UCSC workers are on strike; I wish they would tell me why

Academic workers on the picket line at UC Santa Cruz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout opinion columnist and UC Santa Cruz lecturer Mike Rotkin is a longtime union supporter with extensive union bargaining experience. He supports the current UC strike on principle, but is baffled that the strikers have not communicated their demands to potential allies (including him) — and to the public. That’s a mistake, he says.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Four groups of academic workers at the University of California statewide — student researchers, teaching assistants, postdoctoral researchers and other academic student employees — are on strike.

Mike Rotkin

They are marching at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus, holding signs, begging the public to honk in support of their cause.

I work at UCSC and have been a union supporter and activist my entire life, and particularly since my UC employment began in 1969. I know enough history to understand that unions are the reason we have many of the most important labor and social reforms enacted over the past century — including the weekend, eight-hour work days, pensions and Social Security.

I have many reasons to support this strike and strikes in general; however, I have one problem with this current action: I do not understand what the strikers want and whether their demands are reasonable and achievable.

This baffles me. I am a potentially key ally, but no one has reached out to me or anyone in my circle to explain their demands. I also haven’t seen any communication with the public.

That is not a good way to win a fight.

I was a key organizer of the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers at UCSC in the 1970s and 1980s, and for more than 25 years I served as the chief negotiator for the lecturers — who do about half of the teaching at UCSC. I have held too many local and statewide union leadership positions to list here.

Yet the first notice I got of the strike came from UCSC Chancellor Cindy Larive, who told me in great detail what management is offering at the bargaining table and why she thought it was a reasonable response to union demands. The provost, Lori Kletzer, followed up with an even more detailed description. I am inclined to take their assertions with more than a grain of salt, but I sure would like to have the union workers who are on strike tell me their side of the story.

To this day, one week into a strike that has paralyzed the 10 UC campuses across the state and thrown teaching and learning into pre-Thanksgiving chaos for more than 280,000 students, I have not received a single communication in any form from the strikers telling me what they are demanding and why it is justified.

Neither have the rest of the faculty, as far as I know.

That is a problem.

If they are not communicating with someone like me — who is entrenched in these issues and is a potential ally — how will they garner the support they need to prevail?

I read in outside sources like Inside Higher Education and, more recently, emails from my own union at UC that the major issues dividing the union and management are pay, support for transportation and child care.

The pay issue is fundamentally about housing costs for graduate students, which everyone knows are out of control in California. The union insists its members are “rent burdened” because they are paying, on average, 50% of their income on rent, when 30% is considered a more manageable standard.

Of course, these academic workers — most of whom are also students — are not alone in facing that problem, and many workers in Santa Cruz pay an even higher percentage of their pay for rent. While it is true that in a just world, the strikers would deserve a dramatic increase in pay, I get a little nervous thinking about the university being shut down indefinitely if the workers don’t get the 30% increase in salary they are asking.

The UC administration does not contest that rents are a problem, but counter that UC’s current offers would raise academic workers’ salaries to a level comparable with private institutions of higher education and at the top of those at public universities.

There are other issues, too, including the roughly $10,000 a year that out-of-state and foreign graduate students pay on top of their tuition, but UC management claims that it has offered to address this issue.

From all of my union experience, I know all too well what a terrible record the University of California has when it comes to its dealing with unions. When I first began my union work at UC, I had thought that UC would be a union-friendly corporation. It is in a generally liberal state, tended to have a liberal faculty and, I assumed, would be a relatively rational and progressive “corporation.”

I was quickly disabused of this understanding. It’s not the faculty or even administrators who control the union negotiations.

It’s the 18 regents, who — with the exception of a few state constitutional public officials — are generally corporate leaders and wealthy donors to the governors who appoint them to 12-year terms.

The UC management negotiators receive their marching orders from the UC Office of the President. Right now, that is Michael Drake, a physician and the former chancellor of UC Irvine, who spent much of his career in the UC system, including 25 years at UC San Francisco’s medical school. Drake is directly under the control of the regents, who rarely see the world through the eyes of their employees or the unions that represent them.

The regents’ views usually reflect their experience in the private sector, and more often than not they come from anti-union corporations.

In my extensive experience, the only way UC employees get a response is to withhold labor and/or get the support of governors and legislative officials who hold some purse-string control over UC’s budget.

Unfortunately, over time, the State of California has provided a smaller and smaller percent of UC’s budget (from almost 100% in 1960 to something close to 14% today) and, not surprisingly, the leverage that state political figures can help provide unions and UC employees has declined proportionately.

So you can see why I am inclined to support the current strike at UC.

I say this even though it totally makes a mess of the course I am teaching this quarter and deprives my students of some of the education for which they, or their parents, are paying a great deal of money.

Unlike private-sector unions, whose strikes typically stop the production of commodities and profits, public-sector unions tend to halt services to the public, e.g., health for patients, services for residents, education for students.

Strikes are less effective when the employer — in this case UC — doesn’t really prioritize undergraduate education compared to research and “public service” to corporations.

As a middle school student, I asked my mother, who was a high school teacher and union activist who helped create the American Federation of Teachers, why she supported teacher strikes. “Wasn’t it bad for a union to go on strike and deny students their education?” I asked.

She answered that it was unfortunate to take actions that hurt students in the short term, but that it was worth it if they won demands that improved the lives of teachers and quality of education for students in the long run.

So my complaints are not because of the negative impact the strike is having on my courses and my students. But because strikes do negatively affect the educational system in the short term, it is essential that unions engaging in strikes do so with demands that are reasonable, supported widely and likely to be attainable.

I am also concerned that the strikers are asking faculty to cancel their classes. Unfortunately, my union and many other unions on campus have “no strike” agreements. If I withhold my labor, I could be fired and, even worse, my union could be fined tens of thousands of dollars we do not have if there is any evidence that our union is advocating for our members to withhold their labor in support of the current strike.

So we need to find ways to continue working, and offering as much of an education as we can to our students.

I always find creative ways to do that while avoiding having to cross a picket line, which I have never done in my life, and I let my students know that none of them will be punished for missing class if they don’t believe that they should participate in my alternative arrangements.

But I do wish that my brothers and sisters who are on strike would find a way to let me know why they think their demands are reasonable and attainable.

I’m sure they are not keeping it a secret from UC management, and it would be politically smart and a better form of solidarity if they were to put a bit more effort into informing the public and their potential allies.

Mike Rotkin is a lecturer at UCSC, a former five-time mayor of Santa Cruz and a lifelong union activist.

More from Community Voices