Debate over outsourcing, equity as UC workers strike

The University of California this week is weathering its second strike in a year, the latest skirmish in an ongoing conflict over how the state’s third-largest employer should treat its workers in an era of tight education budgets.

The strike illustrates a dilemma facing public universities across the country: They’re being asked by lawmakers to do more with less as campaigns such as the Fight for 15 put pressure on them to increase wages.  Low-paid service and technical workers want to negotiate raises. But they also want to avoid losing their jobs to private contractors should the university then turn to outsourcing to cut labor costs.

AFSCME 3299, the 25,000-member local representing patient care and service workers at the university’s 10 campuses and five hospitals, has long railed against outsourcing that it says robs local communities of what would otherwise be living-wage jobs.

As members in its patient care unit, which include radiology and operating room technicians along with nurse’s aides, walked off the job Tuesday, the union shared data with CALmatters that representatives said showed racial and gender inequities in job advancement at UC—problems they said were exacerbated when the university contracts out. The strike is set to last through Thursday.

“These are the kinds of jobs that have historically been the ladder to the middle class for marginalized communities,” said Owen Li, the AFSCME researcher who compiled the report. “Everyone who’s concerned about racial equality should take seriously their disappearance.”

The university, however, called those concerns a smokescreen for what the union really wants: a salary bump for its members of eight percent per year. (AFSCME says it’s asking for six.)

“The main sticking point is wages, period,” university spokesperson Claire Doan said in an email. “Everything else AFSCME leaders are trying to bring into the fold is to distract from the fact that they are making unreasonable and unrealistic demands about wages.”

The university’s 15,000 patient care workers voted to strike after their collective bargaining contract expired in December and they were unable to agree with management on a new one. The strike also affected academic campuses as custodial staff represented by AFSCME and professional staff in the University Professional and Technical Employees union staged picket lines in solidarity.

Doan said the university has offered wage increases of three percent per year over four years, the same boost it recently agreed to with the politically powerful California Nurses Association. It has also faced public pressure to contain costs and tuition increases while serving an increasing number of Californians.

At UC Davis Medical Center on Wednesday, hundreds of workers in green T-shirts emblazoned with “We Run UC,” marched, chanted and even staged an impromptu dance party.

Catherine Keyes, a food services worker at the hospital, said she and her coworkers make breakfast for 500 patients daily, a job she’s held since 1992. But she often has to take outside catering gigs to make ends meet.

Now in her sixties, Keyes said she worries that her job could be outsourced, or her pension benefits be cut: “Who wants to hire you when you’re 62?”

UC has been plagued by labor strife this year, with union-led protests disrupting meetings of its board of regents and a service workers’ strike in May that failed to lead to a settlement.

The new report from AFSCME finds that white men working in service and patient care jobs at the university are less likely to be fired, more likely to be promoted and earn bigger salary bumps after changing jobs than workers of color.  Based on payroll data the union obtained through public records requests, it follows a previous labor-funded study, Pioneering Inequality, that outlined race- and gender-based pay gaps among that workforce.

Doan declined to comment on the report, but said UC “takes issues of fairness and equity very seriously.”

“While UC is not immune to the societal issues referenced by AFSCME, we have mechanisms in place to respond swiftly to instances of unfairness,” she added.

AFSCME representatives say their numbers show black men and women working in the job categories they studied lost their jobs at nearly twice the rate of white men from 2013 through 2017. The union can’t prove those job losses were due to outsourcing, said Li. But he said that the proportion of contracted workers who are black is similar to the percentage of UC employees who were a decade ago, indicating workers may be rehired in less-secure positions.

It’s an issue that resonates at a time when gentrification is shifting demographics in the pricey areas where many UC campuses are located.

UC disputes that outsourcing is displacing union employees. The university says spending on campus service contracts with private companies has stayed flat over the last five years, while the number of AFSCME-represented UC employees has grown by 14 percent for service workers and 19 percent for those employed in patient care.

All workers at the university, including those employed by private contractors, must earn at least $15 per hour under a policy that took effect last year.

But last year, California’s state auditor found UC had not been complying with its own policies meant to prevent worker displacement, and that contracted service employees such as janitors and security guards were earning on average nearly $4 less per hour than their UC-employed counterparts.

For years, Harvard University has solved that problem by requiring its labor contractors to offer the same wages and benefits as equivalent university jobs. Efforts by the California legislature in recent years to impose a similar requirement on UC have failed, with the university arguing compliance would cost the public institution tens of millions of dollars at a time when it is also trying to serve increasing numbers of students.

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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