UCSC workers shouldn't have to choose between legal rights and health

Source: Wyman Lee, Guest Commentary, Santa Cruz Sentinel

By late December 2019, the skilled craft workers at UC Santa Cruz had been trying to forge a new contract agreement with university administrators for two years.

Though UCSC's revenues were growing much faster than its expenses, we hadn't had a raise in three years and were being paid as much as 30% less than comparable workers at neighboring institutions.

With the student population continuing to grow, UCSC left us short-staffed while doing the physically demanding jobs of renovating student housing units, installing electrical equipment, HVAC and campus security systems, and maintaining UCSC's water lines, gas lines, pumping systems and other building infrastructure.

Though we'd negotiated in good faith with UC, there was no agreement in sight. In fact, UC had just announced it was imposing contract terms that would keep wages low and increase our health insurance rates.

I'd come to work at UC as an HVAC Technician in 2016, determined to build a career that could build a better future for my family a " especially for my 10-year-old son who was battling a form of brain cancer called recurrent cortical anaplastic ependymoma.

The stakes were high. But I knew I couldn't afford the status quo, nor could I afford to start over. So I joined my colleagues in exercising our rights under the law, and voted to authorize the first strike in the history of our bargaining unit.

When we walked off the job on Jan. 6, 2020, we knew it meant a loss of pay. We were prepared to make that sacrifice, hoping that management would finally take our staffing and wage proposals seriously. They did not.

Instead, within a few days, the threatening emails started. Management told us that our strike was an "unapproved leave." Under UC's policies, that could result in cancellation of our employer-sponsored health insurance for up to a year.

All I could think about was my son. He relied on our $2,000 per month, employer-sponsored family insurance for his life-saving radiation treatments. But he also relied on me, as his father, to be able to do my job safely and to earn enough to create a better future for him and our family.

Management knew about my predicament. They knew my family was vulnerable. They couldn't do this to me, could they?

I was outraged. And I was being forced to make a choice that no one should have to make a " between my legal right to strike for better wages, and the immediate health care needs of my son.

Together with my colleagues we resolved to stay strong together. I was terrified for what that might mean for my son. However on Jan. 21, UC finally responded to our demands, and settled our contract.

But the question of whether an employer could really cancel healthcare for employees exercising their legal rights lingered. A few months after we settled our contract, General Motors made good on a threat to cancel coverage for 50,000 workers in nine states, just two days after their contract negotiations collapsed. After a public outcry ensued, the top leaders of our federal government got involved and the benefits were restored.

As a policy matter for workers, the question of what happens to healthcare if contract negotiations reach an impasse remains. UC's policies that would punish strikers by cutting off health coverage are still on the books. And UC is not alone. The question has become even more urgent to answer as we confront a global pandemic that has forced many workers to endure additional economic hardships, and take on new workplace hazards without adequate protection.

Thankfully, state Assembly Member Adam Gray has stepped up with an effort to settle the question. This year, he introduced the Public Employee Health Protection Act (AB 237), which would explicitly prohibit public employers from canceling the health coverage of workers engaged in a lawful strike.

The measure quickly passed both houses of the Legislature with bi-partisan support. It is currently sitting on Gov. Newsom's desk. I am praying that he will sign it.

Because healthcare isn't about leverage in a labor dispute. For families like mine, it's about life and death.

Wyman Lee is an HVAC Technician at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a member of AFSCME Local 3299.