At least 19 workers were arrested on Jan. 19 after holding a sit-in in UC Regent Richard Blum’s office, and the response to the arrests is unapologetic from both sides.
According to Lakesha Harrison, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, service workers in the UC begin with minimum wages as low as $10 dollars per hour, and around 96 percent of workers qualify for governmental aid.
Both Harrison and Juan Castillo, local representative for AFSCME 3299, agree that the workers cannot and will not keep working in poverty, particularly in light of the wages that the UC is paying its executives. AFSCME claims that in the year and a half that workers have been struggling for contracts, UC regents have approved bonuses and raises for executives totaling $14.5 million.
“Maybe [UC Regent President Mark Yudof] should give back half of his salary,” Harrison said. “President Dynes only made $400,000 a year and [Yudof] makes $900,000 a year; he’s getting a $9 million mansion refurnished for him and he’s going to tell these workers they can’t get anything? That’s appalling.”
This is not the first protest held by the labor unions. Negotiations began in August 2007, a strike was held in July of 2008 and as of January 2009, a working contract remains to be seen.
While no representatives from UC Irvine were present at the sit-in, Castillo claims that their absences had nothing to do with a lack of passion for the cause: workers from UCI could not afford to take the day off to travel to San Francisco for the protest.
Following the sit-in, Yudof issued a statement that condemned the protest, calling it “an act of trespass which was inappropriate, disrespectful and a violation of Regent Blum’s privacy.” He also sent Harrison a letter ordering any future sit-ins or protests to be stopped and suggesting that such protests were stalling the contracts from being negotiated.
Harrison responded to Yudof with another letter, informing him that she felt that their actions were justified due to the University’s unresponsiveness. Although Harrison was angered by Yudof’s suggestion that the protests were stalling negotiations, Harrison continued to plead for their contracts.
However, according to student regent D’Artagnan Scorza, the president is attempting to settle contract negotiations.
“The president’s goal is to resolve the contract as soon as possible and in the best way possible,” Scorza said. “The goal of the UC is not to have its employees on welfare. That’s not a good thing for the UC. The thing to remember is that the workers, the regents and the university are all on the same team. These are people who are University of California employees and we need to value them as employees and as part of our institution.”
Regarding Yudof’s response to the sit-in, Scorza chose not to take sides. In fact, he suggested that there are no sides to take. Although he is not allowed to discuss most of the legal problems that have been present while negotiating the contract, he does say that the regents have been very supportive in their actions to resolve the contract and give workers their fair share.
As far as Scorza’s opinion of the protest itself, he is unsure whether it helped contracts or stalled them further.
“The protest helped to put pressure on the institution to look at this particular issue,” Scorza said, “but when you look at the institution’s perspective, I’m sure the university doesn’t want part of the university family – the workers – suffering. I don’t want to see employees suffering [or] protesting. This isn’t really an issue of the protest; this is the issue of the unresolved contract.”
While the UC tripled their original offer to the workers, Harrison said that this total comes to a 1.5 percent increase, which remains insufficient. After several unsuccessful negotiations, the regents decided to bring in a mediator, Art Pulaski. Pulaski was called in to balance the union’s request for an 8 percent increase, which the regents deemed too high with the regents’ 1 percent which the union perceived was too low. Pulaski’s solution was a 5 percent increase the first year followed by two consecutive years with a 3 percent increase.
The union agreed to the proposal, but the UC did not. Although the Regents chose the mediator, they still refused to accept his contract.
Although both the labor unions and the regents agree that wages are too low, neither groups are making demands concerning benefits. This, Scorza said, is because the UC has some of the best health and retirement benefits in the nation.
“While it may be true that some of the workers, not many, but some, may qualify for public assistance,” Scorza said, “as one of the largest employers in the state of California, that’s not true for everybody. Workers do receive good health care and good retirement benefits. It’s really the pay that’s lagging behind the market. We do need to increase pay for workers; they do need to have a living wage. We need to do everything we can as an organization to ensure that, that happens.”
The regents have made some efforts to rectify budget problems. For example, they have recently issued pay freezes to all of their executives, similar to the pay freezes enacted by President Barack Obama for his senior staff members. However, to Harrison, these pay freezes are invalid because they were made after one and a half years of merit increases, raises and bonuses.
Scorza disagrees, claiming that the pay freezes have helped address some of the budget problems, but he looks to the state for more permanent financial aid by balancing the state budget. In difficult times of recession, every employee of the UC is suffering economically because the state is suffering.
Last November, however, UC patient-care workers, who are also part of AFSCME Local 3299, were granted a $127 million contract. Harrison stated that the service workers are taking this personally, because as the lowest-paid workers in the system they feel discriminated against.
“None of these workers here are trying to get rich,” Harrison said. “We’re looking for suitable wages, wages that can help us support our families, get us off of welfare.”
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