For nearly a year, representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 have attempted to negotiate with UC officials for a fair contract for UC service workers—an attempt that has been unsuccessful thus far. However, it is not Local 3299’s lack of effort that has made their endeavors fruitless but rather the misguided priorities of UC administrators.
When most of us college students are dozing before classes commence, service workers are up every day in the wee hours of the morning performing an array of tasks that many students may never know about. From maintaining the aesthetics of UC campuses to cleaning our toilets, the diversity of the duties performed by service workers are endless. Still, for all their labor, many service workers are only paid between $9.00 and $11.00 an hour.
Although some could pose the argument that this is “unskilled labor” and therefore $9.00 an hour is an appropriate amount to pay a service worker, this rate is not even on par with other California state schools. For instance, the workers at Cal State colleges, who perform the same tasks as the workers in the UC system, are paid 25 percent more than UC service workers.
According to Juan Castillo, a local organizer for AFSCME, Local 3299 is not aiming for an unrealistic increase in wages, but rather what is necessary to survive.
“We have some workers that could qualify for government [assistance] and they work full-time for this university,” Castillo said. “The majority of our service workers have a second and even a third job in order to be able to survive,” he added. In fact, around 96 percent of UC service workers can qualify for some form of public assistance, such as food stamps.
Because of the dire circumstances of many of its workers, members of Local 3299 have taken the initiative to contact the governing board of the UC system directly. Recently, several members of the group made statements during the public comment portion of the UC Regents meetings held at UC Irvine from Sept. 16 to Sept. 18.
According to Castillo, some UC Regents have been willing to work with Local 3299. However, other regents, such as Richard Blum, regularly leave the room when such comments are made. As Chief of Staff of the UC Regents, Blum could play a vital part in the discussion between service workers and UC officials. Still, as Castillo went on to state, Blum only continues to ignore service workers.
The unwillingness of those in power to help UC service workers goes beyond Blum and trickles down to various entities that have a strong presence at UCI, such as student government. For example, when AFSCME members scheduled a series of protests during UCI commencement ceremonies this past June, ASUCI’s Legislative Council voted against standing in solidarity with a group that engages in such activities. However, it should also be noted that ASUCI has brought to the table other legislation that could work to support UC service workers, but it has yet to come to a productive vote.
While there are many forces either working against AFSCME’s efforts or apathetically standing by while its members suffer, other groups have shown support for the workers’ plight. One such group is Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), which views the dilemma as a moral issue. As Wendy Tarr, a member of CLUE, stated, UC officials should demonstrate the same values in negotiating with its service workers that they expect students to learn while attending the UC system.
“There’s a need to live out the values, that you’re also teaching … we would hope that UC would act on those same values and that poverty is not something that anybody should be proud of or willing to put up with,” Tarr said.
Other UC community members, such as a number of professors, have also defended the service workers and their efforts. One such educator is Jack Miles, a professor of English and religious studies at UCI, who cancelled his commencement address on June 14 to show his support for the workers. While such actions shine a light on the struggles of service workers, the problem will likely persist as long as the cries of service workers fall on deaf airs. Miles recounted UC President Mark Yudof’s reaction to concerns voiced by the workers.
“After hearing testimonies from these workers at the regents meeting, President Yudof proceeded to outline what his priorities were for the university … and the service workers were not on his list of worries,” Miles said.
Yet, as Miles noted, Yudof’s concerns were in no way frivolous or unimportant. For instance, Yudof expressed concern for the UC staff, including department managers, secretaries and registrar office employees, among others. Perhaps even more significant was Yudof’s desire to improve the relationship between the UC system, K-12 schools and community colleges. However, according to Miles, if the service workers are paid an appropriate amount, the UC Regents may be able to kill two birds with one stone.
“If one wanted really to make a big difference at the poorest schools in the state, one would be thinking about how to pay the parents of the children who are enrolled there more,” Miles said.
Ever since contract negotiations began, both sides of the dispute have worked to best present their case. However, along the way there have been a number of snags in the road, which have only further demonstrated the unfairness of the wages that service workers receive. For example, when the dispute between the two parties reached a formal impasse earlier this year, Carol Vendrillo, a neutral factfinder, was approached to assess the situation. “The factfinder believes it is not the lack of state funding, but the university’s priorities that leave the service workers’ wages at the bottom of the list,” Vendrillo wrote in May 2008.
UC officials are fortunate to be removed from the poverty that many service workers face. Thus, they cannot in good conscience ignore an official statement made by a credible and unbiased party. As Miles stated in his canceled commencement address, which was provided to the New Univeristy, “It is all too easy for those on the sunny side of an economic divide to forget how they benefit from the labor of those on the cloudy side.”
The UC system is a multibillion dollar entity with a vast amount of resources to allocate, including competitive salaries for its faculty and construction costs that are vital for sustaining and increasing growth. However, this should not be at the expense of the workers, for without them the university simply could not function as a viable and prominent academic institution.
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Filed Under: Opinion