Addressing UC labor issues by speaking, not boycotting


Two months ago, I was invited to give a graduation speech at UC Irvine.

As a graduate of a couple of University of California campuses, including Irvine, I felt deeply honored. A few weeks later, however, I got an e-mail begging me not to do it. And then several phone calls, all from representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

AFSCME wanted me to join a “speakers’ boycott” on behalf of its members, who are angry at UC’s administrators over wage cuts and layoffs.

“You speaking at commencement gives the administration prestige,” explained Fernando Chirino, a UCI grad student working with AFSCME. “If you don’t speak, you’ll be making a political statement.”

AFSCME’s 20,000 UC members are among the humblest of California’s public employees. They cook meals and clean libraries while our brightest young people study to become philosophers, lawyers and engineers.

In a tough economy, low-wage workers are taking some of the hardest hits. Like other government employees, AFSCME’s members are having their pay reduced thanks to California’s budget collapse. At UCLA, dishwashers and cooks are being forced to give up 11 days of work and wages each year, or 30 minutes each day. It amounts to a 4% cut.

AFSCME called for the boycott to put pressure on UC to restore these lost wages. It’s a replay of the union’s successful 2008 campaign — honored by Bill Clinton, among others — to win a new contract with substantial wage and benefit increases.

The union was basically asking me to help them renegotiate with UC — by turning my back on the students at Friday’s graduation ceremony. And that, I told them, I was loath to do.

For starters, I didn’t buy the argument that my absence from the speakers’ platform “punished” administrators. The graduation ceremony, I told them, isn’t UC property. It’s a celebration of the democratic values that bring people to a public university, and of the work and sacrifice that go into every diploma.

A graduation ceremony, I said, belongs to the graduates.

Undeterred, AFSCME persisted. Their campaign to win me over included an unannounced visit to the Times building and, finally, an invitation to talk to some of their members.

I went to UCLA and met a group of food workers at two cafeterias. They were proud men and women in aprons and chef’s toques, and we talked in the cafeteria during a work break while hundreds of students munched on their creations.

“We’re people who live paycheck to paycheck,” said Maria Olivares, a mother of three making $13.50 an hour. For her and other workers, a reduction of $200 in monthly pay is a catastrophe.

“The rent doesn’t wait,” she told me. “The food for my kids doesn’t wait.”

Most agreed that UCLA is a good place to work. “We’re the lowest paid department on the UCLA campus,” said Linda Robinson, a veteran cafeteria worker. “But you get satisfaction from it.... You have kids that come back just to see you.”

The workers’ complaint is with the administration’s priorities. They don’t understand how UC can pay bonuses to top officials and press on with new construction when the neediest workers are being asked to do with less.

“The money we won in our contract, they’re cutting back in this recession,” said Henry Avila, a 54-year-old dishwasher who makes $13.67 an hour.

Yes, these are harsh times. All over the state, employers are using the economic crisis to their advantage — to hire cheaper workers, restructure agreements.

UC workers are getting a raw deal. But even some of them agreed that asking me to boycott commencement was probably not the solution.

“Taking away from the kids’ graduation,” Robinson said, “that’s not right either.”

Asking people to renege on a promise to appear before young people on the proudest day of their lives strikes me as a craven way to fight a labor dispute.

So who is honoring the AFSCME boycott? Politicians, for the most part.

Many of those elected officials have also received AFSCME campaign contributions, including Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and state Assemblymen Ira Ruskin (D- Redwood City) and Jose Solorio (D- Santa Ana).

My friend Gustavo Arellano at the OC Weekly reported that Sanchez has received more than $50,000 from AFSCME. Her decision to honor a boycott in support of a key contributor, he wrote, “took about as much political courage as affixing a flag pin to her outfit.”

Arellano is going to speak at UCLA on the same day I’ll be at UC Irvine.

“We’re not trying to silence you,” one AFSCME official said, after asking me again to show my support by being silent.

When I told another AFSCME official that I planned to use my speech to talk about the responsibility of UC to pay a living wage, she told me: “There’s nothing you can say that will hurt UC.”

My words were useless, she said. Only my actions counted.

Unfortunately, we writers believe in the power of words and ideas: It’s an occupational hazard. So I’ll go up on that dais Friday and try to say something solemn. Something about justice and how the health of our state can be measured by the way we treat our humblest citizens.

There’ll be about 600 students and their families waiting for me.