiations. And the university, to their credit, has been honest about this, is that they say that money is not an obstacle for them. They have all of the money in the system. They’re awash with cash. They can pay for the kinds of demands that would help our members just keep up with the rising cost of living so that they can have a chance to actually live near to where they work, and have a decent–just a decent standard of living themselves. And I’m sorry the second part of your your question again was-

MARC STEINER: Using that surplus and being able to use that surplus for your pensions, for other things. They actually were criticized by the state for not being honest about how much money they really had in surplus. Correct?

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: That’s correct.

MARC STEINER: So–and one of the things that I find really interesting about this union push from both your unions is that this is beyond just wages. This has to do with gender discrimination, racial discrimination inside the system in terms of who gets advanced, who doesn’t get advanced, how much people are paid who are white, for the most part white men, and how much other people are being paid. And the whole role of gender or racial discrimination, where black women are literally at the bottom of the totem pole of the university system. And University says–their quote was, the quote is that “The diversity of the university’s workforce is one of its great strengths. UC is committed to recognizing and nurturing talent, dedication, and achievement by supporting diversity and equal opportunity.” Clearly you’re saying this is one of the major demands of your unions. They’re not meeting that goal.

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: That’s right. Many members of our union actually see those kinds of disparities–gender disparities, racial disparities, playing out between, you know, various members even within the union, and not to mention between management and non-union workers.

So what what we’ve seen in particular, and probably the most offensive instance of this, is just that the university actually wants to strip away our right to use the grievance process to defend our own members in cases of sexual harassment. They want to funnel everything into what has been a very troubled and very problematic Title IX process rather than allowing workers to actually defend each other in those kinds of cases of workplace abuse.

MARC STEINER: The dark hole of Title IX, where everything gets lost and forgotten. And so this walkout you’re doing on Wednesday 20, is that correct?

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: That’s correct.

MARC STEINER: So talk about that walk. It’s almost 40,000 workers walking out of the university system. Why are you walking out that day? Where do you think this is taking your unions and the workers?

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: We’re striking on March 20 specifically because the UC has not bargained in good faith over these last couple of years. When we see that the negotiations are just a facade for the kind of power plays that UC management is trying to make, then we realize that the only thing that’s really going to put a stop to it is the unity and militancy of the members themselves.

So we’re trying to put a stop to the kinds of cutbacks that they’re trying to impose. And not just the retirement and healthcare benefits, but also the wages. Their offers are not enough to keep up with the cost of living, which increases very rapidly all throughout California. So not just those offenses against our dignity, like trying to make us more vulnerable to cases of sexual harassment, but also just the material conditions that allow us to do the work that we care about in the UC.

MARC STEINER: It seems that many of these demands you’re making are not what people think of as traditional union demands of just wages. You’re talking about serious discrimination around class, racial, and and gender issues, which I think sets this apart. And what do you think that means, as we close here, about the future of unions, and where this strike may be taking your union, and the entire union struggle?

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Every struggle, whether it’s a class struggle, whether it’s a struggle for social justice in terms of gender identity, racial identities, and other marginalized kinds of dynamics that we have in our society, all of these struggles all share the common component of fighting to force the system to respect the full humanity of you as people, whether we’re talking about classes of workers who are fighting for the kind of living standards that will actually allow them to live with dignity in their communities; or whether we’re talking about respect on the job; respect for women who have been subject to tremendous abuse historically, in and out of the workplace, and having the freedom to be able to go to work and earn a wage that’s comparable to their male peers; whether we’re talking about the kind of effect that unions have fortunately had in terms of addressing, to a significant extent, certainly not as much as we would like, but to a significant extent, the disparities of wages and working conditions on the basis of race.

These are all struggles for dignity and for humanity. And so when our workers are deciding to take a stand on the basis of their, you know, their really experienced class position, where they are actually fighting what is, you know, a board of billionaires, the UC Board of Regents, their ability to treat the university as a profit center, and whether that is dealing with those kind of personal and more intangible issues that involve one’s real sense of respect and humanity, or whether we’re talking about the larger sort of fight between workers and capitalists as a class, this is all a struggle for us to try and fight for the kind of society that we want to live in. And so this may be just a one-day strike, but it’s one step in a much larger social struggle.

MARC STEINER: Joaquin Chavez, thank you so much for joining us. Appreciate you taking the time. And we’ll look forward talking to you after your walkout and see what transpires after that. Good luck.

JOAQUIN CHAVEZ: Absolutely. Thank you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: You’re listening to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.