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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Labor Leader Bill Camp Outraged at UC Davis for Treatment of Food Service Workers and Protesters

Bill Camp is an old-time, bare knuckles, labor organizer now with the Sacramento Central Labor Council. The Sacramento Central Labor Council is a council of the all of the unions in the six counties around Sacramento, including Yolo County. The workers and their unions send delegates to a council meeting each month, they select officers every three years, and those officers hire staff. Bill Camp is the chief executive officer selected by the elected board. Their job is to speak for working families, mobilize support for organizing, and mobilize political support to elect people for office who will support working families.

Last Wednesday Bill Camp, 63, was one of several protesters who entered Mrak Hall, sat down on the first floor and was arrested for failure to disperse. And in fact, the protesters including Camp, were charged with not only failure to disperse but also trespassing.

The protesters went into the building in advance to see how to enter the building. They tried to see Chancellor Vanderhoef, but access to his office was blocked, and he was not there. Camp, wearing a tie and slacks, appeared as though he was some “old professor,” to use his words. The protesters went up to the second floor because they couldn’t get up to the fifth floor where the chancellor’s office is located. So, they went to the fourth floor and were going to walk up to the fifth floor.

“What is different is everyone has text message, so we could text message all the time about where everybody was. So all of a sudden my phone gets a beep that says ‘cops in the stairwell be careful.’ You don’t even have to talk to each other, you just text message. ‘So meet you on the second floor.’ Text messaging was our secret,” said Camp.

So they all went into the conference room on the second floor and that’s where they hung out and hung out the window to rile up the crowd.

Mr. Camp felt that their approach really threw the university off in terms of what to expect and how to approach the protesters.

“The students were super, super nice to the university, nobody could complain about the students, but on the other hand they were very militant. So they were not going to get pushed around. So this was confusing to the university because they saw the militancy and they said, no this is a principle and we’re staying with the principle, we’re going to jail. But we’re not going to be jerks about it. We’re just going to go jail.”

The university let them have the conference room but they had to vacate at 5 pm. They went back inside and sat in a circle.

“But before we left we closed all the windows, put the chairs under the table, we picked up all the trash. You couldn’t ask for anybody to be more respectful. On the other hand, all of us were going to get arrested; there wasn’t any question about that.”

“It was an interesting mix, because it strategically really threw them off. They expect us to be jerks, but we’re not going to be jerks, but we’re not going to refuse not to get arrested, so they were very confused about that.”

So they were inside and could not see what was happening outside.

“I don’t know what happened, but my suspicion was that they freaked out about the students outside and they got scared. So they started arresting us guys. The reason they arrested us was to get us away from you [the protesters outside].”

The police officer came in and was sweating the whole time. He tells them it’s an unlawful assembly, they have to leave and if they don’t leave in three minutes they will get arrested. So of course, they all refuse to leave because it is their intent to get arrested. So one-by-one they arrest each of the protesters, read them their rights and asked them if they understand. It took over an hour to arrest all of the protesters including Camp—that is how methodically they did it.

“I’m sixty-three years old and it was clear I don’t move very fast, so I’m getting up and they ask me if I want a chair. I said yes. So they got me a chair. That’s about the funniest thing about it.”

They take them to the bus. They ask them if they would cooperate in the interest of good faith. Camp believes it was the city of Davis Police who took them to the bus.

As they take them to the bus, Bill Camp starts yelling “Si se puede!” “It freaked out the police officer, maybe she doesn’t know Spanish, I don’t know. But she got rattled. So she starts dragging me toward the bus. She was a UC Cop. She was mad that I was chanting. Maybe she didn’t know what I was saying. I almost fell down. I was kind of sorry that I didn’t fall, because she was in a hurry to get me onto the bus so I couldn’t chant anymore”

The bus was extremely hot, Camp felt that they had intentionally cut the AC to make it hotter. And they had the handcuffs on with their hands behind their back. They stretched the tendons in the arm and they left the handcuffs on for several hours. They didn’t take them off until about 6:00 pm. and they had put them around 1:30 or 2:00 pm. Even a week later Camp still complains about pain in his arm.

“That’s against procedure; you don’t put handcuffs on for that long. You simply put them on there to make sure I’m not going to do something bad.”

Mr. Camp was skeptical not only about the way they were treated after the arrest, but also he believes that the charges were being trumped up in order to punish and discourage the protesters.

“Normally you would simply cite and release, this is not a crime, it is simply a failure to disperse.” He believed that someone called the police and told them that they cannot put people in jail for a failure to disperse, that they therefore needed a stronger charge.

“Failure to disperse is nothing, this is a free speech thing, you don’t put people in jail for union organizing.”

What Camp argues now is that the nature of the police in this circumstance would change and that the police began to operate not as a civil authority that would protect the public from lawbreakers and moved into the realm of a more traditional role for the police in labor disputes and actively became the arm of the university as the employer who intended to break the labor dispute using heavy-handed tactics.

“At this point, the UC Davis police quit being police officers as a civil authority and became agents of the employers who were out to punish people for organizing the union. That is a classic characterization of what we call animus, animus meaning in my experience, meanness. When an employer gets real mean, about the way they treat the workers who are trying to unionize. The Davis University police officers quit being police officers and they became agents, anti-union agents of the chancellor [Chancellor Vanderhoef].”

They then took the protestors to the Davis Police Department and cited them for trespassing.

“I said ‘what the hell do you mean we were trespassing?’ We were sitting in a small circle; we weren’t blocking anybody’s egress and access. People were all doing business there in the building. We weren’t trespassing, this was public property at 2 pm in the afternoon, what the hell are you talking about, we weren’t trespassing. This is a government building, it’s 2:00 in the afternoon, we’re not trespassing.”

So why did they give them a trespassing charge—because it was the only excuse they had to put them in jail. Otherwise they really did not have any reason to put them in jail. That took a couple of hours; they took them from the Davis Police Department to the county jail in Woodland. The bus driver had turned off the air conditioning. It was a very hot day and they were extremely hot and uncomfortable on that bus. They did not get the handcuffs off until around 6:00 pm and they couldn’t call anyone until they were processed.

They processed others through and they let the protesters just sit there for quite awhile. They kept one guy in jail until 12:30 am.

“I know Ed Prieto, and Ed in my opinion is not an anti-union guy. So someone told those cops, someone told those officers in that jail to mess with us and to leave that guy in there until 12:30. That ain’t right. I think Ed needs to be asked about that because this is stupid, this is for a failure to quit. They are trying to punish people for trying to get a union contract.”

There is a principle involved here too. As Camp suggested, “We are not trying to get a contract for people making 50 bucks an hour, we are trying to get a contract for people making nine bucks an hour.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this to Camp was the tradition at UC Davis as an agricultural university that often relied on contract labor. “The most exploitative contract system in the world is the labor contract system. So this tradition of using labor contractors like Sodexho, to deny that there is a collective bargaining relation is nuts. It’s not nuts, but it should be embarrassing. It should be embarrassing that the university has adopted this old labor system that has been discredited by the entire state. When we wrote the labor law, we wrote that you can’t do that.”

He found it exciting to work with and be with the students. He found it a great group of students and they got to talk about the history of the labor movement--how it got organized before and civil rights. He found it a great experience personally and grew to have great respect for the students.

I asked Bill Camp to elaborate as to what this fight is about. Why they are fighting for fair wages and good benefits for the food service workers.

According to Camp there is a deep tradition going back to Lincoln where “everyone should have a chance to try to build a middle class life.” And the civil war was a battle as much over class as over race. The landowners in the south concentrated wealth at the expense of everyone else—not just the slaves. There were a few people super rich and everyone else was poor. Reagan came along and tried to destroy the unions, “he came up with the philosophy that Bush has, let’s make everyone super rich, if a few people become super rich, then somehow this money will trickle down, which is a lie. The only way you build a real healthy economy is if you build economic demand, and the only way you build economic demand is to give people enough money so that they go out and spend.”

“The fact of the matter is, the war that’s going on, this fight, is about you create jobs that pay enough money so that people can have a reasonable life, that’s what drives economic growth. The reason everybody in this state has a stake in the fight of these food service workers, is if we establish a principle, now the food service worker deserves to get a fair wage, that’s what this country is about, that’s what we’ve been about since the day we were founded...”

This fight is about good jobs and a healthy economy.

“You don’t build a healthy economy, without building healthy jobs. And you don’t have a healthy society without healthy jobs. If you keep everyone exploited and low wage, you create a set of values like the southern slave system.”

The fight is about taking these 500 food service workers and training them to get better jobs where they can get even better wages. We are losing out on an opportunity when we take the approach of trying to exploit the labor of these workers.

“George Bush represents a set of values to make a few people super rich and the rest of us slaves. We represent a set of values that says that everyone ought to have their work respected and they ought to have a chance at a middle class life.”

What does this mean for these particular workers?

“It means if they join a union, they will join a union of about 20,000 members statewide.” They will be members of AFSCME local 3299, “every other campus, those workers who do the same work as these workers, get paid about 12 bucks an hour, they get health care, as far as I know they work out some strategy for a pension.”

“Would they ever get paid enough? No, no one ever gets paid enough, but the fact of the matter is that they wouldn’t be vulnerable, they would have the same protections that other state workers have.”

He sees this as a way to empower the food service workers, make them part of a larger group with political power and leverage over bargaining. They would not be able to be fired indiscriminately, they would get health care, and they would gain real political power.

Some people have suggested that the way to go about this is by unionizing Sodexho workers rather than making the food service workers university employees. Camp very strongly disagrees with this.

“Sodexho is not an employer in the true sense of the word. Sodexho does not decide how much people get paid and whether they get health benefits. That’s decided by the university, so Sodexho would have a fake relationship.”

The key here is that there has to be an actual collective bargaining relationship and that requires a discussion with the entity that controls the purse strings. In this case, that is not Sodexho, who is a third party, but rather the university.

“You can’t have collective bargaining with someone who doesn’t have the power to make the decisions about wage and worker conditions. In all of the other bargaining that goes around in the country, you represent workers and I represent management, I have a pile of money and I get to decide what I do with that pile of money. You have to have a direct relationship with me, not through some third party that doesn’t control the money. It’s the university that collects the student fees and decides how much of that is going to go to food service. So it is the university who is the employer. You can’t have collective bargaining unless you have the real employer who has real power. It only can work within the confines of what the university wants to tell them.”

Vanderhoef sent a letter to the organizers, that was read last week, basically suggesting that the university has a contract with Sodexho until 2010 and that they intend to honor that contract. According to Camp, this does not matter. They have no obligation to honor a labor contract with Sodexho. “The university is the employer, so they cannot say they can disobey the law and not honor our contractual obligations to these employees.” As an entity of the State of California, the University has an obligation to bargain with their employees, and these are their employees regardless of whether or not there is a middle man. “They have admitted, though they’d never use these direct words, that these workers are their employees.”

There were complaints by people in the building about the behavior of the protests—loud banging on the windows, intimidation, and fear. I asked Mr. Camp if he saw any of that.

“I think someone gone and lied to those employees and told them this was dangerous. There wasn’t anything dangerous about that event.” You can feel if there is danger and Camp did not feel any danger or concern while he was in the building. He admitted that they made a loud racket, but that’s their free speech right. People have the right to complain about the exercise of free speech rights, but that doesn’t mean people do not have the right to express themselves. “People are angry about the exploitation and abuse of these workers.” He felt that the employees should be more upset that the university is treating fellow employees in that way.

According to an UCD employee who works in Mrak Hall and with whom I spoke some of the banging on the doors and windows was from students who wanted to get in because they had appointments and or had to get paperwork processed. They called stating that they couldn’t get in.

Camp said he never felt any fear, but he did see people acting as though they were afraid. “We told them, you have nothing to be afraid of, this is just a labor organizing demonstration. But somebody freaked them out, I guess they told them that someone would come in and hurt them. But I don’t know. Somebody freaked them out, it wasn’t us.”

I also asked him whether he thought they overreacted by locking down the building. He felt that they overreacted by the way they treated the protesters by keeping them in handcuffs as long as they did. He thought that was an overreaction.

“They could easily have left someone at the door; they were not going to get into a shoving match.” He was not outside and could not see outside. However, “everyone inside was sure super nice, I couldn’t imagine someone shoving people. So I don’t think they had to lock it down… They did and it kind of created a fortress mentality. And that’s behaving in a way that motivates us to even be more loud. I think there were other ways to do it.”

It is clear that this is a dispute that is not going to go away anytime soon. The protesters and the workers are committed to their cause, but unfortunately the university believes that they can break the will of the workers and the protesters by out-waiting them. This dispute is likely to carry into the summer. It is time that people put pressure on the administration and Chancellor Vanderhoef to put an end to this. The policies of the university are frankly an embarrassment in a liberal and progressive community such as Davis that cherishes the rights of protest and the rights of workers to organize. Serious questions must be asked about the role of the university police, the Sheriff’s Department, and Jeff Reisig’s District Attorney’s Office who made the decision to charge the protesters with trespassing as opposed to the more reasonable and moderate charge of failure to disperse. Are these law enforcement organizations acting on the behest of the university as an agent, as Bill Camp so eloquently states, in order to help crush the protest. If so, Davis and Yolo County residents must ask where the priorities of this Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s office lie.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting