Always Remember That This University Belongs To Us

by Max Belasco

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I got the news last month in the same way many of my coworkers did—through a video the bargaining team shared on Facebook. The University of California (UC) had given our team its last, best, and final offer—and it was bad. No step increases in our pay—only the promise of a small raise if we accepted immediately all of the UC’s gutting of our healthcare and pension plans. The video was short but defiant, showing our bargaining team storming out of the meeting, chanting the popular “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” The message was clear—we were going back to the picket lines, for the third time since we started bargaining in May 2017. And the stakes could not be higher.

This time, however, is different. Because we are not joining the picket lines in solidarity with a coalition partner or allied union, as we had before. For the first time in our union’s history, the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) is calling our own economic strike. It will be the first time our union and our issues will be front and center, making our case to the rest of the university community and the public at large of what we believe the UC can be—a truly democratic public university whose achievements benefit the many, not the few.

It’s sometimes difficult to summarize exactly who UPTE is on campus—the history of workers and their unions in the UC system has many chapters that involve much fracturing and recombining, often bringing unlikely job units under the umbrella of one local. That quiltwork is on full display in UPTE. First, you have the healthcare workers in the hospitals—physical therapists, counselors, and other licensed health professionals that are responsible for the high quality care in the UC’s six health systems. Then you have the researchers—lab assistants, bench chemists, and staff researchers who ensure experiments are run, recorded, and analyzed all ahead of the next NIH funding deadline. Lastly you have my group, the technical workers—IT support professionals, systems administrators, and AV technologists who both ensure students receive high speed Internet on campus while at the same time help an emeritus professor with their PowerPoint. Whether you are receiving high quality care from one of the six UC health systems, or are benefitting from some technological breakthrough developed on a UC campus, there’s a good chance several UPTE members did most of the grunt work to make that happen.

This motley crew of job titles is hardly what one thinks of when imagining a militant, strike-happy rank and file union. And to be honest, our union had in years before earned a reputation for docility, for not pushing ambitious contract demands or mobilizing in massive numbers to take on the boss. The UC’s bad faith bargaining over the last couple of years is in part founded on the idea that we still are that docile union, that we’re not willing to put up a fight when being disrespected.

The truth is, our members have no choice. Gutted pension and health plans are not the only things at stake. The UC Regents have regularly used legal loopholes to offshore and outsource IT workers to companies like HCL, who has the UCSD Chancellor on its board of directors. Lab safety conditions, a full ten years after one of our own members died a gruesome death in a chemical fire, have failed to improve. While the UC will boast of the cutting edge research conducted at its nine campuses, it has no problem pushing the workers responsible for that research more and more to the brink of precarity.

But desperation is not what brings us to the picket lines today. For what the UC did not count on from UPTE was us using this contract campaign to build our union. Having elected a leadership with a vision to find and cultivate new leadership from the rank and file, we have brought together workers from every type of job unit available—botanists, physical therapists, museum stagehands—to create a unified message against the austerity measures the UC is attempting to push on us. Members who never saw themselves leading chants on a picket line are now finding their voice, and have been empowered to take a stand.

Along with our vision for our union, we also have a vision for the UC system. With our union siblings in AFSCME 3299—another union that covers a multitude of job titles across campuses—we have developed a unified front against pension and healthcare cuts. But we are now pushing for so much more. Along with our sister union AFSCME 3299 we have worked to center racial justice in our bargaining. We’re demanding that the UC abide by its promise of accessibility for its workers as well and reverse years of routinely paying UC workers of color 20 percent less than white workers performing the same tasks. We have both come out against the outsourcing of UC jobs, which has disproportionately affected workers of color on campus, while at the same time demanding that the UC stops collaborating with ICE and declare a sanctuary campus system. As our union has built power, our membership has been emboldened to take these contract demands to heart and make a better life for all in the UC community.

This contract campaign has transformed our union from a group of disparate job titles into a community committed to making a university system that realizes the best research and best healthcare requires labor from workers who are fairly compensated for their commitment to public education. We want the UC system to be the best it can be, and realize the way to realizing that is by wielding the power we have as those that make the UC work. It is that vision that brings us to the picket lines today, and will keep us coming out until we win a UC that works for us all.

Max Belasco is a rank-and-file member of UPTE-CWA at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of the Strikewave editorial collective.

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