How the UC regents avoided a PR mess with Bill Clinton

Posters spotted at UC Berkeley
Rebecca Bowe

Things were calm and peaceful outside San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, perched high atop a windy hill on Mason Street, as dark shiny vehicles rolled up to the stately entrance and well-dressed patrons filed in on the evening of Feb. 24. They were there to hear former President Bill Clinton deliver a speech titled “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: Building a Better World,” as a benefit for the American Himalayan Foundation. The AHF is chaired by Richard Blum, a member of the University of California Board of Regents who is married to Sen. Diane Feinstein.

As guests arrived, a small group of workers tried to thrust neon green fliers into their hands. The fliers were headlined, “Tell Richard Blum to Stop Poverty at UC!” and charged that the UC Regents had approved a package of raises for UC executives on Jan. 21 even as front-line UC workers faced layoffs and cuts. The stack of Xeroxed fliers was a mere blip compared with what AFSCME Local 3299, the union that represents workers throughout the University of California system, had originally planned.

The union had organized a picket against Blum’s AHF event, which would have forced Clinton to cross a picket line in order to go in. Not only would this have created an unwanted spectacle, it could have marred the entire event. As AFSCME Local 3299 member Tim Thrush put it, “Bill Clinton is a friend of labor. AFSCME has worked with him a lot in the past … And Clinton will not cross the picket line.”

UC workers have been reeling in the face of massive layoffs and budget cuts. While the university administration contends that there is little it can do in the face of a decimated state budget, union workers point to examples of privatization on the UC campus as an alarming trend that is supplanting public-sector jobs and eroding California’s renowned public-education system.

AFSCME Local 3299 laid out three demands, according to organizer Danielle DiSilverio. While two -- involving benefits for custodians at the Irvine campus and concerns about “reductions in time” at the Santa Cruz and San Diego campuses -- have not been met, they did secure an agreement to abandon a plan to contract out jobs for shuttle drivers at UC Berkeley. Since the UC Berkeley shuttle drivers would be able to keep their jobs, Local 3299 called off the picket.

“We would prefer to not have to do this kind of stuff,” Thrush told the Guardian. “But unfortunately, in the world that Dick Blum operates in, we can’t get his attention unless we do stuff like this. As he works hard on poverty issues and gives money and time to poverty issues, he also makes decisions at UC that further the poverty problem of our lowest-paid workers. We want to keep reminding him that it’s not OK to do that.”