Labor strife is costing UC top graduation speakers

Times Staff Writer

Six prominent political figures and elected officials, including retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), have canceled commencement speeches at three UC campuses because of a continuing labor dispute, university officials and union leaders said Thursday.

The six Democrats, including former President Clinton and former state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, canceled their appearances to show support for 20,000 healthcare and service employees who have been working at UC campuses for many months without a contract.

“I am disappointed that I will not be able to be a commencement speaker, but I won’t cross the picket line,” said Clark, a onetime Democratic presidential candidate who was scheduled to speak at UCLA. “The students who are graduating, along with their parents who support them, should be congratulated on their achievement. My hope is this will come to a resolution very soon.”

The workers, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, say they are paid 25% less than workers who hold similar jobs at community colleges and private hospitals. UC and the union have been negotiating a new contract since last year without success, and the union has voted to strike if its demands are not met.

“I’m very glad that people are supporting our cause and sending a message to the university that they can’t treat workers this way,” said union President Lakesha Harrison. “People just want to be paid equal pay for equal work.”


Clinton was scheduled to deliver the main commencement address at UCLA today. Nunez was to give the commencement address at UC Davis on Wednesday. Waxman also was scheduled to speak at UCLA today.

“Until the University of California and the 20,000 patient care and service workers resolve their dispute, I won’t be able to speak at the commencement ceremony for the UCLA School of Public Health,” Waxman said in a statement released by the union.

The union said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist and the son of assassinated presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, had pledged to cancel his address at a UC San Diego graduation ceremony June 19 if the contract dispute is not settled.

Also canceling their speeches were Rep. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte) at UCLA and Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) at UC Santa Cruz.

Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) will cancel his Saturday address at UC Santa Cruz if the dispute is not settled by then, his office said.

At UCLA, Clinton will be replaced by Chancellor Gene Block and Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post website.

UC officials said they were disappointed by the cancellations, which deprive students of the chance to hear noted speakers on an important day.

“We think it’s unfortunate that union activities are affecting ceremonies intended to celebrate student achievement,” said Phil Hampton, a spokesman for UCLA.

Nicole Savickas, a spokeswoman for the UC president’s office, said that the show of support by prominent figures would not affect the labor negotiations.

“The union has asked that they boycott our commencement ceremonies, which we believe is unfortunate especially as we seek to reach an agreement with the union,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that AFSCME is trying to disadvantage our students and our families this way on such a special occasion.”

The contract dispute is taking place as the 10-campus UC system faces severe funding shortages. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a budget for next year that would leave the university $240 million short of covering its costs.

Harrison argued that the university has the funds to pay the food service, custodial, medical and other workers a decent wage but that it is not a priority for the university. Some top UC officials, she noted, have received large pay increases.

“No one’s trying to get rich here,” she said. “It makes no sense that the world-renowned University of California cannot pay its workers at least what community colleges in their areas are paying.”

She defended the union’s strategy of asking prominent supporters to cancel their commencement addresses, arguing that the university has had many months to negotiate a new contract. One contract expired last fall; the other early this year.

“The university could have prevented this,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that our workers are working in poverty and the university doesn’t care.”