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May 22nd
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Yes, They did

AFSCME service workers settle their contract with the UC after a year and a half of negotiations

They picketed. They rallied. They took over the intersection of Mission and Bay streets last April and went on strike for five days in July. And when none of that worked, they visited the homes and offices of the people in power.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 workers did not cease their protest for the entire year and a half it took them to settle a new contract with their employer, the University of California.

“Maybe the UC thought we would get tired and disappear,” muses Nicolas Gutierrez, executive board member of AFSCME, which represents over 20,000 UC service and patient care workers.

Their battle for “family sustaining wages” began with initial negotiations in the summer of 2007 and heated up when the old contract expired in January 2008. They worked without a contract for over a year while talks continued. The disagreement came to a long-awaited end at 2 a.m. on Jan. 28, when the two weary parties settled the service workers contract. The union’s membership ratified the tentative offer with a remarkable 98 percent vote of approval on Feb. 11. AFSCME’s 11,500 patient care workers had settled a similar contract with the UC last November.

Gutierrez was UCSC’s AFSCME bargaining team representative throughout the process, which he will always remember as “long and tiring.” He says that although the protest was protracted, each instance (the last of which was a sit-in at the Chairman of the Board of Regents office on Jan. 16) was instrumental in eventually winning the contract.

“Try to imagine we were filling up a cup of water,” he says, slipping into what sounds like a premeditated metaphor. “Each time we did an action, a drop of water would get added to the glass. With every little thing—every picket, every arrest or strike—we finally filled up the glass and it tipped over. We won the contract.”

AFSCME considers the settlement a victory even though they did not receive the contract they set out to win.

“It wasn’t our dream contract,” admits Gutierrez. “But it is a step in the right direction.”

The main improvement is a guaranteed, step-system wage increase. As of July 2009, the minimum wage will rise from the current $9 per hour to $12, with an additional 50-cent increase every October for the duration of the contract. All UC workers can expect to be making at least $14 per hour by the contract’s 2013 expiration date. The union originally asked for at least $15.

“We may not have gotten all the money we wanted, but there was much more that was won,” he says, pointing to their success in gaining protection for overtime hours, health benefits and parking (such as fee caps on parking).

“What good would the money have been if we didn’t have protection on pensions and health benefits?” he adds. “The UC would’ve found a way to get that money.“

Although the university was painted as the formidable bully in the situation, it, too, was facing serious financial concerns—like how to make sense of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal to cut $131 million from the UC budget by June 2010. There was also the UC Regents’ January decision to decrease freshman enrollment by 6 percent for the upcoming school year. Fewer students means fewer jobs. The union decided to rethink their demands in light of the ubiquitous economic downturn.

“We have to look at the whole picture,” says Gutierrez. “We would have continued to fight [if the economy was better] and come out with a better contract in the end. But given the state of things, we thought what the UC was offering was reasonable.”

Looking back, it would seem the workers have a lot of complaints about their jobs. But Gutierrez, now Senior Custodian for the College Nine dormitories, says he “loves working at the UC” and plans to retire from it someday – precisely the reason he and his coworkers have fought long and hard to make it a place they can afford to stay.

“I enjoy being here and doing what I do,” he says. “I love being around students, talking to them and helping them out however I can. They make me feel appreciated and welcomed. They make me feel young again.”

After 14 years at UCSC, he still looks forward to going to work everyday. And with the contract settled – for now, at least – he can get back to the job he loves.

“I’m happy now that it’s over,” he says. “But people ask me if I’d do it again, and I say ‘hell yeah, if I had the support from all of you!’”

He may just get that chance.  The few dollars awarded in this settlement “aren’t enough to bring people out of poverty,” says Gutierrez, and so the struggle is far from over.

“Will there be a fight in 2013 when this contract expires? I think so. I’ve been here for 14 years and nothing, nothing has been won at the table. It’s been won on the streets. We’ve always had to fight for what we need. The UC has never given it to us.”

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