In the most recent study of UC demographics, published by University of California, women outnumbered men 2:1, and at UCLA 12% of workers are African American, 28% are Latinx, and 25% are Asian American.
However, contrary to the UC system’s cultivated image of social progressivism and diversity, a recent union study titled “Pioneering Inequality” revealed that on average, Latinx and Black workers earned starting salaries that are around 20% less than white men. Average starting wages for women are about $2 less per hour than men.
While the highest ranking coaches, doctors, and executives employed by UC are paid over $1 million a year, starting wages for service workers begin at $15 an hour. While today this wage is barely enough to survive on, heightened by increasing rent and gentrification, AFSCME was the organization that founded this UC minimum wage in the first place. The AFSCME union has a history of organizing strikes, and while it began as a small, local group in Wisconsin, scared of losing their jobs to “political patronage,” it has become a leading lobbying group with over 1 million members. According to Triton News, the last UC strike was just four years ago, and resulted in increased wages and benefits for the workers. However, despite this previous win, the struggles are not over for these union members.
Anger stemming from the unjust statistics culminated in a three day strike in which UCLA service workers joined over 20,000 other AFSCME union members, along with local hospital workers and students, in a California-wide walkout. The strike was a response to the UC system’s failure to comply with the union’s request for adequate working standards. As stated by UCLA’s “FEM” magazine, workers are demanding “improved job security, pension protection, affordable healthcare, and fair wages.” The request included an annual pay raise of 6%, a freeze on health care premiums, and a halt on the increase in hiring of non-union workers. Despite striking statistics and student’s intimate connection to these workers, the UCLA student body, myself included, is surprisingly uneducated on these issues.
As a UCLA student, I first heard about the strike just days before it happened. Although the absence of service workers would directly affect me, my peers living in the dorms, and every other UC student, the general campus population seemed to know little about the specific reasons for the strike. A group chat of a friend of mine exemplified this lack of knowledge. One initial text from someone in the chat read: “Does anyone know what the strike is for exactly? I’ve heard like five different reasons so I don’t know what their platform is, other than they are against UC.” In just moments multiple people in the group chat conveyed similar confusion with texts of agreement.
So what really are the personal and group-wide strike platforms? Why is the UC system, supposedly a symbol of diversity and progress, under siege for purportedly denying basic working rights to their employees, many of whom are women and people of color? And why does our student body know so little about the strike?
One of the workers I spoke to, a campus dining hall worker, preferred to remain anonymous, explaining that supervisors had confronted and intimidated workers that had publicized their names in interviews. She believed that UCLA and the supervisors and managers themselves had purposefully been keeping strike-related information away from the public. She believes that the aforementioned people in power wanted to keep it a secret and explained that she was even told by a manager that she should not be talking to students about what is going on.
Nevertheless, she has proudly participated in all three days of the strike. She explained that her engagement in the strike was in response to her outrage about the UC system cutting benefits for employers. “They make us pay for our own retirement plans,” she said. She went on to mention “75 percenters” who are paid less and denied the benefits of full time “100 percent” workers. The UC system is also hiring people from non-unionized agencies that they can pay much less. This woman drives 50 miles to and from work every day, and along with gas fees is required to pay for parking when she arrives. With rent and the expenses of supporting a family on top of travel costs, she feels that she is living paycheck to paycheck. “I have a lot of pride in UCLA and in giving you [students] the best I can give," she said.
Her daughter even plans to transfer to the university after finishing community college. Nevertheless, she also acknowledges that if UC does not meet their demands for livable wages and equal pay, AFSCME is prepared to take action again -- possibly for longer if necessary. Although she’s thankful for youth involvement, she hopes that in the future there will be more support from students as she sees service jobs as the backbone of the university and as an integral part of the entire community.
Iris Zelada, another UC service employee, also discussed how the strike served a great purpose. Zelada said they’re fighting “for everybody’s future,” and for a standard of equal treatment and fair pay from which young people will benefit.
“[Students and workers] have to be united... If we do not fight together we are not going to win... We have to be united! For our benefit, for our families, for students. If we don’t fight the university will take everything from us.”
Although she predicts the biggest changes will happen in the future, she is hopeful for progress in her own lifetime, as well. When she moved to the United States from El Salvador, she essentially had to start all over. Although she was a teacher back home, she saw her move as an opportunity to fulfill her dreams, and plans on finishing nursing school in June. She will continue helping young people, as she did as a teacher years ago and as a worker for UCLA now. Zelada expressed the importance of student involvement, stating, “We really appreciate student support and we have felt it a lot. United we can win, and I’m so happy for our kids.”
Admittedly, my initial reaction to being awoken by the chants and blow horns of the strikers was annoyance. Over the course of the strike, complaints about the food being served and the inconveniences the lack of services circulated widely, with some students even resorting to derogatory social media posts. However, as a UC student who benefits from the dedication of service workers and who recognizes the importance of fair treatment for every person on campus, I think it is vital that students support the people that keep our school functioning on a day to day basis. I pledge my solidarity with the strikers.
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE UC LABOR UNION STRIKE?
AND WHY DOES OUR STUDENT BODY KNOW SO LITTLE ABOUT IT?
By Simone Barber