Fiona Ma for State Assembly

UCSC commencement speakers bow out, citing union battle

SANTA CRUZ -- Several high-profile speakers scheduled to address graduating students at UC Santa Cruz commencement ceremonies this weekend have said they will cancel if the university fails to reach a contract agreement by the weekend with a union representing nearly 20,000 workers statewide.

Monday, aides for Assemblymembers John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, and Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, confirmed reports made by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 last week that the lawmakers will not deliver keynote addresses at ceremonies for UCSC's Kresge and Steveson colleges, respectively.

Union leaders say UCSC professors and nationally known social justice activists Angela Y. Davis and Paul Oritz also have declined to make scheduled speeches at Oakes and College Ten ceremonies. Former President Bill Clinton and former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez have also declined to show up for their scheduled addresses at UC ceremonies in Los Angeles and Davis unless there an agreement is reached, the union said.

Nicole Savickas, a spokeswoman with UC's Office of the President, said Monday there was no systemwide contingency plan for how to deal with cancelled commencement appearances, though individual colleges and schools may be devising back-up plans.

"It's unfortunate that union has called for these public figures to boycott commencement ceremonies because the students are suffering," she said. "They are not really involved in our bargaining process."

UCSC is scheduled to graduate 2,242 undergraduate, 210 graduate and 88 doctoral students in ceremonies Friday through Sunday. In the fall and winter quarter, 1033 undergraduates also earned bachelor's degrees, 73 students earned master's degrees and 41 students received doctorates.

UCSC spokesman Jim Burns said he could not recall another time UCSC graduation speakers have pulled out over ongoing labor talks.

"Our commencement speakers, of course, have the right to decide whether they will actually participate in graduation ceremonies," Burns said Monday. "If some speakers choose not to come, we hope that their absence will not significantly impact celebrations that are designed to honor our students."

In a statement, Laird said, "I'm really hoping this will get resolved before commencement ceremonies, and I'm working hard with representatives on both sides. It would be a major disappointment for graduating students and their families to have commencement affected by this issue."

However, he said, "If by Saturday there is no agreement, and AFSCME asks that I not participate in the commencement, I will honor that request -- just as I have never crossed a labor picket line."

Lakesha Hamilton, the union's president, said Monday that AFSCME contacted lawmakers and other speakers, asking them not to participate. But she said others took their own initiative to tell the university they would cancel if there wasn't an agreement.

Although the union is not on strike, it would still view a UC speech by lawmakers as "crossing the picket line," she said. "These high-profile people knowing about our fight, that helps UC see that they should do the right thing."

She acknowledged that the union, which is part of the AFL-CIO, has made contributions to some of the lawmakers campaigns, but said the request for Laird and Ma to back out of their commitments was not coupled with a threat to pull political support.

"We haven't threatened to do anything," she said. "We just asked people to support the workers."

University negotiators met Monday with AFSCME leaders who represent 11,000 patient care workers in the UC system, but no agreement was announced over wage and job security disputes. The university has no meetings scheduled with union officials who represent about 9,000 service workers, such as custodial, maintenance and dining workers. About 550 of those workers are employed at UCSC.

Although it looks unlikely that the service workers could reach an agreement by Saturday, officials for both sides said they are not counting it out.

"It depends on what the two parties bring to the table," Savickas said.
Contact J.M. Brown at 429-2410 or
A total of 2,242 UCSC students are candidates for bachelor of arts, music or science degrees; 210 are eligible to receive master of arts, fine arts or science degrees; of these students, 79 will complete UCSC's Department of Education master's program in late summer. In addition, 88 UCSC students are candidates for doctorates. A small number of students will receive graduate certificates.