Bernie Sanders Lends Support to Striking University Employees

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks to University of California employees in Los Angeles during a 24-hour labor strike Wednesday. (Nathan Solis/ CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – University of California research and technical employees got a boost from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders on Wednesday when he joined them at a rally in Los Angeles over stalled contract negotiations as union members call for better wages and a reduction in outsourcing.

Sanders, I-Vermont, said Wednesday’s rally appearance outside the UCLA campus was not a campaign stop for his 2020 presidential run, but instead marked his ongoing participation in a fight he has long championed as an activist.

“I’m here today not as a candidate for president but as somebody who has spent the last 40 years of his life walking on picket lines with unionized workers,” said Sanders.

The University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) union, which is made up of employees running clinical healthcare trials and laboratory tests and those who work in IT at the UC’s many medical and research facilities across the state, have been without a contract since May 2017.

They’ve held 17 negotiation sessions. University officials made their most recent contract offer in February 2019, which included wage and benefit rates lower than what was offered to a nurses’ union that joined UPTE in a previous strike last year.

Wednesday’s statewide strike is the third in less than 11 months for the workers with UPTE 9119, who were joined by members from sister unions, including the state’s largest University of California employee unions, AFSCME 3299 (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). A total of about 40,000 workers hit the picket lines. 

UPTE president Jamie McDole, a nurse case manager from UC Davis, said union members were fired up.

“People have been getting really angry at the way the university is negotiating,” McDole said. “The lack of offers they’re making, the way they’ve treated the bargaining tactics and messaging to employees. It’s getting them to turn out more.”

As the California poverty rate hovers around 19 percent, that outrage has become a rallying cry for Americans and politicians.

Sanders said big employers that enjoy generous tax breaks but do not pay fair wages take advantage of workers and their livelihood.

“Today in America millions of people cannot afford the health care they need, the childcare they need,” Sanders said at the rally. “They cannot afford to pay their rent because of the outrageous price of housing in California and all over this country. It is a sad state of events when people in this community, people who work at this university cannot live in this community because they cannot afford to buy housing or pay the rent.”

While California’s university system is world renowned, Sanders said that was not enough.

“The University of California must not be a corporate-type employer,” said Sanders.

Jillian Borders, a museum scientist with UCLA’s film archive, said there has been a push within the UC system to hire more contract workers to skirt paying benefits and pensions.

Borders said, “Essentially what they’ve suggested ends up being a wage cut and we’re not getting a cost of living increase. We’re all worried about job security and how the university is making jobs more casual, with less full-time employees.”

In a statement, UC spokesperson Claire Doan said union leaders are “more focused on staging strikes than they are on good-faith bargaining.”

“They claim they’re losing jobs and getting displaced, yet for the past five years, they’ve enjoyed substantial growth in membership and earnings. What union leaders say have little in common with the facts,” Doan said.

In response to criticism over outsourcing jobs, Doan said the UC system is “legally barred from contracting out on the sole basis of generating savings on wages and benefits” and they are required to find jobs for any workers potentially displaced from service contracts.

Culver City High School students Griffin Hodur Scharpf and David Impastato, both 18, skipped school to hear Sanders speak.

“I listen to Bernie Sanders a lot in his other speeches. His speech today was about how the economy must be redrawn to fit the middle and working class and how unions will be involved in that,” said Impastato.

Scharpf said, “I liked how he came out to support the unions and took his time to explain their importance.”

“We’re also going to college, so Bernie’s talk about free college tuition is just as important for us,” Impastato added.

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