Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement
By Marcos Vargas, PhD, Executive Director for the Fund for Santa Barbara
It is with a heavy heart that I decline the honor of delivering the commencement speech for the upcoming UC Santa Barbara College of Letters and Science graduation ceremony due to the failure of the University of California to reach an agreement with the hundreds of service workers represented by AFSCME Local 3299. This decision was difficult for me, both as a UCSB alumnus and someone who values the role that the university, its students, faculty, staff and alumni, have, and continue to play, in creating a just and sustainable region and state.
My decision has been informed by my many years of experience as a community labor activist in the fight for a living wage and workers’ rights. This decision reflects the values instilled in me by my parents, who labored long hours in often unsafe working conditions for extremely low wages in farm labor and other service work. My decision was also motivated by knowledge of the critical role organized labor continues to play in our nation’s fight for fair wages, health benefits and decent working conditions for all workers. My own father, after leaving his work in the agricultural sector, went on to work as a longshoreman represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). This allowed my family to move into the middle class, with an income and health coverage sufficient to support four children and their successful pursuit of a college education.
I am taking this action to remind the UC Administration that all university workers, including the lowest paid service workers, such as custodians, nurses and food service workers, are to be valued. Furthermore, my decision not to speak should remind the Administration that UC alumni and the community at large expect our University of California to have only the highest standards for labor practices. I strongly urge the UC Administration to fairly negotiate with these workers through their represented union to effectively address the issues of:
- fair and equitable wages and affordable healthcare
- immigrant rights, including sanctuary protection and commitment of non-collaboration with ICE
- protections from sexual harassment, through robust grievance procedures
- retirement security that maintains equity in the current pension program, over risky 401K opt-out plans for the UC’s thousands of non-executive workers
I stand with the 25,000 members of AFSCME Local 3299, 91% of whom are women and people of color, and with their numerous ally unions and community-based organizations, as well as the other speakers, including Representative John Lewis, Senator Kamala Harris, Representative Ted Lieu, and actor Mayim Bialik, who have also declined attending and speaking at commencement ceremonies. We unite in our call for the University of California to return to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith for a fair contract that protects UC workers and offers dignity and respect to their families, the patients they care for, and the students they serve.