To punctuate their usual weekly meetings, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 convened, at February’s close, on campus, in an event that saw an augmented turnout of workers and students, activists throughout California, and community members.
The meeting featured two short documentary screenings, along with an introduction to the first documentary by one of the people who made it; all followed by an open discussion. The topics of the night were hardship for laborers and lower-income students at the UC (especially in the wake of 2009’s massive budget cuts and redistribution of funds) and possible courses of action. The underlying message concerned the power of students and workers when they remain united and organized.
Mari Saade, a graduating senior and student intern for AFSCME Local 3299, opened the event with a brief overview of the UC’s transformations over recent years. “As a UC student, I have seen my tuition fees increase by nearly 50 percent since I started here in 2007,” she began. She admitted the need to compromise in today’s economic climate, but spoke for all in attendance when she continued, “But what we do not understand is why it seems that students and workers are being offered up as sacrifices, with student fees skyrocketing, class size increasing, student resources disappearing, workers’ salaries stagnating below the cost of living, and benefits packages for workers coming under fire.” She stressed that students and workers are the indispensable core of the University, and noted a seeming misplacement of regents’ priorities before proclaiming, “It is our duty, then, to speak out and force the regents to recognize the consequence of their cuts.”
Featured documentary films were Estamos Aquí: Workers Strike Back at UCSC, by Colectivo Media Insurgente, and Hanging By a Thread, by Rico Chavez. The two go hand in hand. The former, an example of past success, serves to motivate, while the latter provides a backdrop of data.
Javier Armas, now a political organizer in Oakland, made the trip to UCSB to discuss Estamos Aquí: Workers Strike Back at UCSC. The film is 10 minutes packed with details surrounding the April 14, 2005 strike in which 20 student activists and five AFSCME workers combined grievances into what “culminated and exploded like a volcano one day,” said Armas. “All participants of the strike went through a life-changing experience due to the political act of a successful strike that was able to shut down the whole institution—when the bus drivers don’t drive, the cafeteria workers won’t work, and custodial staff won’t clean, the institution doesn’t work,” he explained.
At the time, Armas and his crew of protesting, filmmaking friends who made up Colectivo Media Insurgente were graduating seniors at UC Santa Cruz. “We knew we were going to graduate, so we wanted to do this to pass it down,” Armas said of the film.
In addition to showing the protests as historical facts, Armas expressed his hope that since 2007 (when the UC “got hit with one of the most severe economic crises in economic history,” he said) the film has helped motivate students and workers to take action and that it will continue to do so.
Rico Chavez’s 2011 Hanging By a Thread followed the first film quite naturally. Also about 10 minutes long, the film starts by naming an array of budget re-distribution effects, then proceeds to profile individual workers. It transitions to explaining the economic environment within California across classes and professions, using an impressive collection of data.
Among workers profiled is Maria, a UCSC worker of nine years, a widower and mother of three, who makes $30,000 annually. After her day job at a UCSC café, she cleans Santa Cruz Boardwalk bathrooms; a job that, when combined with her University job, makes her a stranger to her teenagers even as she fails to fill the financial gaps.
The film weighs Maria’s story against the California Budget Project, a study put out by an independent fiscal and policy analysis organization. The project determined that the amount a family needs in order to achieve a modest standard of living without public assistance in Santa Cruz County is $76,294. Subtracting childcare from Maria’s parents and reduced health care costs through UCSC, her family needs only $52,296. “In the end, Maria’s $30,000 dollar wage at UCSC falls $22,296 short of paying her basics without public assistance,” concludes the film’s narrator.
Yancy Conzales, a UCLA bus driver who makes $34,181 per year after three years; and Victor Vincent, senior custodian at UCLA’s Medical Center, who makes $33,220 per year after 22 years, also discuss their paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyles and multiple jobs, and share the feeling that they deserve more for their work.
The film contrasts interviewed workers’ salaries, which are meant to represent those of UC service workers across the board, with the close to $3 million annual salaries of UC executives. The film explains that the regents, who oversee the UC’s 10 campuses and five medical centers, are “by and large business people and political figures whose everyday existence is far from the UC’s lowest paid workers.”
Senator Leland Yee, interviewed in the film, calls the UC regents “totally out of touch – they have not a clue what the service workers go through. I bet you if a regent were to visit a service worker home and the lives that they have to deal with every day on a daily basis, they would be ashamed …They cannot imagine that people live like that under a UC system at all.” Hanging By a Thread reports that UC executives make $200,000 to $300,000 annually; President Yudof makes over a million dollars a year.
Charlie Schwartz, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, puts UC finances in perspective by comparing UC top executives with top executives in a private business sphere. He says in his filmed interview that it makes sense for the latter to make as much as they do because they are “responsible for the success and failure of an enterprise; but that’s not the university at all.” Schwartz differentiates these positions based on the responsibilities of each. In a public university, “the basic decisions are what to teach and how to teach it, what to research and how to research it,” said Schwartz. “Those decisions aren’t made by presidents and chancellors and deans – certainly not the regents. They are made by the faculty.” He implies that there is a connection between high-level salaries and students: “Students have to pay too much so many can’t come.”
After the two documentaries, the room opened up to discussion. Many workers, including Tony Oritz, told stories that reflected those told in the films. Oritz brought his son to the meeting after a long day of work both at UCSB and at another part-time job. He’s worked at UCSB for 19 years. He said of his low wage, long hours, and lack of a pension, “I’m tired of it. I’m just beat up.” He mentioned a strike that occurred not too long ago, but says it wasn’t big enough, and expressed the “need to strike again … It’s gonna get ugly here. We need to put a stop to this.”
Other workers not only feel helpless for themselves but also have low hopes for their children, who see the UC as inaccessible. Some students spoke of having to take quarters off so that they could work fulltime, and of having trouble getting into classes even when they can afford them.
Jose Raygoza, local vice president of local CUE Teamsters (the Coalition of University Employees) also attended. He described how UCSB clerical workers have been without a contract for about two years, “and now the University is saying that their best and final offer is nothing.”
The UCSB student crowd included Jaret Ornelas, community labor coordinator with Associated Students Local Affairs office. He talked about how he first got involved with AFSCME Local 3299 three years ago. “At the time, 90 percent of the service workers who were cutting grass, in dorms, serving meals, working at the med center … 90 percent qualified for some sort of state aid, like food stamps. I think that’s ridiculous,” he said. He’s been involved ever since. Ornelas highlighted the rally at UCLA in the face of the 32 percent fee hike of 2009 as a key event in recent student-worker solidarity history.
AFSCME Local 3299 held this end-of-February event to remind students and workers of their capabilities as a united front. They seemed to be of the same mind as Schwartz (the aforementioned professor emeritus at UC Berkeley) when he said, “The fundamental mission of a public university, which is to provide first class education to all qualified students regardless of whether they come from rich families or not, is in great jeopardy right now.”
Saade, Ornelas, and the rest of the crew at the Student-Worker Coalition meet for food and discussion on Fridays at noon in UCSB’s Multicultural Center.