Service Worker Protests Garner New Deal
The demonstrators on Jan. 22 were composed of custodial UCI and non-UCI employees, AFSCME organizers and Worker Student Alliance members who stormed the campus in an effort to prompt UCI to directly employ outsourced workers, and also protested against janitorial laborers’ low wages.
“The rallies that have taken place this week are part of a campaign that has two fronts to it,” said Dennis Lopez, a member of the Worker Student Alliance and a graduate student in English. “Service workers have been working without a contract for a little over a year. These demonstrations have been [arranged] to put pressure on the university to bring the workers in-house. The other issue is for higher wages and better benefits for workers currently working for the university.”
Lopez continued by further expanding upon the extent by which workers are affected.
“Here at UCI, there is a group of about 150 workers that are outsourced,” Lopez said. “The company uses an outside company that then hires workers to do jobs on campus, [which are] primarily janitorial and custodial. These workers are hired directly by the university, and they are exploited. They get poverty wages, very little vacation time, no health benefits and no sick time off.”
Although most of the workers participating in the rally are employees of the university, some participants work for janitorial giant ABM Industries, Inc. and are brought to UCI during holidays and weekends to clean up the campus.
“I want to work for the university for better wages and benefits,” said ABM employee Ismael Vasquez through a translator. “I get one sick day a year and I am getting crumbs for payment. I receive $8.15 an hour for cleaning carpets, polishing floors and cleaning bathrooms with acid. I always come home dizzy and red-eyed because I am not given appropriate safety gear. Some of my supervisors abuse their power and ask me to do heavy work quickly, and when I try to get the workers united I am targeted as a result of it.”
The Irvine office of ABM did not respond for comment at the time of publication.
In efforts to continue putting pressure on UCI, about 22 demonstrators met on Wednesday, Jan. 28. This time, however, they picketed outside of the University Club, where Vice Chancellor of Administrative and Business Services Wendell Brase made a speech about the success of UCI’s recycling program.
“Wendell Brase’s speech about the recycling program and how beautiful it is gets to be pretty ironic because that ‘beauty’ is made by the workers who clean up the campus and are getting about $10 an hour,” said Juan Castillo, lead organizer of AFSCME, Local 3299.
With the UC budget suffering continual cuts as the economic climate continues to worsen, Castillo still claims that hiring the 150 workers would not put a dent in UCI’s pocketbook.
“In terms of [economics], even though we are going through a national economic crisis, the university has shown the ability to put the money where the priorities are. The university is spending money at the executive level, so their priorities are not concerned with the workers. If they are spending so much on executives, they should be able to pay more to workers … All UCI has to do is pay the difference between what they are paying the company and what they will pay the workers if they work directly for the university. It’s just adding a bit of money to the price they are paying the company right now.”
Cathy Lawhon, director of media relations for UCI, however, disagrees.
“Some might say [to] just take the money you’re paying the outside vendor and pay it to the workers,” Lawhon said. “But again, on top of wages are costs for the additional supervisorial hires, equipment purchases and benefits costs. And right now, there is a hiring freeze in place at UCI, so yes, it would be a strain on the budget.”
A few hours after the protest on Jan. 28, the university made an unprecedented move: UC officials announced that the UC reached an agreement with AFSCME on a five-year labor contract that will result in over $64 million of wage increases. According to UniversityofCalifornia.edu, minimum hourly rates will increase from $10.28 to $14.00 by the end of the contract. Employees currently making $14 and above will have their wages increased to $18.38 over the life of the contract as well.
“I’m glad an agreement has been reached that will provide some small relief for UC workers currently receiving poverty wages,” Lopez said. “But, I think the agreed-upon changes represent a minimal step in the right direction and much more needs to be done to guarantee the economic security and well-being of these workers on our campuses.”