Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Unions in Action

By Saeideh Golji

Hundreds marched down the streets of LA on Nov. 19, 2009 holding banners and chanting slogans. The Regents had just made the decision for a 32% fee increase and outside protesters were speaking out, their faces filled with rage and their voices strong with numbers. Scattered throughout were posters and signs sending messages like 'No Fee Hikes' and 'A Democracy Needs Education for the Masses not the Elite'. One young woman had stripped down to her undergarments with a sign covering her front and back reading 'I Sold My Cloths To Pay Tuition'. Reporters and journalists followed along the protesters documenting the day as it happened and interviewing students. At the front, leading the direction of the rally, were four people holding up a green banner reading "CUT THE PERKS! NOT WHAT WORKS" followed by smaller font reading "AFSCME 3299". Students and workers had united in speaking up against the University's measures to cut coasts and save money.

The University is looking to save around $800 million dollars across all campuses to even out the budget. Measures have taken place resulting in the libraries having a total $4 million cut to work around, the library staff having to accept a furlough plan, and lecturers and campus workers seeing layoffs. A number of unions at UCI have been working together helping one another in their efforts to counter these cuts. These unions include UPTE, University Professional and Technical Employees; UC-AFT, the American Federation of Teachers, on the UCI campus they represent the librarians and lecturers; UAW 2865 representing readers, tutors, and TAs; and AFSCME 3299, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, on UCI campus they represent the service unit.

The most visible form of fighting back the unions have taken on has been protests and rallies. The first sight of protests on the UCI campus was in front of Aldrich Administration Building on Wednesday, July 15th 2009, when members of the unions UC-AFT, AFSCME, and UPTE demonstrated what was at that point just a threat of major cut backs. Once furloughs had been imposed members of UPTE held UC campus wide walkout on September 24, 2009, the first day of fall quarter, protesting what they claimed to be unfair negotiations.

Soon after in an interview with New York Times the UC President, Mark Yudof made a comment saying “being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening”. This sparked a zombie-protest organized by DefendUCI, a collision of students and the unions UPTE, AFSCME, and AFT. The union’s ultimate protests were at the regents meetings on November 18th and 19th. Members from all unions and students showed up in support for each other as a united front.

Aside from helping mobilize people and students with rallies and protests, the unions have been active behind the curtains, trying to ease the effects of the UC budget cuts. Two of these unions include: UC-AFT, AFSCME 3299.

Just last year, after years of fighting, negotiators for AFSCME 3299 managed to secure a contract for better living wages for their employees. The victory was short lived as budget cuts and layoffs instantly took back all the ground the negotiators gained. The first 12 individuals to be layoff on the UCI campus due to the budget cuts were groundskeepers, members of their union. Aside from fighting off 9 of those 12 layoff notices this union has been fighting for the 35 groundskeepers working side by side their employees for years but not yet considered university employees. As of Jan 1st all the members are seeing a decrease of work hours and a pay cut. Juan Vazquez, a union organizer for AFSCME 3299, claims that the University is "using the economic crisis as an excuse, we [AFSCME 3299] found that they're financially stable to weather the storm without having to make these cuts and yet they're still doing it". He mentioned UC Riverside has been the only campus to open their financial records, revealing millions of dollars spent on executive travel. AFSCME 3299 has offered an alternative budget plan that protects students and employees and redirects fund reductions to places that can afford them. This plan includes the following recommendations:

Reduce the top 2% of earners saving $220,000,000
Use short-term borrowing as a stop-gap saving $200,000,000
Utilize medical center profits saving $100,000,000
Restructure debt saving $75,000,000
Utilize unrestricted investments saving $50,000,000
Cut wasteful spending saving $40,000,000

The entire report can be downloaded here. This alternative budget plan has also been endorsed by UC-AFT. UC-AFT has also compiled a list of five demands of their own that ask for the UC administration to:
1) Stop the fee hikes. The report claims that “undergraduates are now subsidizing everyone else, and yet the administration continues to cut undergrad courses and programs”.
2) Overturn the cuts that have been made in regards to layoffs and pay cuts.
3) Look at more progressive solutions to fix the budget like “borrowing money from the medical centers and sharing profits between units and reducing administrative units”.
4) Keep a ‘transparent budget’.
5) And finally, treat all the unions with justice.
(Full report can be seen here)
Unfair “union busting and bargain in good faith” can be seen within the UC-AFT union. According to UC AFT Vice President Mitchell Brown, their union has taken a negotiation strategy, a strategy also mentioned by Juan Vazquez. Brown claimed that there have been "small victories, never a big success. We managed to come to agreements in the negotiation process with the Office of the President not to cut librarian positions, protecting staffing, but we had to accept the furlough plan". The furlough plan mandates that librarians take unpaid leave, adding up to 7-12% of their annual salary or about a month’s salary. AFT was not able to negotiate a similar solution for the lectures resulting in a total loss of 43 lecturers on the UCI campus. It seems to come down to accepting furloughs or resisting them, and my resisting furloughs members become subjected to temporary layoffs.

Although the Regents have made their decision, the unions have not lost hope. According to Audrey Brunier, a union organizer for UAW 2865, though sometimes with different tactics unions will continue their negotiations “to expand funding to higher education and to raise revenue from those who can afford it not students and workers”, and their common ground in protests and rallies to “stand together and stand firm, making some kind of impact that way”.

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