It’s no secret that many large employers see groups of otherwise vulnerable workers joining their voices together in pursuit of livable wages and safe working conditions as a threat.
That’s why recent decades have seen so many well financed efforts to weaken unions. From the Supreme Court’s ill-informed Janus decision, to the imposition of so-called “Right to Work” laws, the absurd rationale has been that we would all be better off if the lowest paid workers in our economy would just sit down, shut up about income inequality, and learn to do more with less.
But efforts to game our legal and legislative system are not the only fronts in this war on workers. Far more insidious battles are happening at workplaces across America, as even unionized employers work to outsource more full-time labor to private contractors or “temp” agencies that pay less.
Since the last recession, such arrangements outpaced traditional employment by a rate of 9 to 1. This is what is happening at the University of California, where employees have filed three unfair labor practice charges and will soon strike against UC’s illegal efforts to further outsource work.
In an effort to subsidize its growing legions of overpaid executives and administrative bloat, UC already outsources countless full-time jobs to poverty wage contractors. These contract workers are mostly non-unionized, overwhelmingly women and people of color, and are often subjected to abusive practices like wage theft. Some have worked at UC for decades, doing the same work as career UC employees—for as little as half the pay and few benefits.
As the university grows, it is outsourcing more work to ensure that the unionized employees who make UC run every day do not grow at the same rate—thereby weakening their overall bargaining power. According to the California State Auditor, this pattern has also included replacing career employees in favor of outsourced workers.
UC Davis’ much celebrated Aggie Square Development plan is a case in point. It calls for closing an entire adult rehab hospital unit and outsourcing 40 career UC health employees to a joint venture with a private-equity owned health staffing firm that pays its workers a median of $22,000 per year. By comparison, UC’s soon to be displaced hospital employees earn an average of twice that amount.
This past year, the University also signed other outsourcing contracts—including on valued at $150 million—and has issued additional Requests for Proposals to provide more outsourced hospital and campus workers. In doing so, UC knows full well that these workers will likely need to rely on multiple jobs and sleazy payday lenders just to pay the rent in high-cost California communities.
UC is legally required to bargain with its existing employees before imposing such radical changes.
Yet it hasn’t. In fact, it has actively refused to do so.
Like other powerful employers, UC expects both its employees and the public they serve to sit down and shut up about its illegal race to the bottom.
Such expectations are not uncommon. As these practices have accelerated, far too many leaders have failed to speak out. Yet as new burdens are placed on unions and more living wage employees are replaced with poverty wage contractors, the effects have been unmistakable. The scales of economic power have been distorted in favor of wealthy elites and produced record levels of income inequality.
The metastasizing cancer is no longer confined to “fly over” states, or rogue private employers. It has taken root at California’s premier public university and 3rd largest employer.
That’s why on May 16th, 39,000 UC employees, together with patients, students and community leaders will unite and strike against UC’s illegal outsourcing practices. This is the new front in the war on workers. And it cannot go unchallenged.
Kathryn Lybarger is president of AFSCME Local 3299.