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UC AS ANTI-UNION AS EVER

By Dick Meister

Undoubtedly those who run the University of California, one of the world's most advanced and important centers of learning, are very smart people. Yet for many years they've been unwilling -- or unable -- to deal fairly and effectively with those who do the university's work.

Recent strikes by clerical workers and lecturers at UC's Berkeley campus were just the latest of many examples of the failures of university administrators in the vital area of labor relations.

And the administrators' refusal to seriously consider the strikers' modest demands in behalf of UC employees statewide could very well lead to other hostile union actions at other UC campuses as well as in Berkeley.

University employees won the legal right to unionization 22 years ago, but the fierce opposition of UC officials blocked them from holding union elections for fully five years after that.

Once the elections finally were scheduled, the officials launched a major anti-union campaign. They sent letters to employees declaring that collective bargaining "is neither desirable nor inevitable ... The university does not want its employees to unionize." They required workers to attend meetings at which unions were denounced and ordered supervisors to deliver the message in their workday conversations with employees.

UC's Board of Regents put $331,000 into the campaign, more than half of it to hire outside consultants who prompted lengthy state hearings by repeatedly challenging union calls for voting among particular groups of employees.

Even after the elections were held and academic and non-academic employees alike voted overwhelmingly for unionization, university administrators stalled in contract negotiations. But agreements finally were reached in 1984 -- with two major exceptions.

The teaching assistants who conduct more than half of UC's undergraduate classes and do other indispensable work didn't get a contract until 2000, and then only after waging several strikes. The interns and residents who do much of the work at UC hospitals still don't have one, and the teaching assistants' current contract expires at the end of this year with no sign that UC will be willing to agree to improvements in their marginal working conditions.

The lecturers who struck in late August did negotiate a series of contracts after 1984, but their most recent one expired two years ago. The lecturers, hired as temporary workers on a year-to-year basis, want a new contract that would guarantee them job security.

The clerical workers, who made up the bulk of the strikers, haven't been treated much better. They had to bargain nearly two years to get their first contract and have been getting nowhere in bargaining for a new one since it expired last November. The workers, paid an average of $34,000 a year, want a raise that would bring them closer to clerical workers in the state university system, who make nearly 20 percent more. UC has offered them no more than one-fourth that amount.

The particular issues are secondary, however. What's more to the point is that UC negotiators have refused to truly bargain. They put what they called a "final offer" on the bargaining table and walked away.

Which is why the clerical workers' union charged UC with illegally refusing to bargain and why they struck last month in hopes of pressing university negotiators to begin bargaining seriously. The University of California's administrators do indeed have yet to learn how to deal decently with those whose work keeps the university running.

Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, a veteran labor journalist who formerly taught at San Francisco State University.

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