A massive labor strike across the University of California on Monday forced medical centers to reschedule more than 12,000 surgeries, cancer treatments and appointments, and campuses to cancel some classes and limit dining services.
More than 20,000 members of UC’s largest employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, walked off their jobs on the first day of a three-day strike. They include custodians, gardeners, cooks, truck drivers, lab technicians and nurse aides.
Two altercations involving protesters and people driving near the rallies were reported at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz. At UCLA, police took a man into custody Monday after he drove his vehicle into a crowd, hitting three staff members. They were treated for minor injuries at the scene and released, said Lt. Kevin Kilgore of the UCLA Police Department.
The system’s 10 campuses remained open, largely operating on regular schedules, and protests were peaceful and even festive.
At UCLA, workers marched through campus in green union shirts that said “We run UC” and held signs calling for equality, respect and more staff. Some brought children and walked dogs. Drivers honked in solidarity. Hundreds of workers rallied in front of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, taking taco breaks under green balloons.
Oscar Rubio, a UCLA food services worker, said that staffing at some dining hall stations has been cut from five workers to three, leading to more injuries for those who remain.
Top UC officials “make more money … while we suffer,” Rubio said. “We’re not asking to make like they make. We’re asking to support us enough to pay our rent.”
The walkout is expected to widen Tuesday, when two other unions will join sympathy strikes. About 14,000 members of the California Nurses Assn., who work at UC’s medical centers and student health clinics, are set to walk off their jobs, along with 15,000 members of the University Professional & Technical Employees, who include pharmacists, clinical social workers, physical therapists, physician assistants and researchers.
The union and university reached a bargaining impasse last year. Subsequent mediation efforts have failed to produce an agreement on wage increases, healthcare premiums and retirement terms. A recent union study on pay disparities angered workers, said AFSCME spokesman John de los Angeles. The study used UC data, union officials say, to show that starting wages of blacks and Latinos were about 20% lower than white workers in comparable jobs.
“The strong showing sent a clear message to administrators that our workers are very concerned about inequity and they’re willing to be on the picket line until UC comes up with a proposal to address their concerns,” De los Angeles said.
UC officials say they cannot confirm the study’s accuracy. They criticized the union’s demands, which include a multiyear contract with annual pay raises of 6%, no increase in healthcare premiums and continued full pension benefits at the retirement age of 60. The university is offering 3% annually over four years, which officials say is equal to raises given to other UC employees. UC also wants to raise the retirement age to 65 for new employees who choose a pension instead of a 401(k) plan and to raise monthly health insurance premiums by a maximum $25.
“Unfortunately, the only thing union leaders accomplished today is hurt the care we provide our patients and the services for our students,” UC spokeswoman Claire Doan said in an email Monday. “It will do nothing to change UC’s position on AFSCME’s unreasonable demands for excessive raises and benefits.”
At UC’s request, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order Friday barring certain essential employees, such as pharmacists and respiratory therapists, from participating in order to protect public health and safety. AFSCME also assembled a “patient protection task force” to respond to life-threatening emergencies.
UC’s five medical centers hired contract workers to fill in during the strike and scrambled to reschedule exams and treatments. UC San Francisco rescheduled more than 12,000 appointments for surgeries and treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation.
UC Davis rescheduled several hundred appointments, including more than 100 cancer surgeries and 150 radiology exams. But campus spokeswoman Kimberly Hale said 78% of UC Davis health workers showed up for work. UC San Diego directed emergency room patients to other hospitals.
At UC Santa Cruz, where more than 150 protesters assembled at both entrances Monday, Chancellor George Blumenthal canceled most morning classes. Services were limited for hours at the student health center and some libraries and dining halls. Santa Cruz Metro buses did not enter the campus, dropping riders off at the entrance.
Samuel Walcoff, a sophomore studying computer science, said he had to trek up the hills to get to his afternoon lab and scrounge for food.
“I’m not at all opposed to people protesting and striking, but to have students who are powerless pay the price is extremely unfair,” he said.
At UC Berkeley, however, freshman Ella Smith said she supported the workers even though there was no Peet’s Coffee service inside the Golden Bear Cafe.
“Us not getting our morning coffee does not compare to the injustice UC workers face due to the inequity and inequality in their work experience,” she said in an email.
Some faculty members chose to teach off-campus to avoid crossing the picket line or to use the strike to discuss labor rights.
Paul Spickard, a UC Santa Barbara professor, has invited striking workers to speak Tuesday to the more than 300 students in his modern world history class.
“The UC system has been starved of money by the state,” he said in an email. “We have chosen to pay even lower wages to staff … than to faculty. That is shameful. They are our colleagues and the university would not run without them.”
Reyna and Dennis Avila both work at UCLA Medical Center — he as a hospital assistant, she as a secretary, monitor technician and nurse’s assistant. To juggle their schedules with one car and different work shifts, the couple leave their home in Inglewood at 2:45 a.m. Dennis starts work at 4 a.m. while Reyna sleeps in the car until her shift begins at 7 a.m. He takes the car home, and she returns by bus.
Reyna said her pay increases over two decades at UCLA have not kept up with rising rent.
“It’s gotten harder to make ends meet,” she said.