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Workers get in UC's face over contract

workersgetWith negotiations stalled at 13 months and counting, union activists are seeking out officials for public face time

University of California service workers and their allies are taking any chance they can get to be heard by the university. After nearly a year of working without a contract, The American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 service workers don’t feel they have much of a choice. Contract negotiations have been sluggish, if not stalled, since before their contract expired in January.

The workers are asking the UC for more than their current “poverty wages.” The recently released 2008 Year 14 Community Assessment Project reports that an individual living in Santa Cruz County needs $13.45 per hour to “adequately meet minimal basic needs.” Adults in a family with two children need to make $15.58 per hour to support their families. Many of the UC’s 8,500 service workers receive $10 per hour, whereas community colleges and hospitals pay 25 percent more for comparable jobs.

Some progress was made at the bargaining table on Monday, Nov. 17, when the university offered slightly higher wages and a step-increase system, a periodic raise in employee wages.

“The UC put more on the table than they have in the past, but at this rate we’re all going to die of old age before this gets settled,” says Faith Raider, spokesperson for AFSCME headquarters in Oakland. “While UC executives are dragging their feet, UC workers are literally losing their homes. They should actively work towards a solution.”

AFSCME, whose members include university custodians, food servers and shuttle drivers, held a five-day statewide strike in July with hopes that the impact of their absence would be enough to speed up the settlement process. Satya Chima, a third-year UCSC student activist, says that the strike did not invoke the desired response, perhaps because it was held over summer. “It didn’t have as large of an effect on the student population and university as a whole as it would’ve during the school year,” she says, but adds that the students will support the union’s decision to strike whenever they feel it’s unavoidable.

Earlier this fall, the patient care workers also represented by AFSCME were victorious in settling their contract, receiving a tentative five-year contract with improvements such as 4 percent annual wage increases. The union and its student and faculty supporters are currently taking actions on a weekly basis at their individual UC campuses to uphold a visible demand for the UC to settle the remaining contract. UC Santa Cruz is no exception; the school’s Student Worker Coalition for Justice is sure to be present at any event where they might get an official’s attention.

“The goal right now is to make a presence where we can, [and] to let the regents and administration know that we are still here and there is solidarity between students and workers,” says Chima, a member of the coalition. “We are always going to be present at these events to pressure the UC to act and settle this contract.”

The group gathered outside of the 88th annual Chamber of Commerce Community Recognition Dinner on Friday, Nov. 14, with stacks of fact-filled flyers and a giant banner that read “UC Fails Workers and Community.” The City of Santa Cruz and UCSC were awarded Organizations of the Year for their recently improved collaborative efforts, and the students wanted to make a noticeable counter-argument to that honor. Their presence was peaceful, although they were asked to refrain from handing out flyers—(the security guard called it “littering.” While many of the city leaders and business owners in attendance walked briskly through the crowd of young activists, UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal paused to take a flyer and listen quietly to their concerns.

AFSCME, backed by student and Central Labor Council (CLC) representatives from UC communities, also rallied at the Nov. 20 regents meeting in San Francisco. Ten CLC members were arrested for blocking the entrance, effectively stalling the regents from meeting for almost an hour.

Raider says that this type of action—seeking face-to-face time with university officials—is, for the time being, the union’s most effective way of vocalizing their needs. This tactic is especially important in reaching the UC regents who tend to be far less accessible than others, such as chancellors like Blumenthal. The regents meet once every two months. According to Raider, the 20-minute public comment portion at these meetings is not adequate time to communicate with the regents.

“We’ve had to find other ways to talk to them,” she says. “Most regents try to avoid speaking directly to members of the public, or at least us. Lately we’ve been trying to catch them outside the building to speak to individual regents.”

On the evening of Monday, Nov. 17, the same day that negotiations took a baby step toward settlement, the Student Worker Coalition attended new UC President Mark Yudoff’s accountability talk in San Francisco. Yudoff sent an automated invitation to all UC students, yet the UCSC Student Worker representatives report that they were the only students in attendance. They used the question and answer portion to ask questions about poverty wages, among other heated UC issues. However, their most direct interaction of the night was with Chairman of the Board of Regents Richard Blum after the talk had ended.

Chima and Raider both witnessed Regent Blum’s interaction with a crowd of concerned workers as they repeatedly asked him to take accountability for paying UC workers substandard wages. One worker from UCSF was pressing Blum particularly hard, at which point the demonstrators report Blum grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and made angry remarks.

“As a regent of the University of California I would expect a level of respect that I didn’t see at all,” says Chima. “The workers were trying to engage him in a polite conversation and his response was foul language, inappropriate physical contact and extremely rude behavior.”

The Office of the Regents declined to comment on the incident.

Many of the students and workers left the event in disbelief of the regent’s attitude toward the worker (and wondering what might have happened if the behavior had been reversed), but John Williams, another member of UCSC’s Student Worker Coalition, felt Regent Blum’s anger was understandable. It’s the activists’ job to bug him, after all.

“We’re pressuring him to do something he doesn’t want to do, and that makes people angry,” he says. “I don’t think it’s particularly reflective of him as an individual, it is him as the Chairman of the Board of Regents. If I were him, I’d get pissed too.”

Raider felt similarly about the episode, which she feels was an instance of unavoidable and obvious friction between the two sides. In general, she says that Regent Blum is one of the more responsive university officials and that the union has typically had good relations with him.

“The workers are working very hard to have a positive relationship with him,” she says. “They were just reminding him that he is ultimately responsible for mending poverty at the university and we would like to him to play a more active role.”

Regent Blum held a meeting earlier this month that brought AFSCME workers face-to-face with Yudoff, whose status as a newly elected official makes him a prime candidate for creating the change AFSCME would like to see.

“To me, it’s Yudoff’s job to fix this. He’s coming in, he’s pretty new, he could really change the tone of labor relations at the university,” she says. “However, I’m not seeing President Yudoff approach us very differently than his predecessor.”

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