Vermont Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined thousands of striking university and hospital employees at a rally at UCLA on Wednesday, March 20, to call for higher wages and an end to University of California’s increased use of contract labor, among other union demands.
The strike and rally were organized by UPTE-CWA, the union representing technical, communication, and research workers at UC, which has been locked in contract negotiations with UC since 2017 with neither side budging.
Strikers were joined on the picket line by members of AFSCME Local 3299, the union representing patient care workers at UC which has also been locked in lengthy contract negotiations, along with organizers from the Democratic Socialists of America, students from UCLA’s Student Labor Advocacy Project, and fans of Senator Sanders from across Southern California. All in all, close to a thousand people stood in solidarity with strikers at Wednesday’s rally. In addition to Senator Sanders, speakers at the rally included striking union members, students, and other UC faculty.
Senator Sanders began his speech, “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.”
Senator Sanders spoke in depth about the problem of income inequality on the national scale, citing many of his go-to statistics such as that the three wealthiest families in America have as much wealth as the bottom half and that the top 1% have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. The Senator also put UC in the limelight. “The University of California is one of the great university systems in the world, but it’s not good enough to be a great university…the University of California must not be a corporate-type employer, the University of California must be a model employer,” he said.
One major grievance laid out by strikers was the commute they are forced to drive each day to work because their salaries make housing in Los Angeles financially inaccessible. One of the largest applause lines for Senator Sanders was when he proclaimed that “it is a sad state of affairs when people in this community who work at this university cannot live in this community because they cannot afford to buy housing or pay the rent.”
At one point during the rally, the audience was asked, “How many people travel more than two hours to be here?” A sea of workers in green and blue union T-shirts raised their hands.
Albert Malvaez, a camera technician at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television who spoke at the rally, brought up the impact UC’s labor practices have on students. “I help students every day and I’m concerned that the university’s practices are hurting our students,” he said. Malvaez stated that the UC does not have enough full-time workers to serve its students. He explained that by hiring contract labor with no path to full-time status, the UC is continually losing workers it has trained in complex technical fields.
Malvaez later quoted excerpts from the 2017 audit on the UC system by California State Auditor Elaine Howle, which found that the UC Office of the President (UCOP) had hidden $175 million in secret funds, mostly by claiming high operating costs and then underfunding the university without disclosing it to the UC Board of Regents. The audit also found that the UCOP offered executives substantially higher salaries, more generous benefits, and more excessive job perks than are standard in the public sector. According to the report, UCOP’s internal administrative spending suddenly increased by 28% from 2013 to 2016 at a cost of $80 million. “Taken as a whole, these problems indicate that significant change is necessary to strengthen the public’s trust in the University,” the State Auditor’s report concludes.
“They are going to continue to chip away at the underpinnings of this institution, and we are going to continue to fight because we care about our students, we care about our workers, and we care about our patients,” Malvaez said.
Ursula Gwinn, another rally speaker who works in the child and adolescent unit of UCLA’s psychiatric hospital, said on the topic of pay inequity, “[UC] know that their reputation is based on our labor, and instead of giving us the benefits that we deserve, they’re increasing the number of executive and administrative positions, they’re giving benefits to their executives that are six figures when what we’re asking for is way below that — their benefits are more than I make in multiple years.”
“We have multiple cars in the employee parking lot with Uber and Lyft stickers; people are running from one shift to cover a second job, or even a third job, just to make ends meet,” Gwinn said. “What we are asking for is fair compensation for our labor.”