UC strike organizer draws from immigration struggle in fight for campus workers

on November 1, 2018

Maricruz Manzanarez grabbed tight to weeds and scrub brush growing out from the dirt ridge on one side of the tracks, bracing herself as the train approached, afraid. She worried that the train was going so fast it would suck her in as it went by. She felt its pull on her as it sped past. Caught between the railcars and the ridge, between Mexico and the United States, Manzanarez held on tight.

Just a few years ago she had been living in an orphanage in Cuernavaca, a town in central Mexico. Eighteen months ago she had had her first son at 19. When she applied for a US visa to join members of her family already in America, her son had been approved, but Manzanarez had not.

So, she had put her son on a plane with her husband, then began her own journey with a group of about a dozen others that included traveling through underground drainage pipes, taking high-stakes instructions from complete strangers, and hiding from horse-mounted immigration agents.

Once the train passed, Manzanarez let go of the scrub and broke into a sprint. The tracks led to her new country, where a truck would pick her up and take her to her aunt’s house in Los Angeles where she would reunite with her infant son and husband after two weeks apart.

Her journey had been a series of struggles that would not end when she reached the US. The path that started in the orphanage and brought her across the border would eventually bring her to the Bay Area, where she would have to face down health scares, displacement, and a tough fight for a secure, middle-class life in the United States.

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Last week, Manzanarez, now 49 and working as a custodian at UC Berkeley, took the latest step in that fight. She led a three-day strike of University of California support staff workers in an ongoing effort to win a new union contract.

UC, she said, has not done enough for the women and men who maintain the campuses. “UC is one of the largest employers in the state. They should be setting a standard,” she said as her union, AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 25,000 UC workers including support staff and healthcare workers, prepared for the strike.

The University of California system stopped negotiating with its workers this past April after the union refused the university’s final offer. That offer included a three percent raise and also called for increased health insurance costs and a change to a 401(k) retirement plan instead of a pension for some new workers.

Instead of negotiating further, the university implemented a two percent raise and other terms on support staff and patient care technical workers that work in University-affiliated hospitals. The strike last week was aimed at bringing the university back to the negotiating table.

Manzanarez, who earns about $24 an hour after 20 years of service, knows that getting a better contract is possible. Her twin brother works as a custodian for the East Bay Municipal Utility District and earns $8 an hour more than she does, she said.

To win a new contract after a year and a half of stalled negotiations will take a fight, but Manzanarez has plenty of experience.

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Manzanarez crossed the border by herself in the late 1980s at the age of a typical UC Berkeley sophomore. She then took a job earning $4.50 an hour at Jack in the Box, where she took the menu home to study so she could work the cash register using English. Eventually, she found something more secure: her custodian position at the university where she started making just over $9 an hour, plus benefits.

For Manzanarez, the benefits turned out to be key. Her work as a custodian is hard. “I do waxing, upholstery, stripping furniture, polish metal surfaces like the elevators, sweep, mop, shampoo carpets, power wash the floors, buffer,” she said. “It gets heavy.”

One day in 2003, she says, “I just started feeling like a pinching needle in my shoulder.” It was her rotator cuff, torn from the physical nature of her work.

However, at the doctor’s, an accidental scan of her neck turned up news far worse than a torn rotator cuff: thyroid cancer.

“The fact that you hear ‘cancer,’ it’s just like, you’re dead,” said Manzanarez, starting to fiddle with a stack of Post-Its on her desk and fighting off tears. “I didn’t tell my husband, I didn’t tell my kids, I didn’t tell anyone but my sister.”

She explained away her follow up visits to her family, saying they were related to her rotator cuff. But on the day of the surgery on her thyroid, she called her husband and told him, “If I don’t come out of this, take care of the kids.” When he asked what she was talking about, she told him the truth. She had cancer.

Rare side-effects from a calcium deficiency made recovery complicated. Muscles and joints in her hands would contract severely, nails digging into her palms. At her lowest, she compared herself to Jack Skellington from A Nightmare Before Christmas, because of the combination of stitches from surgery and the way her hands behaved. “I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw that doll,” she said.

Manzanarez beat the cancer and fully recovered, but she will have to take medication for the rest of her life which she relies on her health insurance to cover. Under the terms UC has implemented, her medicine will become more expensive and eat up most of her raise.

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Public sector jobs, like those at the University of California, have traditionally been a pathway to the middle class, especially for those from marginalized backgrounds. For Manzanarez, it was another step on her path to the American Dream. Manzanarez’s custodial job, along with her husband’s university support job, was enough to buy a house in Richmond in 2007.

It was nice while it lasted. The following year, the housing market collapsed as part of the Great Recession, and by 2009, the house was gone. Since then she has remarried, but had to relocate to Dublin where she and her second husband live in a home his parents own.

Manzanarez says her wages have not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of housing in the Bay Area, and buying a house now is probably not feasible.

She says she’s far from the only university worker in a similar situation, a major reason behind their current contract fight. “I’m not just fighting for myself and my family,” she said. “I’m fighting for everyone in these conditions.”

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Manzanarez did not always support the union. Her first experience with it was trying to quit.

In 2005, Manzanarez had been trying to get union representatives to do something about a heavy and increasing workload for custodians, with few results. “You call the union and no one answers the phone,” she said.

Finally, a representative showed up on a Friday, telling the workers there would be a strike beginning Monday. “I went to payroll to get me out of that union,” said Manzanarez, who now wears a union jacket reading “We Run UC” over a union shirt dotted with union pins. “I don’t care about it and it doesn’t represent me.” But membership was mandatory. If she couldn’t quit, she decided, she would find out what they were doing.

She saw that the maintenance department was picketing. They wanted an end to unfair wage disparities between their members, and they won. Some got raises worth thousands of dollars a year.

When they won, it sparked Manzanarez’s imagination. “If you could do that with 24 people,” she said, referring to the size of the maintenance department, “imagine what you could do with 150 custodians.”

The custodians started their own campaign for raises—and they won too. Manzanarez was in the union for good, running for executive board and spending her off hours organizing her coworkers.

Going out to meet workers, she is sometimes on the other side of the interaction she had nearly 15 years ago. At an informal meeting of about 15 custodians before the strike, she showed up decked out in union attire and explained what the strike would mean with the help of another custodian, Donella, who works in the building. “While we’re on strike, no one come to work!” said Manzanarez. “You come back to work on Friday.”

One worker asked when the next negotiation meeting between the university and the union will be.

“They don’t have a meeting,” said Manzanarez.

“That’s why we’re fighting,” said Donella.

Then, as the meeting broke down into pairs and threes discussing the strike, an older custodian came up to Manzanarez. “How do I get out of the union?” he demanded angrily. It was the same question Manzanarez asked years ago.

Now, however, union membership is not mandatory. She gave him a phone number to call, responded with good nature to his negative comments, and wound down the conversation.

Outside in the parking lot, Manzanarez remained positive. “He’ll come around,” she said. “I never give up hope.”

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