Happy New Year! 2014 brings new energy to our continued struggle to win what we hope will be a historically powerful contract for academic student workers at the UC. But the fight is not over! As we gear up for another round of negotiations, let’s take a moment to look back on the groundwork we have laid so far.
After our last contract campaign, we set a direction for the union by democratizing our internal processes, empowering members at the campus level through steward networks, and focusing on quality of education and anti-discrimination issues. We created the Anti-Oppression Committee (AOC), an organizing group to address the many forms of oppression within and beyond our union. Building relationships with campus and community allies, we have fought our struggles on the ground, through the legislature, alongside faculty, and with alumni support. This new approach has proven to be a powerful new direction for our union.
Immediately following the state elections in 2011, our union redirected its energy towards supporting a bourgeoning student-led fight against skyrocketing student fees and debt at the UC. Linking up with undergraduate students, together, we reversed this trend and won the first tuition freeze in more than a decade, a freeze that continues today.
This past spring, our union fought to bring the UC in line with new standards of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including lifting caps on healthcare and prescriptions. Hearing from members who were diagnosed with serious illnesses, had surpassed these caps and been dropped from UC insurance, and had gone into debt to pay for life-sustaining healthcare, we knew that we needed to take action to prevent others from suffering the same fate. Citing a loophole in the Act, the UC, along with a handful of other large institutions, claimed that the school was exempt from adhering to the provisions outlined in the ACA. After many petitions, public hearings, and sit-ins at healthcare facilities around the state, our union built the support needed to push the UC into compliance with the ACA, restoring insurance and healthcare to many students in need. This win set an extremely significant precedent for many workers at other institutions who, citing our struggle, have also won the right to healthcare and medicine without arbitrary caps.
This feat gave us strength to fight for more historic protections in the context of our contract campaign. After receiving input from thousands of you from across the state about your contract priorities, in May, we made our demands public. In addition to bargaining for long-overdue wage increases that meet the rising cost of living, you strongly urged us to fight for a range of anti-oppression and social justice issues. Among these are wages for undocumented student workers—something surprisingly not guaranteed in our current contract; access to all-gender bathrooms to support our trans* and genderqueer communities in the most basic way; access to nursing and milk storage facilities for lactating student parents—a legal guarantee in California with which the UC is out of compliance; better childcare subsidies to help student workers with young family members; and smaller class sizes, a provision intended to stop the erosion of our working conditions and to protect the quality of undergraduate education. Many of these issues are unprecedented in our union’s previous contract campaigns, and your support of these demands and the communities they aim to protect has inspired us to use this contract campaign to educate and transform our university.
At the end of June, we kicked off negotiations and began a new tradition of “open bargaining.” For the first time in our union’s history, members have been encouraged to attend bargaining sessions, events that typically happen behind closed doors, and share our experiences and concerns with management and show our collective commitment to fighting for a better contract. The results have been surprising, with over 100 people showing up for a single session. Over the course of negotiations, we have heard many moving stories from unpaid and indebted undocumented student workers, overworked graduate students struggling to teach ever larger classes, trans* students who feel unsafe using UC restrooms, and impoverished student parents who pay up to 75% of their earnings for childcare. And to these individuals, management insists these are all signs that “the free market system [is] working.” We must work together to change this attitude.
Perhaps the single most significant event last year was the November 20 sympathy strike in which members of our union joined AFSCME 3299—our fellow UC union representing food service workers, groundskeepers, shuttle drivers, patient care workers, and janitors—at picket lines on each campus. Thanks to your overwhelming vote to support a strike should conditions merit one (over 96% across the state!) and in recognition that our struggle is inextricably bound with those of other campus workers, on November 20, we showed solidarity with these workers in their fight against the gutting of their wages and pensions and management’s intimidation and silencing tactics. This was, yet again, another historic step for our union, which has not taken such a bold action in over a decade and never before in solidarity with another union. Although the strike was not over our own contract demands, only days after the sympathy strike, management tentatively agreed to raise our wages from a 2% to 3% increase. Nevertheless, we still have a way to go to close the gap in compensation between the UC and comparable institutions.
To this partial list of momentous events, we could add countless sit-ins, rallies, petitions, teach-outs, and townhalls that have taken place on each campus in support of this contract campaign. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us in the coming months, particularly to build the power we need to make critical gains on our anti-oppression and social justice demands. At the UC, across the country, and elsewhere, many other unions have shared with us that they are following our contract campaign closely and rooting for us in the hopes that we will set important precedents for their struggles. It is up to all of us to continue to build this campaign in 2014 in support of teaching assistants, tutors, and researchers at the UC and beyond. Solidarity in 2014 and Always.