'We are humans too:' Voices of UCLA's striking custodians, hospital aides and imaging technicians

This week, thousands of UC employees are staging a three-day strike for better pay and working conditions.

On Monday, more than 20,000 custodians, cooks, lab technicians, nurse aides and other members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 walked off their jobs. By Tuesday, two more unions joined in sympathy strikes.

The union and UC reached a bargaining impasse last year. The university has said it won’t meet the workers’ demands.

Workers covered UCLA’s Westwood campus Monday. They wore green T-shirts that proclaimed in big yellow block letters, “We run UC.”

Medical workers gathered in front of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

One marched with an infant swaddled to her chest. Another walked a large dog.

As they approached the front entrance, a man at the door waved to one of his workers in the crowd.

“Are you missing us inside the lab?” the worker asked.

“No wonder it’s so busy!” said her manager, with a smile. “Can you just come back?”

“When you sign the contract, we will," the worker said, before rushing to catch up with her friends.

The strikers said they wanted better pay, more equity in the allocation of work, stable healthcare premiums and an end to the university’s use of contract workers.

These are their stories.

Workers with UC's largest employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Emp
Workers with UC's largest employee union begin a three-day strike Monday. Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

‘We are humans too’

Senior custodian Davina Woods held two megaphones Monday — though she has a voice loud and sharp enough to spread her message without them. “I’m very boisterous,” she said, in a break between leading chants.

Woods, a member of the union’s negotiation team, works from 5:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. to make the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center shine.

“I’m out here fighting for a fair, safe, just and unbiased contract,” she said.

She said she’s had to supplement her work with odd jobs to keep up with rising costs. “I wear the pants and the dress,” said the single mother of four. “I’m just tired of surviving. I want to live.”

When she started working, she made about $13 an hour. Seven years later, she makes $18.64.

“We’ve sat down with UC seven or eight times within a year, and it’s gotten nowhere,” she said. “Maybe with this little exposure now, maybe they will make some type of movement and consider us, because we are humans too.”

‘They’re trying to ruin people’s pensions’

Jose Plascencia, a radiology technician, said he feels he is treated fairly but joined the picket line on behalf of his colleagues. “They’re trying to ruin people’s pensions, and they can lay off whoever they want,” Plascencia said.

He sometimes does per diem work for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to boost his pay. “We’re busting our ass all the time,” he said.

WESTWOOD, CA, MONDAY, MAY 7, 2018 - Thousands gather on the UCLA campus to support the American Fede
Thousands gather on the UCLA campus to support the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 Monday for the first day of a three-day strike. Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

‘My working condition is horrible’

As a materials management worker, Rafaella Del Rosario is responsible for making sure the medical center’s operating rooms are fully stocked and ready for surgery. She orders supplies such as gauze and surgical blades.

“My working condition is horrible,” she said. “No one gets treated fairly.”

When she started seven years ago, she said, she was paid $18 an hour. Now, she makes $24.80 per hour. But her rent keeps rising, and her Inglewood residence now costs $1,600 a month. She is raising three children — ages 2, 10 and 17. The budget is tight, especially with one child about to go to college.

To make ends meet, she said, she’s started working weekends, picking up overtime and driving for Lyft — but it’s hard, because she wants to spend time with her baby. Sometimes she takes the bus just to save money on parking.

‘Trying to provide for our families’

For Chenelle Gabourel, a lead custodian at UCLA, childcare is a juggling act. Her mother and her fiancé also work at UCLA. She starts her job at 6 a.m. and works weekends. Her mother finishes at 2:30 a.m. and helps watch Gabourel’s 4-year-old and 3-year-old twins.

Gabourel’s biggest gripes are with her weekend shifts and the possibility of rising healthcare premiums. Giving up weekends “is a big sacrifice,” she said. She wants to plan activities and trips with her toddlers, but she doesn’t have a lot of spare money and her schedule makes it hard.

“We’re all trying to provide for our families,” she said.

She said she was considering bringing Sariah, her 4-year-old, to the picket line Tuesday so she could “see how hard we’re fighting.”

Demonstrators gather on the UCLA campus
Demonstrators gather on the UCLA campus to support the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 who began a three-day strike Monday. Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

‘It’s always quality time — and never quantity’

Monica Martinez has worked as a certified nursing assistant at UCLA for 18 years. The Lincoln Heights resident is on the job from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

She said she was striking to fight inequality and gaps in pay between white people and people of color.

Ten years ago, the single mom had to work two jobs to support herself and four children. Now, she no longer has dependents and lives with her sister, but she is still toiling away at two jobs: she does the same work for a different hospital.

“I try to schedule outings, quality time with my grandchildren,” she said. “But it’s always quality time — and never quantity.”

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Joy Resmovits

Joy Resmovits

Joy Resmovits is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.