UC Berkeley service workers picketed Monday as part of a UC system-wide strike. Photo: eaed Friedman

UC Berkeley employees and supporters rallied in the beating sun Monday to kick off a three-day, statewide University of California service worker strike.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, many of whom will picket in green union t-shirts at Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue for the duration of the strike, are calling for higher wages and an end to the outsourcing of campus jobs.

AFSCME has rejected a new contract proposed by UC in April after a year of unsuccessful negotiations. According to UC, the system offered workers a multi-year 3% annual raise, consistent with what other Cal employees will get, whereas the union had asked for 6%.

UC Berkeley announced Monday afternoon that Senator Kamala Harris has pulled out of her Commencement speaking engagement over the ongoing labor dispute. AFSCME called for the speaker boycott, the university said. Chancellor Carol Christ will speak at graduation instead.

AFSCME represents some 9,000 campus service workers — custodians, cooks, security guards and others — including around 930 at UC Berkeley. By late Monday morning, more than 400 of those workers at Cal had registered for the strike, said AFSCME spokeswoman Rachel Warino.

“We’re striking for a fair contract, equality — hell, respect,” said Rodney Enis, who has worked delivering and processing mail at UC Berkeley for seven years. Enis has a second job — like many of his colleagues, he said — selling car parts at AutoZone in Oakland.

“A lot of us have kids” and struggle to support them, said Cesar Pizano, who’s worked in Cal dining services for 13 years. With extreme rent and house prices, it’s “impossible” to live in Berkeley, let alone raise a family here, on service-worker wages, he said. Pizano has a house in Antioch with his father, and works two other jobs as well, he said.

According to Warino, AFSCME service workers make between $17.50 and $25 an hour, and an average annual salary of $40,000.

UC Berkeley has about 930 service workers, many of whom are on strike over their contract. Photo: Ted Friedman

Enis and Pizano joined the crowd of about 200 chanting, drumming and waving green flags in front of the MLK Jr. Student Union building. Starting at noon, they heard from AFSCME members and other local union representatives speaking in support of the UC workers. Thousands of patient care and technical workers also represented by the same local are striking in solidarity too, as are UC nurses represented by the California Nurses Association.

In a statement emailed to Berkeleyside, UC called the strike “highly inappropriate.”

“A strike is only hurting the union’s own members who will lose pay for joining this ill-advised three-day walkout, while negatively affecting services to patients and students,” wrote spokeswoman Stephanie Beechem. “A disruptive demonstration will change neither UC’s economic situation nor the university’s position on AFSCME’s unreasonable demands.”

Beechem said UC’s service workers are already paid market rate, and sometimes much more. Giving the service workers a 6% raise each year would be “unfair” to other employees of UC, which is one of the state’s largest employers.

“The university cannot justify to taxpayers such an excessive raise, no matter how much we appreciate our service workers,” Beechem wrote.

UC also made the decision to give the workers a 2% raise next year, since no agreement has been reached on a multi-year contract.

UC Berkeley declined to answer questions about the proposed contract and union response, referring Berkeleyside to the UC Office of the President.

UC service workers include custodians, truck drivers, dining hall workers, security guards and others. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Cal spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said the impact of the strike to UC Berkeley campus services will likely be minimal, and that operations were “largely running smoothly” as of late Monday morning. Campus perimeter shuttle service has been cancelled for the three days, but the nighttime safety shuttle will run, Gilmore said. There may be some other small effects felt, such as changes to menu offerings in dining halls.

UC Berkeley is hiring temporary workers “as needed to fill service needs,” Gilmore said. Other workers are being shuffled around to fulfill tasks.

At campuses with medical workers, the union has drawn up a “contingency plan” to continue providing care, Warino said.

Some UC Berkeley students said their peers have not been talking much about the employee strike, but others on campus have come up with creative ways to show their support.

Graduate student instructors Maywa Montenegro, Margiana Petersen-Rockney and Aidee Guzman had come to the Monday rally after walking out of their students’ final exam together.

The grad students had thought long and hard about “how we could support the union and support the students who’ve worked really hard” too, said Petersen-Rockney, a Ph.D student in the Environmental Science, Policy and Management department. Ultimately they decided to use the strike “as a teachable moment for students,” as it illustrated some of the themes discussed in the undergraduate sociology seminar on rural food systems and labor, she and Montenegro said. They gave a presentation on the issues raised by the union to the class and staged a walkout among themselves when the exam began, leaving the students with the professor.

Around 200-300 workers and supporters listen to speakers at a noon rally. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some of the workers at the rally brought up a recent AFSCME report showing women and people of color working service jobs at UC campuses often make less than their white, male colleagues. The research also showed that the number of African Americans in service and patient care jobs at UC has dropped steeply in recent decades.

The AFSME study also found that the top 1% of UC wage earners had salaries that grew 64% between 2005 and 2015, while wages for the union’s members crept, not keeping pace with the cost of living.

In the emailed statement, UC said, “We cannot confirm the accuracy of the report.”

A state audit last year found UC Office of the President (UCOP) employees made much more than other similar state workers. Auditor Elaine Howle reprimanded the UCOP for mismanaging money and neglecting to disclose reserve funds. Last week Howle said UC has missed the deadline for some of the recommended fixes.

Last Friday, a number of California Assembly members wrote a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano, expressing support for the AFSCME workers, chastising UC for failing “to negotiate a meaningful contract proposal.”

The legislators criticized the university system for the inequities revealed in the union report, and called on the president to provide better wages and retirement benefits to the service workers.

“This is particularly concerning given the widespread reports of UC mismanagement and the increasing six-figure salaries handed out to campus Chancellors and management,” they wrote.

At UC Berkeley, top administrators decided to forgo their own pay raises last year as part of effort to seriously slash a $150 million deficit.

Cal has also cut back around 400 staff positions. Many of those were contracts that ended and were simply not renewed, the administration has said.

At the sunny Monday rally, Michael Burawoy, chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association and sociology professor, said his colleagues and administrators rely on the campus’s service workers.

“There will be no Nobel Prize winners without service workers,” Burawoy said into the microphone. “You do the invisible work of Nobel Prize-winning. You are all noble workers with dignity.”

The strike will continue through May 9.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...