Following the successful strike by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 on April 14, the University Professional and Technical Employees CWA 9119, the union representing the University of California research assistants and technical employees, held a UC-wide strike on Thursday, May 26. UPTE workers at UCI gathered at the Humanities Star Plaza.
UPTE has been in contract negotiations with the UC since March of 2004, though the bargaining talks regarding the terms of their contract have yet to come to fruition.
The result is the current deadlock, with UPTE representatives using a one-day strike to push the talks forward while the UC Office of the President is pushing for the talks to be mediated by the state.
Adding to the controversy is the fact that the UC has deemed the UPTE strike illegal, unlike the AFSCME strike that occurred a little over a month ago.
According to UPTE Acting President Pam Sutherland, the strike is legal because they are striking due to unfair labor practices rather than the lack of progress at the bargaining table.
However, since UPTE and the UCOP are in the process of ongoing negotiations, The UCOP has classified UPTE’s strike as illegal and dismissed UPTE’s claims that the strike is a response to unfair labor practices.
‘It is unlawful to strike … while negotiations are ongoing,’ said UCOP spokesperson Noel Van Nyhuis.
Each party also feels that the other is guilty of breaking bargaining done in good faith. By refusing to present an acceptable contract to UPTE, the union claims that the UCOP has been stalling in negotiations.
UPTE further claims that for the last 15 years salaries have not risen to match inflation, a situation similar to the one AFSCME employees were faced with. UPTE would like to see a contract with salaries increased to match rising inflation as well as a ‘step system’ of raises allowing all technical and professional employees to receive fixed pay increases that match inflation.
During the last round of bargaining sessions UPTE was presented with a contract that had significantly less funding than AFSCME’s contract, and less certainty.
‘It also included a provision that [the pay raise] is subject to the state budget,’ Sutherland said.
According to Sutherland, this provision would allow for the pay raises to be zero.
Additionally, UPTE feels that the UC has been able to fund pay raises over the last few years but has simply chosen not to do so. Instead, the UC has been diverting funds meant for systematic pay increases for the workers to pay for equipment purchases, causing the workers’ salaries to be 30 percent behind the market over the course of 15 years.
Van Nyhuis responded to the issue of stagnant salaries by citing ongoing state budget cuts and the fiscal crises that have plagued California for several years as reasons for the slow increases.
According to Van Nyhuis, UPTE feels that good-faith negotiations have been broken by the UCOP due to the unacceptable proposals that have been passed to them at the bargaining table. The UCOP maintains that UPTE’s strike is simply a way of trying to ‘pressure the University at the bargaining table with a strike, which we take very seriously.’
The UCOP also feels that basing the strike on claims of unfair labor practices is unreasonable, since an unfair labor practice suit can be filed at any time.
‘The unfair labor practice charges are nonsensical and have no foundation … We have confidence that in a hearing, the outcome will be favorable to the UC,’ Van Nyhuis said.
UPTE’s continued resistance to bringing in an independent state mediator has also weakened negotiations among the two, according to Van Nyhuis.
Despite the controversial strike, both sides have already planned to return to the bargaining table in an attempt to reach a compromise. While the strike revolves around low wages, the issue has broader significance that stems from the highly trained and experienced research assistants and technical employees leaving the UC system for the private sector.
‘When this happens a research lab loses all the experience that person carried with them, and no replacement, regardless of their qualifications, is able to immediately step into the job,’ Sutherland said. ‘This results in a decrease in the quality of the research done, damaging the UC’s reputation as a leader in research institutions across the globe.’