Strike that

University of California’s working poor battle Wal-Mart’s PR firm

Seth Sandronsky is a frequent SN&R contributor.

Two weeks ago, the 8,500 service workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses and five hospitals—including UC Davis and UC Davis Medical Center—walked off their jobs for four days. What could motivate cooks, gardeners and janitors, among other job classifications, to defy a San Francisco judge’s restraining order and protest stalled contract talks? It’s not as if they had money to spare in a walkout.

But according to the union that represents them, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, 96 percent of its service workers earn “poverty wages.” That means in spite of their union jobs, they are income-eligible to receive public aid for child care, food and housing. They are the “working poor.”

Crucially, the union members who went on strike July 14-18 join scores of wage earners and their families from all walks of life fighting to make ends meet. These are California families—millions of them—that “struggle to afford even the most basic necessities,” according to Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project.

What if AFSCME had linked its members’ bid for improved jobs and wages to similar improvements for other low-income Californians? Might such a move have improved the public response to the short strike? Open mouths get fed. Clearly, AFSCME has appealed to public opinion concerning its members’ low wages vs. the high pay of UC execs, such as the university system’s new president, Mark G. Yudof. He gets close to $1 million a year in overall compensation.

I asked Nicole Savickas, a UC spokeswoman, what strategies were being used to influence public opinion on behalf of the universities during the strike. She denied that the universities were attempting to “sway public opinion,” although she did confirm that UC employed the public-relations firm of Hill & Knowlton, an industry biggie.

Sheldon Rampton, an author and research director for the Center for Media and Democracy, is familiar with Hill & Knowlton. According to Rampton, “Everything that we have seen about [Hill & Knowlton’s] activities regarding labor issues suggests that it is the sort of company people hire when they plan to engage in union busting or when they have a reputation for unfair labor practices.” He cited the example of Wal-Mart, which hired Hill & Knowlton in January 2005. Rampton said that Hill & Knowlton were “to assist with a national PR blitz aimed at countering criticisms of its labor practices.”

UC and Wal-Mart share more than a PR firm.

Lakesha Harrison, a UC licensed vocational nurse and president of AFSCME Local 3299, was quoted in a Santa Ynez paper as saying that the low wages of UC service workers are similar to those of non-union Wal-Mart employees—low enough to qualify for taxpayer aid.

Yes, the year-long battle over a new contract for service workers with the UC system, the crown jewel of California’s higher education, is about workers’ dollars and cents. But it is also about a labor union and management vying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people.