“¡La gente unida jamas sera vencida!”
By Esmeralda Hic, UCI Student. May 29, 2018. Three days. 72 hours. UC on strike. UC Irvine workers belonging to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 (AFSCME) went on strike from Monday, May 7, through Wednesday, May 9. The workers were exercising their right to collective bargaining and ranged from custodial staff to landscaping to dining employees, truck drivers, lab technicians, and nurses. The strike was called for after months of AFSCME negotiation with the UC administration to approve a contract that includes an annual wage increase of six percent, prevents increases in healthcare premiums, and keeps the retirement age at 60. These workers are essential to the functionality of this campus. During the strike, students could see that without them, our institution begins to break down. The strike surfaced some of the ways that these workers’ livelihood and ability to thrive are compromised. It also brought into relief the ways that the well-being of the workers and the well-being of students and student success are linked.
Take our sustainability efforts as an example. UC Irvine has been ranked in Sierra Magazine as a top 10 “Cool School” for eight years in a row. We have invested in converting our hydrogen fuel cell buses to an all-electric fleet, we invest in making sure our new buildings are certified by the high standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. We invest in many such measures, sometimes at great expense. Yet we fail to invest sufficiently in the people who help hold it all together. Facilities management and custodial staff are essential to our sustainability efforts on this campus. As a student employee at the Global Sustainability Resource Center and an actively engaged student, I interact with facilities staff on nearly a daily basis. I have personally trained employees on sustainable practices in both English and Spanish. I have learned from them just as they have learned from me. I recognize their contributions and value our working relationships. I have learned about their families. The workers show me pictures of their children at their graduations. They tell me they are proud of me and all I have accomplished so far as a woman of color from a difficult background. Their support extends beyond their work duties and into a social support system for students at UCI. From my perspective, it is necessary for us to be there to support them in their fight as well.
UC workers are the backbone of our sustainability efforts at UCI. The truth is, these employees hold an expertise that most in the institution do not recognize. Without them, UC goals such as getting each campus to Zero Waste by 2020, are essentially unattainable. On our campus, facilities management staffs ten full-time employees. Ten people are responsible for sorting and properly disposing of all of the waste created on this 1,400 acre campus. All ten workers participated in the strike. Their participation forced facilities management to hire six temporary outsourced workers in order to prevent waste build up and maintain sanitation around campus. Due to the lack of labor, waste was not properly sorted, and, in many cases, all recyclable and compostable materials went to landfill.
Now let’s talk about the dining halls. The Anteatery and Pippin were hit hardest by the strike, losing nearly all its workers except student employees during the three-day strike. By the rules, student workers in Dining and Hospitality are normally limited to working at most 19.5 hours a week. This rule is in place to protect students from compromising their ability to succeed at school because of overwork. However, during the strike, which took place during midterm exams, student workers were “approved” to work up to 29 hours that week, with some students pulling double shifts after a long day of classes. Student workers were told they could not call out and were not made aware of their right to join their coworkers during the strike.
“We are supposed to be helping, not running the place,” said a frustrated Anteatery student employee. When I hear stories like this, it seems as though the UC’s failure to address adequately the concerns of the union workers comes with a compromise to student success.
UC employees and students are connected: you do not neglect one without neglecting the other. The rights of service workers and the rights of student workers go hand in hand. We must recognize how valuable our service workers are and the vital roles they play at the University. Without them, we begin to fall apart. This is not to suggest that protecting student success should be the sole driver for protecting the workers’ ability to thrive, but rather to highlight the fact that when the University fails to address the needs of one, they are failing to fulfill their promise to all. Respect the workers and support them. Recognize their value as not just employees but as people, with families and responsibilities, and keep the UC fair and functional. Si se puede.