Janet Mucino has been a senior cook with UC Santa Cruz Dining Services for 20 years. For those two decades, Mucino has had to work two jobs to make ends meet, costing her time with her family — even just to make dinner for them.

Dining employees’ wages, she explains, aren’t enough to cover the cost of traveling to work, parking on campus, and securing housing in Santa Cruz. This coupled with the persistent labor shortage in the dining hall hasn’t helped with worker retention, either. 

“The morale is so low now, and that’s why we lose a lot of new employees,” Mucino said. “We’ve worked here for a long time so we keep going, but the new people go in and see what we see. They don’t stay.” 

Mucino is a member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299. The UC-wide union represents over 30,000 service workers, skilled craft workers, and patient care technical workers.

UCSC has been no stranger to union activity in this past year.  

In fall 2022, union members from United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, UAW 5810, and Student Researchers United-UAW — consisting of academic employees, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers — went on a historic UC-wide strike. At UCSC, members gathered for six weeks at both campus entrances, picketing for higher wages, childcare subsidies, and healthcare benefits. 

Now, AFSCME 3299 has begun ramping up its presence. In April 2023, the union launched its $25/5% campaign across all nine UC campuses. The campaign demands that the UC should raise its minimum wage to $25 per hour, including for non-union student workers; for those already making $25 or more, they should receive a five percent increase in their pay rates. 

“What we ask for is what we deserve,” Mucino said. “We deserve more than that.” 

AFSCME 3299 has three contracts with the University of California: one with the Patient Care Technical Unit, one with the Service Unit, and one with the Skilled Crafts bargaining unit. 

Bargaining for new contracts with the UC isn’t set to begin until January 2024. However, amidst a bleak housing crisis in Santa Cruz County juxtaposed with labor movements throughout the country, AFSCME members believe the time for action from administration is now.

“[The UC] doesn’t value the work that our members are doing. They don’t value the fact that our members are going through a crisis,” said Rebecca Gilpas, an organizer with AFSCME 3299. “So, we will do what we normally do — fight the university for our struggle.” 

The Moment, the Movement 

Nationally, public support for labor unions is at a 57-year high since 1965. A 2022 poll by Gallup found 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions. This percentage is up from 64 percent before the pandemic.

However, union membership itself stands at an all-time low of 10.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which began tracking it in 1983.

Jana Silverman, Programs Director for UCSC’s Center for Labor and Community, noted that union membership has been on the decline since the late ʼ70s. 

“In the United States, we have […] a neoliberal type of capitalism where […] labor and employer partnerships are not very valued [because] they’re not really a part of our national workplace culture,” Silverman said. “It’s very much more individualist.” 

Despite the decline, Silverman said that the COVID-19 pandemic galvanized the idea for many workers that something was deeply wrong with labor relations in the United States. 

UCSC senior custodian and AFSCME member Nicolas Gutierrez recalls the pandemic vividly. While much of the world shut down, service workers at UCSC remained at work on campus. 

“We were at the front line in the medical centers. You had all those workers there taking care of those patients. Workers […] in the dining halls were feeding students,” Gutierrez said. “We were making sure we were cleaning and disinfecting everything so that people didn’t wind up in the hospitals. We never stopped working.” 

Gutierrez, Mucino, and Gilpas all agreed that despite the immense amount of labor by workers during the pandemic, wages remain insufficient. 

Another catalyst for the campaign is the soaring rent costs in Santa Cruz and the limited affordable options for housing throughout the county. 

The 2023 Out of Reach Report, published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, found that Santa Cruz County is the most expensive rental market in the country. 

The same report also found that to afford a two-bedroom rental home in Santa Cruz, you’d have to make at least $63.33 an hour so as to not spend more than thirty percent of your income on housing. In comparison, senior cooks like Mucino have a starting pay of $24.73 per hour; senior custodians make $22.47 per hour. The UC-wide minimum wage for staff employees currently stands at $18.90, according to the University of California Office of the President (UCOP). 

For people living in the county, one out of four renters spend seventy percent or more of their income on rent and utilities — rather than food, medicine, and other necessities — according to the 2021 “No Place Like Home” study by UCSC researchers. 

For many AFSCME members, the situation is dire. 

“We lose people because they can’t afford to live in Santa Cruz, they can’t even afford to live in California,” Gilpas said. 

Members of the union who work at the university came out to support their fellow workers’ call for change. Thomas Brazer (far left) is an HVAC technician at UCSC.

Call and Response 

AFSCME 3299 members officially launched their $25/5% campaign at a demonstration at UCSC on April 12 organized by the Worker Student Solidarity Coalition. 

During the demonstration, Nicolas Gutierrez hand-delivered the union’s demands to Clement Stokes, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Risk and Safety Service, and William Prime, the Executive Director of Dining Services. 

In terms of communication between the administration and the union about the $25/5% campaign, Gutierrez characterized it as nonexistent. 

“[The UC administration] seems to act like business as usual and don’t show an interest or just don’t care,” Gutierrez said. “They only seem to retain and care about administration up at the top.” 

City on a Hill Press (CHP) first asked William Prime to comment on the campaign. He directed CHP to the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), noting that “AFSCME is a systemwide contract.” 

In email correspondence with CHP, Ryan King, Associate Director of Media Relations for UCOP, confirmed that the UC is aware of and reviewing the demands of the $25/5% campaign. However, until bargaining begins, UC will adhere to the implementation of the salaries they agreed upon with the union. 

King also stated that AFSCME’s lack of a formal economic proposal regarding the campaign’s demands does not specify how the requested wages would be applied over the duration of the parties’ next contract. 

“It is extremely difficult to review the proposal, to compare it to our salary data, to accurately cost out the $25/5% campaign, or to understand the impacts on UC’s operating budget,” King wrote. 

Despite uncertainty over the state of the $25/5% campaign, one thing is certain. As students return to campus in the fall, workers like Mucino and Gutierrez will be there to feed and clean up after the thousands of students and maintain the grounds of the 2,000-acre campus.

As bargaining looms next year, AFSCME members are gearing up for an uphill battle with the UC. 

“In the 30 years I’ve been here, it’s always been a fight. [The] UC has never given anything just […] out of a good heart,” Gutierrez said. “We’ve always had to take what we deserve from them.”