'I'll speak for workers at UC graduation'

Gustavo Arellano

We're right at the tail end of graduation season. Not too many more schools and commencement addresses to go. Tomorrow, it's UCLA's turn. Two years ago, Bill Clinton withdrew as UCLA's speaker at the request of a labor union that was in a dispute with the University. Commentator and journalist Gustavo Arellano is tomorrow's speaker at UCLA, despite a similar request to stay away.


By Gustavo Arellano

The group that wants me to ditch the pomp and circumstance is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3299, or AFSCME for short. The union represents UCLA's dorm cleaners, cafeteria workers and custodians.

Recently, the university reduced hours and imposed furloughs on these workers and even laid some off. School administrators claim the cuts are necessary, temporary reactions to massive budget deficits, but try explaining such logic to the workers, where $100 docked off one paycheck is the difference between a stocked refrigerator and a hungry family.

AFSCME has asked all commencement speakers at UC schools to boycott the graduations, in a show of solidarity. Some speakers have honored the call; I won't. Don't get me wrong -- I stand with the workers. And that's why I must speak.

I know how unions help families. My tomato-canning mom was a Teamster for nearly 20 years. Her membership helped us immensely -- full health benefits, vacation time for Mami, guaranteed work.

My dad, on the other hand, was an independent truck driver, but that didn't stop him from joining union efforts over the years to organize troqueros who service the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. He participated in wildcat strikes, actions where truckers drove their big rigs in a line sloooowly down the freeway. Dad risked his own job, all for the dream of getting a fair shake for him and his trucking amigos.

It's my respect for labor unions that makes me want to cross AFSCME's line. I met with the UCLA workers a couple of weeks ago during their breaks, and almost all reminded me of my parents: Working-class immigrant, toiling for a future for their children. How can I not want to tell their story before an audience of thousands? And, yes: I will be reminding the Class of 2010 about the troubles these workers face.

I hope my union brothers and sisters respect my decision. And if not? I'm prepared for the consequences. For me, publicizing AFSCME's struggle is more important than being deemed anti-union for life.


Gustavo Arellano is a staff writer for the OC Weekly. He also writes the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican."

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