This Date in History: Divided We Stand

Thursday, May 10, 2018

[Originally published in Synapse - The UCSF student newspaper, May 11, 2000] In honor of workers on May 1, and of unions, here is a history of unions at UCSF. There are four employee unions active on campus today: the American Federation of State and County Medical Employees (AFSCME), the California Nurses Association (CNA), the Coalition of University Employees (CUE), and University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE). Why are there are so many unions on campus?

Hypothetically a single union on this small campus would be more powerful. A larger union represents more people. In case of a strike, the last ditch union negotiating tool, more striking employees make a more powerful strike.

Susan Englander RN, PhD, worked as a nurse and union organizer at UCSF during the 1970s and 1980s. Today she is an instructor in the labor studies program at City College of San Francisco.

Until 1979 California, law forbade the participation of unions in contract negotiations between employees and management at the state universities. In 1979, representative Howard Berman sponsored the Higher Education Employee/Employer Relations Act or HEERA, giving employees of the state university system the right to union representation and collective bargaining.

As early as 1968, AFSCME had been active on the UCSF campus. Even without the ability to represent employees in contract negotiations a union can benefit employees by offering advice, legal counsel and support during grievance procedures.

After HEERA passed, union elections were called for on all UC campuses. AFSCME hoped to unionize the UCSF campus “wall to wall.”

However, several other unions were campaigning on campus. Among them were the CNA and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In 1983 union elections were held. The CNA organized the nurses and AFSCME organized all the other employees except the research and technical personnel, who chose to continue negotiating with management directly.

In 1984 the first union negotiated contracts were signed. In 1984 AFSCME also changed the structure of the locals, a move that would ultimately contribute to the number of unions on the UCSF campus.

Originally each of the UC campuses was organized as a single local. In 1984 AFSCME changed from organization by locale to organization by job type.

All the clerical workers in the UC system were joined in one local, all the service staff in another, and so on for all the job types. How best to form union groups or locals is a question of long standing in the labor movement.

Organizing by area can promote solidarity because all the members can communicate easily and all live in a similar environment. Organizing by skill can also promote solidarity because the workers have similar education levels and expectations.

As far back as the Middle Ages, guilds and proto-unions were formed by craft. Workers with similar skills organized together.

With the advent of industrialization, emigration and increasingly large factories, organizing by locale and by industry became common. At UCSF, the differences between San Francisco and the other campus communities began to outweigh the commonalties of skill for some workers.

In the mid-1990s the clerical workers on the UCSF campus decided to withdraw from AFSCME and join another union, the Coalition of University Employees (CUE). They voted to decertify AFSCME in November 1997.

At about the same time, the registered nurses across the state of California also chose to change their relationship with their union, the CNA, a professional organization like the AMA. The CNA sponsors a journal, offers career development advice, and lobbies the government. Unlike the AMA, the CNA also offers contract negotiation services through its Economic and General Welfare Department.

Until mid-1995, the CNA was run by administrative and management personnel in the nursing field. This meant that the union was management. The majority of the CNA membership by the mid-1990s were staff nurses.

When it became apparent that their union wasn’t meeting their needs, the staff nurses sponsored and elected their own candidates to the state board. Now the CNA is more responsive to employees concerns and distinctly different from the other state chapters of the American Nurses Association.

This brings us to the research and technical workers and their union, UPTE. In 1983 AFSCME was unable to organize UCSF researchers, technicians and higher level administrators.

Since the industrial revolution, in the USA, the more education an employee has, the less likely that employee is to join a union. There are many exceptions to this rule (air traffic controllers, for example), but professionals and those who aspire to managerial positions tend to identify more with management and have been reluctant to join and form unions.

The huge changes in the American economy in the past two decades are beginning to change the attitudes professional workers have towards unions. We have shifted from a goods producing economy to a service economy.

Now services, like health care, that used to be contracted individually between consumer and provider are being managed collectively. In these new workplaces even the most educated and respected workers are losing control of the hours they work, the amount they can charge and their working conditions.

Although there are four different unions active at UCSF, representing groups of employees with different needs and outlooks, labor is not weak at UCSF. When there is an issue that affects the members of all four unions, all four unions work together.

Nearly 10 years ago UC technical, research, health care and administrative professionals founded UPTE. UPTE does not yet represent a majority of the qualified workers, but it has already proven its power by negotiating superior contracts for their members.

Although there are four different unions active at UCSF, representing groups of employees with different needs and outlooks, labor is not weak at UCSF. When there is an issue that affects the members of all four unions, all four unions work together.

Recent cooperative projects include returning unused “merit pay” moneys to the employees, resisting the contracting out of UC jobs, getting cost of living adjustments that actually keep up with inflation, and sorting out the aftermath of the failed UCSF/Stanford merger.

The world we work in is changing very fast. The export of manufacturing and the continuous mergers of small companies into larger companies affect everyone. In a world that is dominated by increasingly organized and united corporate management, unions are a necessary counterbalance.