As you read this, low-wage employees at all 10 University of California campuses represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) are voting on a new contract, one close to that given union-represented patient-care workers a few months ago.
When the previous contract expired a year and a half ago and negotiations stalled, members intensified their fight; they picketed, organized a boycott by celebrities, politicians and commencement speakers, intensified lobbying, sponsored legislation, struck for five days in July 2008, began planning a longer strike for spring 2009, dogged the Regents and even sat in at head Regent Richard Blum’s office, where 20 workers and student supporters were arrested in January.
Tactics included TV commercials during UC football games and noisy demonstrations with fellow unions. These actions, and the possibility of further escalation may have led to the final offer, more than halfway toward AFSCME’s demands and far beyond any previous proposal.
The five-year contract offer for nearly 8,500 food-service workers, custodians and landscape gardeners includes a 3 percent across-the-board pay hike each year—plus an additional 1 percent effective in July. AFSCME won on core demands, including wage steps based on longevity and an end to the arbitrary “merit pay” system, benefits protection, caps on health care increases, overtime pay after shift instead of after 40 hours and a minimum wage of $14 dollars an hour (in the fourth year).
While still earning poverty wages, UC workers won guarantees independent of state funding, which, research proved, were found to be a small part of the overall payroll budget and little more than a cynical ruse repeated ad nauseam by negotiators to stifle discussion. And though this offer, coupled with the security of being a UC employee, is touted as being generous, it barely makes up for 20 years of flat wages and ever increasing fees for health care, pensions and other workplace fees. Even with this new contract, UC workers’ pay remains below comparable public sector jobs.
Shelley Nielsen, UC’s latest chief negotiator, said in a prepared statement, “We are very pleased to have reached what we believe is a fair agreement…” The irony is not lost on our negotiators, one of whom reacted by asking, “if management thinks this is a fair agreement, then, what in hell were those completely unacceptable and insulting 1 percent offers these past 14 months?” And wouldn’t you know it, last week the Regents voted to restart pension withholding, thereby slashing into any income gains.
The 15-month delay drove many employees farther into poverty. Some were unable to pay rent or feed their children and lost housing; others were forced to take second and third job or apply for welfare. While negotiations dragged on, UC twice rejected neutral mediators’ good-faith recommendations.
Considering this latest offer, UC seems to finally understand it can no longer claim to be the greatest public university in the West while exploiting its majority nonwhite, immigrant and female low-wage workforce, 96 percent of whom are eligible for one or more kinds of public assistance. What should we make of the fact that UC included a note in our W-2 envelopes this January that, based on our annual earnings, we may be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit?
When it comes to executive pay, management claims it must attract the best and brightest to compete with other universities and the private sector. The Enronization of Higher Education. But the argument is fallacious: UC is not Stanford or Yale; it is a public university owned by the citizens of California, and these people are supposed to be public servants, not corporate CEOs. Besides, who are these sterling executives, said to be worth six figures, regular bonuses and constant pay raises approaching 10 percent per year? They are supposed to be the best, but I’m not seeing it. Remember Gerald Parsky?
Considering recent compensation scandals, the top-heavy University of California is populated by a bunch of suits who use circular logic—their high pay justifies their worth. And every problem seems to be solved by hiring another manager, outside consultant or acting vice-chancellor, doing a study or taking a survey, the results of which are often kept hidden when found embarrassing. On top of this, just before newbie President Mark Yudof announced with great fanfare a freeze on salaries for 285 top-level employees, he gave out nearly $15 million in raises and bonuses to these same cocktail-circuit bureaucrats.
As a line employee, I often complain that we have plenty of people to tell us what to do but not enough people to do it. The plan seems to be to cut staffing so low that the only answer will be outsourcing of core campus services. Solves your union problems maybe, but costs inevitably rise and services fall when privatized profits are in the air.
AFSCME’s widespread support included letter-writing campaigns, meetings with UC leadership and speaker boycotts. State Senator Leland Yee has been especially helpful. Fellow unions, religious leaders, Clergy and Laity for Economic Justice and many others pushed UC’s leadership for a fair contract for service workers, who, after all, tend the needs of students and staff directly.
So, thanks to our supporters. Sometimes hard work and hell-raising win out. It is time for UC’s service workers to get back to the job of serving our students, the campus and the wider community. But hold on, many UC labor contracts remain in negotiations, so keep your fingers crossed and picket signs ready.
Hank Chapot is a gardener at UC Berkeley.