“What do we want? Fair contract! When do we want it? Now!”
Braving cold, wind, and rain, UCSF workers from both UPTE-CWA 9119 (University Professional and Technical Employees) and their AFSCME Local 3299 (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) supporters chanted as they picketed outside the UCSF Mission Bay campus on Wednesday morning at 6 a.m. While the strike only lasts one full day, hundreds of appointments have been rescheduled and temporary staff has been leaned on to fill the gaps.
AFSCME and UPTE healthcare professionals gave notice of their participation in the one-day strike in solidarity with researchers and technicians after they supported AFSCME in its own struggles with the UC system last year. It’s a strike that’s been happening statewide; U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined striking workers at UCLA days after his campaign staffers unionized. And it’s happening across multiple industries: Construction workers slated to work on the new Golden State Warriors arena in San Francisco also vowed to stop work at 7 a.m. and avoid crossing the picket line in solidarity with UPTE and AFSCME.
“I’ve been out here since 4 a.m. I have a two-hour commute,” says one AFSCME worker who’s been at UCSF for 10 years, and who asked not to be named. “We’re not only fighting for equality, but we’re fighting for our future, for patient quality, patient care.”
Since May 2017, when their contract expired, UPTE Research and Technical workers from all 10 University of California campuses have been fighting for better wages to keep up with the rising cost of living, an end to outsourcing labor, and a cap on rising healthcare costs, and an end to cutting pension benefits.
In those two years, UPTE and the UC have met 17 times, each time failing to come to an agreement. UPTE represents 13,000 professional and technical workers in the UC system, and is affiliated with the CWA, a union within the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO. Researchers and technicians oversee tasks such as running clinical trials and lab tests, maintaining hospital equipment, and taking care of animals used for research purposes.
Specific demands UPTE have made include a 25 percent raise over five years, improved job security, hiring more staff, and no cuts to their pensions. According to an UPTE Mar. 8 press release, UC negotiators made an offer on Feb. 13 for wage increases that were less than half of what they awarded nurses with the California Nurses Association union in September.
Two things AFSCME shares with its UPTE brethren are both the rising cost of healthcare and job insecurity brought on by the hospitals’ use of contract labor, says James Clark, a sterile processor and an executive board member of AFSCME who’s been at UCSF for eight years.
“Outsourcing is a number one problem here at UCSF,” he says. “Currently at UC Merced there have been hundreds of job outsourced to contractors, which rightfully belong to full-time employees. It’s more cost-efficient for the hospital. Most of my colleagues pay well over three-quarters of their net salary to rent apartments here in San Francisco. All we ask for is equal pay for equal work.”
While AFSCME and UPTE gave the UC a 10-day notice before striking, labor actions have been massively disruptive to patients and their families, says Sheila Antrum, the senior vice president and chief operating officer of UCSF Health.
“We’ve had to reschedule 650 outpatient appointments, and we’re running on a weekend/holiday reduced schedule, with reduced operations,” says Antrum, “We’re just taking it one strike at a time.”
Will Pearson, a cancer researcher at the Mission Bay campus, says that one consequence of the cuts to wages and benefits was its disruption to patient care.
“Retention is a huge problem,” he says. “Getting somebody to stick around at the university when they could be making twice as much in biotech, and also not be as short-staffed, it’s a hard sell.”
Another point of contention is that UC executives in charge of negotiation have admitted that their motivations for cost-cutting aren’t financial. Many of the workers SF Weekly spoke to pointed out that UC regents regularly receive bonuses while workers struggle to get by on non-competitive wages that don’t keep up with inflation.
“They tried to give us something called implementation, a two-percent raise,” says Clark. “But that’s nothing compared to the rising costs of healthcare today.”
“The pay and cuts that UC administrators are proposing to make will mean that people will have to leave, and we can’t keep good people around, and we can’t hire more. The quality of everything we produce will go down,” says Kelsey Zorn, a clinical research coordinator.
“The purpose of this strike is to disrupt daily operations, in order to demonstrate the value of our labor, and remind the UC regents who really gives the university the fantastic reputation that it has,” Zorn says. “The frontline workers are the reason that the institution has the reputation that it has, and we want to make the reality of the situation real to the people who are making these decisions.”