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University of California Workers Center Disability Justice in Union Organizing

Workers built solidarity by rejecting the “deserving vs. undeserving” disabled model and scarcity approach to access.

Gloria Bartolo, a 2nd year molecular biology PhD student, leads marching UCLA postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers in Westwood as they demand better wages, student housing, child care, and more, on December 1, 2022.

Part of the Series

As President Joe Biden moves to end the public health emergency with insufficient public objection, it may appear that U.S. residents also are no longer concerned about the pandemic, nor about the lives of 4 in 10 people who are high-risk for adverse impacts, disablement or death from COVID.

Our labor organizing experience at the University of California (UC) indicates otherwise: People will take up and advocate for public health safety measures when they know they need to.

Masks are now required (and distributed) at academic worker union meetings at the University of California, Berkeley. Our union meetings have an online option too. A few months ago, they did not. This is one of the results of effective organizing and a six-week strike in late 2022 by disabled workers, student parents, and others who continue to fight for health and safety precautions amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We proposed (and are still agitating for) a Public Health and Safety clause within our contract, and we have built a broad coalition around disability justice and everyone’s right to adequate, accessible and healthy working conditions. We are now encouraging our coworkers to act directly for Safe and Healthy Workplaces by invoking and calling for an effective airborne pandemic expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

We are organizing for safe and healthy work environments within and around our union — resisting the ongoing normalization of mass disablement and death — and building hope and collective power, in the process.

The Beginnings of Organizing UC

None of this is happening in a bubble. Organizing around COVID at the University of California began as soon as the UC system announced a return to in-person instruction, without sufficient safety mitigations in place in Spring 2021. Organizing efforts continued as in-class mask mandates and other precautions were lifted throughout the 2021-22 academic year, despite the continued threat of COVID.

In step with the Biden administration, the UCs began changing their rhetoric from “masks protect the most vulnerable” to now promoting “individual responsibility” and “there will be infections on campus and we must accept that” in university-wide communications, contributing to the onslaught of misleading public health guidance that has led many people to believe that, once vaccinated, COVID is no longer a threat and the collective responsibility to keep one another safe no longer exists. The UCs lifted the mask mandate, and like several other institutions, replaced the mandate with a ban on instructors requiring students to wear masks in class.

The People’s CDC, Long COVID Justice, Long Covid Families, and many other organizations continue to thoroughly demonstrate that a reliance on a vaccine-only public health approach has obscured the real ongoing risks of COVID to the health of our communities. In the U.S., as many as 30 percent of COVID patients go on to develop Long COVID, a syndrome encompassing over 200 symptoms ranging from debilitating fatigue to blood clots, kidney failure and heart disease. As we write, over 1,300 people are still dying every week from COVID in the U.S.

Workers across the UC system opposed the return to in-person instruction without mitigations such as ventilation upgrades, surveillance testing, high-filtration masks and contact tracing. At UC Davis, disabled workers filed a grievance via UAW 2865, a union local chapter that covers all UC campuses, for remote instruction. After signaling their apparent support, the UAW union staff settled the grievance without consulting the workers, resulting in no changes and no new safety measures for workers. At UC Berkeley, a mass coalition began to build around the lifting of the mask mandate — with momentum for a strike on in-person instruction until masks were returned. As at Davis, the UAW staff and union leadership took steps to discourage this, isolating the primary people organizing around COVID safety, offering to return the issue to the union’s large meetings, and then refusing to put it on the agenda. Discouraged and isolated, the main organizers ran out of steam.

Simultaneously, however, a broad coalition of disabled workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses, many at UC Davis, have been working for years to achieve “access needs” — proactive accessibility to work and education. With union contract negotiations in process, and talk of a strike, the Disability Justice Committee (DJC), UC Access Now, and others presented a historic contract article which modeled universal design. It sought to set the stage for a smooth and easy process for disabled workers to access whatever they needed to carry out their jobs, without having to jump through loopholes of medical documentation. It included guaranteed centralized funding, universal online access to all work-related activities, access needs training for faculty and staff, and other provisions.

By the time the strike rolled around, the conservative bargaining team members, in the majority, had gutted many of the central elements of the Access Needs article. However, that process had activated students in its defense, and educated members of the bargaining team and others about disability rights.

The start of the pandemic has seen a rise in labor organizing and independent agitation for labor rights, particularly starting in 2020 around health and safety. The institutional unions, like the UAW, Teamsters, SEIU, and others however have been mired in business unionism, whereby union leadership’s decisions are more closely aligned with management, than with workers, for decades. Operating as they do does not put workers’ needs first, it instead consolidates power to the union leadership at the expense of the rank-and-file members.

With academic workers comparing notes on COVID safety precautions through social media, we read news of Rutgers Faculty Union filing a charge with the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission, and winning the right for faculty to require masks in their classrooms. We wondered if we could use a similar logic, and decided it was worth trying.

The Largest Strike in U.S. Academic Labor History

With the strike on the horizon, and the ongoing organizing fighting for COVID safety at our universities, we began to agitate for COVID safety measures during strike activities and a health and safety article in the contracts being negotiated. We wrote an open letter titled, “Disability Rights are Worker Rights,” detailing our demands for instructors and students to be able to secure universal masking in their classrooms, as well as ventilation upgrades across university facilities, contact tracing, and other layers of protection, which we brought to the official union DJC, and began circulating for signatures. We had clear allies in the DJC group at Davis, UC Access Now, and groups of dissidents across our union’s 10 campus branches, who had successfully organized in the past on a social justice unionism platform.

While pursuing official union channels, we also began mass-distributing up-to-date COVID information and safety guidelines. A primary resource we used was the People’s CDC Weekly Weather Report while making our own flyers, and distributing on social media, group chats, emails, and at in-person events like picket lines.

We repeatedly tried to engage union staff and leadership to mandate, or at least encourage, COVID safety in the name of disability justice, a concept official union channels repeatedly claimed was a top priority. We explained how disabled people are at higher risk for severe outcomes if they are infected and how these risks intersect with the disproportionate harms experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color; migrants; and parents during the pandemic — all of which are groups our union claimed to champion during our strike. We underscored how COVID precautions are a workplace safety issue, something our union should be fighting for. We were frequently met with stonewalling, dismissal of the danger presented by COVID, and lies about what is possible in contract negotiations.

Sometimes, in an apparent effort to tire us out or waste time, they made a pretense to take on our demands, offering to draft an article, then gutting the core demands. Some union bargaining team members incorrectly informed us that it was illegal to add new articles to the contract at that point of the negotiation process. We consulted with our own legal counsel, labor lawyers from within our community who told us that a “new article” was a political problem, not a labor law problem. There’s no such thing as “too late” — if we had the numbers.

In conversation with disability lawyers, also within our networks, we came to the conclusion that based on legal precedent — including several federal court cases that sided with medically vulnerable children suing for the right to have universal masking in their classrooms — that not only did we have the right to ask for masking in our workplaces and classrooms, but the UC’s outright ban on instructors requiring masks, was a violation of the ADA. One of our disability justice coalition members had served on a past bargaining team: together, we drafted our own Public Health Provisions Article.

Realizing the majority of the leadership and staff were entrenched in the Biden and UC administrations’ mindset of “moving on from COVID,” we went to the real power of our union: the rank-and-file members. We continued distributing resources and building our coalition and engaging with our fellow members at every opportunity. We shared the link to our open letter in every zoom meeting, group chat and email thread, and garnered more signatures. We then emailed those contacts every time there was a relevant bargaining session — like a three-hour-long meeting on Access Needs in which disabled students told heart-wrenching stories about both their struggles to secure accommodations, and their harrowing and disabling experiences with COVID. We created our own group chat, and invited active rank-and-file members to join. We attended and spoke up at every union meeting we could — all of which were held online — reiterating the risks posed to our fellow workers while sharing our Public Health Provisions Article that union leadership refused to even consider. We joined teach-ins, spoke at rallies, wrote press releases and articles and spoke with journalists. We spoke truth to power and we saw the impact in real time.

Workers reported more and more masking at picket lines over time, and at meetings. Of particular note, organizers at UC Santa Barbara were able to modify the picket line check-in station to provide a mask to every person that checked in. More workers began asking their campus union representatives about COVID safety in the contracts. Toward the end of the strike, when our bargaining team pushed through an inadequate tentative agreement with the year-end holidays around the corner, we saw “no vote” proponents take up our struggle independently. We received email communications from organizers we had never spoken to citing our words, and demands for the right to universal masking, to access needs without medical documentation and amplifying our actions.

Research Confirms Our Experience

In November 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study showing that when people think COVID transmission is high, they will willingly engage with protective measures. Polling also shows majority, bipartisan support for COVID safety measures in union contracts, and overall support for indoor mask mandates. We witnessed the same phenomena play out in real time during our strike. A lot of our fellow workers do in fact care for one another and will take up COVID precautions when they know they need to. But because of misleading messaging from the CDC, most people do not know when COVID transmission rates are high. As testing infrastructure is further dismantled, and the CDC’s “community levels map” warning system is based on a delayed and flawed indicator which plays down COVID’s real ongoing harms, many people believe incorrectly that COVID is no longer a threat.

Of course, we did not accomplish these wins on our own, even within the disability justice network we had built. We expanded and began working with other UC-based coalitions, such as Cops Off Campus and Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) 4 All, as well as parent workers and international workers, because all of our fights are connected. We amplified each other’s messages and worked together to educate membership and build mutual aid networks to provide the support union leadership was unwilling to fight for and the UC was unwilling to provide.

This expansion of solidarity and mutual support has led our group to take a next step in achieving the demands we didn’t win in our contract: the right to safe and healthy workplaces. With others we met in the strike, we recently wrote and released a workplace safety pamphlet encouraging UC workers to invoke ADA protections and request accommodations in the form of layers of protection through campus disability programs. We are expanding on the theory and praxis of disability justice and specifically of UC Access Now, by rejecting a scarcity approach to access and refusing a model of “deserving vs. undeserving” disabled people. Our strike emboldened us to together take this next step of welcoming everyone into disability justice. We know that by expanding our practice of solidarity, we can and will grow the power to win safe and healthy workplaces, and disability justice for all.

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