Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

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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.

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pstarSR Jun 17, 2018 10:41 AM
Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

The commencement is NOT a place for soapboxing and discussing issues not related to graduation.

I 100% believe and stand behind what the OP is fighting against. I also realize that there is a time and place for discussion of this, and it is NOT during a graduation ceremony

Factotum Jun 15, 2018 10:16 PM
Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

Janus vs AFSCME ruling soon to be out effectively curtailing the abuses of mandatory public sector union membership. You could have talked about the difference between taxpayer funded public sector unions, and your cloying nostalgia for private sector unions. And you could have explored the inherent unfairness in public sector unions like AFSCME since they get to sit on both sides of the bargaining table and nothing is ever enough. Make your case to the taxpayers they are getting value in return for your endless demands on their own living wages.

RHS Jun 16, 2018 08:25 AM
Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

I support the union and condemn UC for its consistent sell out to corporate interests over the recent years. Too much money to unproductive staff hired for their status. Too little interest in the primary job of educating California students. Still I don't understand this statement: "I stand with the 25,000 members of AFSCME Local 3299, 91% of whom are women and people of color..." Is the idea that we would not support the economic justice aspects of this labor action if the union was 91% male and european? Let's be real. Exploitation of workers is an evil that needs to be addressed independently of any sexist or ethnic bias.

a-1529166078 Jun 16, 2018 09:21 AM
Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

What a lengthy diatribe. Is Mr. Vargas setting himself up for a future in politics? Ugh. Sure, those grads were sorry to miss such a speaker. All they want to do is have a last beer with their classmates and clean out their apartments.

EastBeach Jun 16, 2018 01:43 PM
Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the OP's decision, the only critic I'd listen to here is someone who's also had to trade between the same type of opportunity the OP had and a deeply held personal belief. The rest of us are just part of the peanut gallery.

a-1529253025 Jun 17, 2018 09:30 AM
Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

Totally agree with you. I read in the news today something which is quite similar to the quandary that Mr. Vargas finds himself in : "Jay-Z and Beyonce late Saturday released "Everything is Love," a surprise album after years of speculation that they were working on a joint project. The album -- which came two years after Beyonce revealed Jay-Z's infidelity through lyrics -- again offers plenty of tidbits into the lives of music's most famous couple."

Bob Wilson Jun 17, 2018 05:28 PM
Why I Choose to Stand with Workers During Commencement

The students and families were probably much better off not hearing you speak. Graduation ceremonies are a time to celebrate accomplishments, not to be used as a forum for protests. Incredibly selfish of you to think otherwise.

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