Bernie Sanders’ first appearance in California as a 2020 presidential candidate was not at a mega-rally like the ones that defined his previous bid, but at a speech before sun-baked picketers in front of UCLA’s medical center.
The rallies will come later — Sanders has three scheduled this weekend in the state — but the show of solidarity with striking UC workers illustrated how the Vermont senator is seeking to align himself with organized labor, a bedrock of Democratic politics.
“I’m here today not as a candidate for president but as somebody who has spent the last 40 years of his life walking the picket lines for unionized workers,” said Sanders, sporting rolled shirtsleeves. He wore a baseball cap that partially obscured a bandage covering stitches he received last week after cutting his head on a shower door.
The picket line consisted of members of the University Professional and Technical Employees, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, which represents research and technical workers. The union has been in negotiations with UC for nearly two years, but sticking points have included wages and concerns over outsourcing. The strikers were joined Wednesday by members of another union, AFSCME Local 3299, which represents patient care workers and is also in contract negotiations with the university system.
Sanders blasted the University of California for acting like a “corporate-type employer,” and framed the workers’ demands as part of a larger labor struggle.
“What we are seeing all across this country is a war being waged against working people in America,” he said.
Claire Doan, a University of California spokeswoman, said the unions have made unreasonable demands that would cost UC hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We fully support our employees’ right to demonstrate peacefully and respectfully — and to enlist speakers for their cause,” Doan said. “However, not everyone has all the facts about UPTE and AFSCME leaders demanding unreasonable and unrealistic raises that are far beyond those given to other UC employees. They have also refused to allow their members to vote on UC’s proposals, even though we’ve met dozens of times at the bargaining table.”
Andrew Lewis, 31, said Sanders’ decision to make a union rally his first California stop sent a message.
“If any successful Democratic candidate is going to go far this cycle, they need to reengage labor, they need to embrace labor, and they need to be out here at things like this,” said Lewis, a political organizer who attended in solidarity with the strikers.
Sanders’ 10-minute remarks before a crowd of hundreds gathered in Westwood Village also included snippets of his policy platform, including a pledge that “great public universities, like the University of California or the University of Vermont, will become tuition-free.”
The visit comes soon after the Sanders campaign said it would unionize its staff, the first presidential campaign in history to do so.
“It is important to walk the walk as well as talk the talk,” said Jeff Weaver, a senior campaign aide, noting the senator’s longtime support of unions.
Campaign employees will be represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents 35,000 workers in retail, healthcare and other sectors in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere on the East Coast. Weaver said negotiations will start soon.
“I anticipate they will be extremely collegial and will come to very quick and mutually agreeable conclusions,” Weaver said.