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An Education on Activism at One California University

by Cynthia McCabe  |  October 22, 2012

Jose and Marcela Mendez
Jose and Marcela Mendez (Photo by Cynthia McCabe)

LOS ANGELES – Lunchtime is in full throttle on the UCLA campus as Marcela Mendez threads through throngs of students, bound for cafeterias and coffee shops and dorms, determined to talk to as many workers on their rotating breaks as she can.

She’s a housekeeping staff member at the university but today she is focused on her work as an AFSCME activist, educating workers about the importance of fighting for their pensions, a fair contract and workers’ rights. All are considered fair game by politicians these days in California.

AFSCME VotesThe University of California is proposing a tiered pension and health care system that means deep benefit cuts for working and middle class Californians. Under the proposal, new workers would pay $350 a month for their pensions, up from the current $250 a month. And what would they get for their bigger payment? About $525 less per month when their pension check comes in retirement.

“I explain to them how people are attacking our retirement,” Mendez says in Spanish, pressing into workers’ hands a flyer advertising an upcoming contract rally. “I ask them do they know how a pension is supposed to work? Are they willing to fight for it?”

Mendez isn’t alone in her campus activism. Local 3299’s housekeeping and dining staff join hospital workers at the medical center, janitors and environmental services workers in rallying colleagues.

Café worker Martha Torres talks to her coworkers about the importance of speaking up collectively, which isn’t always an easy sell to lower-income Latino workers fearful of retribution. But she prods them to action anyway.

“I want them to get the message about our rights,” Torres said. “It’s too important for them not to get it.”

It’s not just the proposed university contract that’s compelling UCLA staff to act. They’re also part of a statewide effort to defeat Prop 32. The measure restricts union members like Mendez and Torres from having dues voluntarily deducted from their paychecks to fight for political causes and candidates they believe in. But corporations? They’re still free to give as much as they’d like. Not surprisingly the corporate executives, oil companies, banks, super PACs and other billionaires who are backing Prop 32 are also all exempted from its restrictions.

Newspapers across California are lining up to decry Prop 32. The Los Angeles Times wrote recently, “Proposition 32 bristles with enormous loopholes tailor-made for businesses and their wealthy backers.” The Stockton Record called Prop 32 a fraud. And the San Jose Mercury News added, Prop 32 is “a deceptive sham that would magnify the influence of wealthy interests while shutting out many middle-class voters.”

The face-to-face interaction with registered voters that AFSCME members in California are engaged in each day is crucial to Prop 32’s defeat. Because for every $1 a union member spends advocating the middle class, businesses spend $15. And if Prop 32 passes, workers in California know what’s coming next: measures that threaten jobs, overtime pay, retirement security and their very right to unionize.

Halfway through the day, Mendez pauses long enough to update another UCLA activist – her husband, Jose Mendez, a vending machine technician. Between the two, they have given 38 years of service to the campus and by extension, the residents of California. They’re not going to let their voice be minimized in return.

“We don’t want any of what happened in Wisconsin, in Ohio,” says Jose Mendez, referring to attacks on workers’ rights and union representation by right-wing governors and their wealthy backers. “We want to keep California’s unions strong.”

Before they part ways for the afternoon Mendez offers evidence of how powerful it is to simply be asked by a volunteer to get involved in a fight like the one for pension protection or Prop 32. His route to activism?

“I’m mainly involved because of her,” he says, smiling at Marcela, who ducks her head shyly. “She’s a natural leader.”

Has anyone asked you to get involved in these final weeks of the campaign? If not, consider yourself asked. Visit AFSCME.org to find out how you can help in your state. 

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