This week, an important act of labor movement solidarity will be happening across California as graduate student employees in the University of California system walk off the job alongside service workers. While graduate students have their own labor concerns, they’re striking on November 20 in solidarity with their service worker counterparts, with the goal of sending a clear message to administration and members of the public: members of the labor movement stick together, and won’t stand for abuse.
The University of California system, once a crown jewel of public education in the United States, has been struggling with funding problems, management issues and labor relations for more than a decade as the state faces declining revenues and fiscal management problems. One of the consequences has been repeatedly stalled labor negotiations, with unions fighting to secure better working conditions and pay. AFSCME 3299, the union that covers service workers and UC hospital personnel, has been fighting particularly hard for better conditions and staffing, citing concerns about patient care in UC hospitals.
The union argues that in a strike earlier this year, UC personnel used intimidation and other tactics in an attempt to suppress the strike and retaliate against individual union members and organizers. Their May walkout surrounded unsafe staffing levels at UC medical facilities, an issue that should concern the public as well as the administration. This time around, union members are fighting back against unfair labor practices with the aim of getting back to the negotiating table and protecting their patients. Walking out twice in the same year over an unresolved problem is an unfortunate consequence of sluggishness on the part of the administration, but this strike is special.
When graduate student employees voted to authorize a strike in solidarity last week, their action made history. By standing in solidarity with other union employees, they’re helping to show a united face to the world, and they’re adding weight to an already significant protest. Between the two protesting groups, UC campuses will be effectively shut down, as service workers and graduate student employees play a significant role in keeping campuses running. If they can convince other workers as well as students to refuse to cross the picket line, UC campuses could end up looking like a ghost town.
Gilliam Chisom, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley articulates why she’s participating in the strike:
[O]ne of the major aims of the sympathy strike with the service workers is to help put pressure on the administration, given that we’re facing some of the same problems. It sounds to me like their situation is in many ways analogous to ours, in the sense that they’re also facing inadequate staffing levels, which adversely affect their working conditions as well as the well-being of the undergraduates. Personally, since I started teaching last year I’ve frequently experienced frustration at my inability to give my students the individual time and attention that they need and deserve. When we’re overworked and underpaid, it makes it harder for us to do our jobs effectively, and ultimately we pass that cost on to the undergraduates. In other words, being part of a university means that we’re all interdependent, which is why I think it’s important to support the service workers.
Service workers and graduate students alike are challenging the popular belief that unions only engage in labor actions for their own gain, as both are striking in the interest of the populations they serve. Their concerns revolve around the fact that pay cuts, understaffing and working pressures mean they can’t serve students and patients to the best of their abilities, and they aim to change that.
Photo credit: Andrew Ratto.