By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In the UC system, the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) rode this wave, organizing a mostly female bargaining unit of some 18,000 clerical workers, police dispatchers and child-care personnel. But by 1995, AFSCME was stuck in dusty bureaucracy.
The union collected dues but returned little to its UC workers. Few workers knew their rights; supervisors acted with willful ignorance of the union contract. Because state labor law declares an open shop for public-sector university employees, only 3 percent of the workers in the bargaining unit were active, dues-paying members.
UCLA library assistant Claudia Horning was one of many who attended the state AFSCME convention in 1994 from across the UC system. “We came with a platform that said, ‘Either Organize Us or Let Us Go.’ It passed unanimously,” she says. “And it was ignored by the AFSCME leadership.”
Soon the Coalition of University Employees, or CUE, was born. In November 1997, clericals up and down the UC system held an election to oust AFSCME and install CUE as the new, independent union.
The university chipped in its two cents with a halfhearted “no union” Web campaign that CUE president Elinor Levine, an administrative assistant at UC Berkeley, describes as “a revolting animated bear dipping its paw in a pot of honey.” An Internet campaign rolled the union on. CUE won the election with 62 percent of 6,000 votes cast.
In the original AFSCME effort, however, 17,000 clerical and other university workers cast ballots. CUE now faces the dual challenge of restoring membership while winning a first contract.
The union won‘t give numbers, but estimates that membership is around double its AFSCME nadir.
When the university held up pay raises approved by the Legislature, CUE lobbied for a law in Sacramento that would force UC to use money intended for pay raises for pay raises. When the university suggested that CUE concede work-rule language that included progressive discipline for dress-code violations (a code that Levine characterizes as “underwear must be worn; shoelaces must be clean”), members flooded administrators with protest e-mails. Recently, CUE paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times Western Edition (cost: $5,000) accusing the university of foot-dragging in contract negotiations.
For active members, CUE holds the promise of restoring balance to a public institution. “In the movement to make the university into a corporation, we’re the ones who get hurt,” says UCLA clerical Julie Monroe. Elinor Levine says that recent raises to top administrators exceed her own $27,000 salary. University officials defend the raises, asserting that comparable institutions pay similar administrators even more.
CUE‘s independence and its rank-and-file character are part of its appeal, but it may yet choose to affiliate with a larger union. Self-preservation may speed this process up: Legislation pending in Sacramento would turn the university into an agency shop, requiring that all members of a bargaining unit pay dues. While Levine is busy organizing more members to pay dues, she fears that a legislative fiat could turn CUE into booty for AFSCME: “If they decertified us, they’d make $2 million a year.” Library assistant Claudia Horning is reserved on the subject of affiliation; she fears CUE‘s best qualities would be compromised if it became Local X of a larger, bureaucratized union.
If CUE affiliates, it’ll have many neighbors to choose from. The past four years have seen successful organizing drives among four different bargaining units, including research professionals and health-care workers. The California Nurses Association and the Communication Workers of America have significant presence in the system, as now do the United Auto Workers, with the ASEs‘ success.
The football team can’t be far behind.