By Alex Forghani
Union hospital workers protested on UCI Medical Center grounds Thursday afternoon in support of a wage-increasing and benefit-guaranteeing contract continuing its months-long negotiation phase.
Recent threats of cuts to healthcare and pensions saw sanitation and food service workers from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, Local 3299 and the professional medical personnel and technicians represented by the University Professional & Technical Employees union come together to ask the UC administration to conclude the extended negotiation battle in favor of UC employees.
ASUCI released a statement in support of the unions’ protest, asking Chancellor Howard Gillman to do the same.
“These workers put their lives on the line in order to fight to improve the UC system for the communities that are influenced and impacted by them; as students, we are responsible for showing up, supporting them, getting organized, and speaking up about the injustices perpetrated by the UC system,” the statement read.
The statement provided examples of significant wage gaps between members of the UC administration and service workers (Chancellor Gillman’s $514,537 per yearr versus a full-time service worker’s $34,351.74 per year). The statement also included a letter sent to Gillman by 250 students and workers, alleging injustices such as harassment of workers “sent threats in regard to documentation status” and a failure to “create solutions for racist commentary and anti-immigrant rhetoric” that affects many UC service workers.
Members of AFSCME Local 3299 chanted “Union power!” and other proclamations alongside a banner showing support for “Patient Care and Service Employees at University of California” right outside UCI Douglas Hospital, in the Healing Garden.
“We’re pretty much just protesting our fair equality, respect, dignity that we deserve as employees here at the University,” said Martin Uresti, a senior food service worker for UCI Medical center and representative from AFSCME 3299.
He also spoke about some of the perceived injustices he saw in his 12 years working at the Medical Center.
“Getting laid off, outsourcing our jobs … to part-time students, unfair wages … I mean it’s 2018; the cost of living is over the roof,” he said. “The wages we have now, it’s like we’re living in poverty.”
Uresti stated his goal for the protest was to urge the UC to “sign our contract, give us what we’re asking for, our wages and everything.”
Juan Enrique Trinidad, a representative from the UPTE, said he represents “the social workers, researchers [and] nurse navigators.”
The UPTE has a different jurisdiction from the AFSCME, but works toward a similar goal.
“We represent the professionals and technicians,” said Trinidad. “[The AFSCME] represent custodians, food service, and some patient care too. Our goal is to defend the benefits of the employees, and you know, affordable healthcare for them, so in general it is the same.”
Melissa McCourt, a member of UPTE and onlooker at the protest, voiced her support for the unions’ cause as demonstrators chanted and beat drums.
“I would like to see UC be able to listen to [the unions’] viewpoint of what they feel would be fair in the next contract, to come to some agreement,” she said.
AFSCME 3299 also held a rally on the UC Irvine main campus. Workers held signs and marched in front of the UCI flagpoles chanting, “Workers united will never be divided.”
Thursday’s protests were part of a UC-wide demonstration that included similar rallies at the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, and UC Riverside, all of which began at 11 a.m.
Last May’s state audit discovery of a controversial $175 million slush fund created by UC administrators, alongside last week’s delay by the UC Board of Regents of the vote to increase student tuition by $342, informs much of the vigor surrounding the union protests. The tuition vote was delayed until May thanks to protests by UC students at the Regents meeting, a feat supported by a letter from Gov. Jerry Brown.
As deadlines are extended, union hospital workers hope the UC administrators feel the pinch of financial accountability, as they themselves feel the pressure of financial hardship. Martin Uresti expressed troubles felt by many of his fellow union members.
“I would like to make a fund, let’s say, my son, for college, but it’s pretty much impossible, living off these wages, paycheck-to-paycheck. Despite what UCI offers, it’s still not enough.”