On Thursday, Feb. 1, UC employees and students assembled by the UCR Bell Tower to protest unfair working conditions in a demonstration organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299. The five-hour-long event was part of a UC-wide day of protest and attended by over 120 individuals, including members of UAW Local 2865 (a student worker union) and the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) Local 5. Also present was a television crew from KABC-TV, channel 7 (ABC7) and a representative for California State Assemblyman Jose Medina.
Demonstrators began assembling on the lawn in front of the Bell Tower around 11 a.m., with supporters and unionized employees carrying signs emphasizing solidarity between university workers. After about an hour, the protesters gathered for a photo and chanted motivational slogans.
Following a call and response of “Whose university? Our university!” and “What do we want? Contracts! When do we want them? Now!” attendees assembled to hear AFSCME Executive Board Member Isaiah Martinez speak about the importance of the protest. Martinez discussed the historical origins of the AFSCME movement in the 1960s civil rights movement and emphasized the continuing importance of bargaining and exerting pressure on employers to ensure fair wages and safe working conditions.
Following the speech, organizers led the attendees for a march to Hinderaker Hall to protest and air grievances directly to UCR administrators, including Chancellor Kim Wilcox. “We didn’t speak with the Chancellor for he was not in the office,” shared Martinez in an email, “but we spoke with his assistant and he promised that he will inform Chancellor Wilcox of our concerns.”
Following a short break, protesters then marched past Vice Chancellor for Business and Administrative Services Ron Coley’s office, chanting “The people, united, will never be divided,” and “We’re fired up, can’t take it no more.” The march concluded around 4 p.m. by the Bell Tower with a word of appreciation from Martinez for those who came to support the union.
Martinez acknowledged that the timing of the protest coincides with the 50th anniversary of the deaths of two sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. The two African-American garbage collectors were killed by an equipment malfunction on a refuse collection vehicle, prompting widespread strikes in the following weeks to draw attention to poor working conditions faced by people of color. The protests soon became intertwined with the civil rights movement in progress at the time.
Speaking with the Highlander, Martinez highlighted a variety of issues faced by workers at UCR. One perennial issue is the low wages paid to service employees, who are mainly represented by AFSCME. Martinez, who has worked as a senior custodian in the Glen Mor apartments for the last four years, emphasized that wages for service workers and labor remain low even in the face of expanding facilities and housing in the UCR community.
Citing his own experiences at Glen Mor, Martinez said, “Before the university decided to expand, we had one senior custodian per building. That’s one per four to five floors.” After the five-building Glen Mor expansion in 2014, however, Martinez noted that this number has doubled. “Now we have one senior custodian for eight to 10 floors. There are 11 apartments per floor.” The expected compensation for this extra workload, says Martinez, never came.
“We want to have a full staff and high expectations, with high quality,” said Martinez, “the university doesn’t care … it cares about its budget.” According to Martinez, the university often cites budgetary concerns as reason for not hiring additional personnel to meet maintenance needs. Despite the downsizing of service staff and failures to increase resources attributed to financial limitations, Martinez notes that UCR has increased administrator hirings, promotions and salary raises for administrative employees.
As of fiscal year 2017-2018, the UCR Chancellor’s office has announced potential wage increases of up to 3 percent for “non-represented” university staff (employees not part of a union). This in particular has caused frustration among unionized employees, as these benefits would not extend to them regardless of performance.
Demonstrators also raised concern about alleged racist treatment of university staff, across a variety of positions on campus. Martinez claims that certain minority workers are, at times, placed under heavier scrutiny than their white counterparts while performing their jobs. “Certain people of color always seem to be picked on,” Martinez said. “Often, they’re questioned by their superiors. ‘Why are you here early? Why are you here late?’” Martinez emphasized that superiors often assumed negligence or ill intent on the part of non-white employees, even when evidence of any wrongdoing was lacking.
A student worker, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation, detailed similar experiences while working in an undisclosed on-campus restaurant. The student claimed that they were subjected to closer scrutiny and harassment by a supervisor in the workplace. The supervisor’s alleged misconduct included making political comments that the student deemed intrusive and offensive, as well as accusations of negligence and theft against the student. Additionally, the student alleged that student workers at UCR were denied benefits being accorded to employees at other locations of the restaurant they worked in. The Highlander has been unable to verify these allegations.
Contractual and wage issues were the main concerns expressed by technical employees represented by UPTE, who attended the protest in solidarity with other employee unions. Many issues facing AFSCME-affiliated members also affect UPTE employees, according to Soren Weber, a research technician demonstrating for better pay and working conditions. Weber expressed the need for unity among workers in their efforts to negotiate with UCR. “The university should actually go to the bargaining table,” Weber said, adding that the only solution to poor working conditions is cooperation on the part of the university.
Members of the UAW student worker union, which represents academic workers such as TAs, readers and tutors, highlighted overworking and insufficient support as the main concerns facing graduate and undergraduate employees. Mackenzie Gregg, sixth-year Ph.D. student in the English department and head steward of the UCR UAW chapter, outlined the main issues causing frustration among graduate students.
“One of the big issues is the workload. Many TAs are responsible for 75 to 120 students, in addition to their graduate school work,” said Gregg, adding, “many students don’t get the one-on-one attention they deserve.” She emphasized that many teaching assistants often work overtime to keep up with the demands of grading large volumes of student work. Often, Gregg said, a student’s inability to handle the workload is seen as a negative, leading the work itself to become “a built-in shame tactic.”
Another UAW-represented graduate student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, pointed to misunderstandings among faculty members as much of the reason for this overburdening. “Many times, faculty members aren’t aware of grad students’ rights and contracts,” she said, adding that, often, addressing these concerns is difficult due to fear of retaliation. “Many times, it’s hard to raise these issues because these people are your (Ph.D.) advisors. It can put you in a huge position of retaliation.”
The student also discussed the university’s negligence of the poor living conditions affecting some graduate students. In Falkirk, for example, where many graduate students live, chronic neglect of facilities is a problem. “Housing is a workplace issue. I pay $1025 a month for a half-condemned apartment. The balcony has holes and the door is nailed shut. There is a termite problem. The stairs creak when I walk on them. And the price is only going up.”
Also in attendance was Jorrel Verella, district director for Assemblyman Jose Medina, who was unable to attend the protest in-person due to prior engagements. Medina, who has campaigned on a pro-labor platform, is also the chairman of the California State Assembly Committee on Higher Education, which is responsible for legislative oversight regarding public universities in California.
Verella commented on Medina’s support for union protesters, saying Medina has “stood for labor a lot, always voted with labor. We don’t want to take sides, we just want the university to negotiate with workers.” Verella also expressed admiration for the determination shown by the demonstrators. “What’s interesting is that the workers are using their lunch breaks to come out here,” he said. “I think it’s important that there’s so many people and that it’s being taken seriously so that the university understands that these people are vital to its operation.”
Martinez, summing up the sentiments of anger and frustration driving the protesters, offered his view of the UC’s unwillingness to bargain. “I look at the working conditions that those workers faced in 1968 and see that little has changed. Unfortunately, that masterplan of education, the university that is affordable for everyone — it’s broken, it’s lost.”
AFSCME and UPTE intend to continue negotiations with the UC on these issues. As of time of publication, UC Riverside was unavailable for comment.