July 18, 2008

Why Service Workers Are On Strike at University Campuses and Medical Centers

By Frank D. Russo

Over 8,500 service workers represented by AFSCME Local 3299 began striking at ten UC campuses and five medical centers yesterday. They have been negotiating for almost a year for a fair contract, but have remained deadlocked for months. An overwhelming 97.5 percent of the workers authorized a strike in May.

These workers do everything from cleaning and disinfecting hospitals and dorm rooms, to providing cafeteria service for patients and students, to providing security throughout the UC system.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, noting a court injunction against the strike, urged a return to the bargaining table. He said: “Public safety is my number one priority and this strike could affect the health and well being of many people who rely on the critical services provided by medical support staff. While there may be legitimate issues to be resolved, it is unacceptable to use the welfare of innocent people as a bargaining chip. I support the court’s action to restrain any unauthorized job actions. I would encourage the union and its members to negotiate in good faith within the order and also encourage both sides to resolve their differences quickly without jeopardizing the public health.”

In order to understand why these workers are on strike, it is important to understand that their pay is below that of other workers doing the same work outside UC—so low in fact that many of them are eligible for public assistance programs—and that funding for these particular workers comes for the most part from sources other than the strapped state budget but rather from the UC hospital system which has turned a record profit and increased the pay of its top executives by double digits. And it’s not like they just walked off the job—negotiations have been going nowhere for a long time.

Overall, the University of California is also one of the largest employers in the state, with approximately 124,000 full time equivalent employees and a system-wide payroll of $9.5 billion. Recent labor disputes with UC have led to the cancellation of commencement speeches by former President Bill Clinton and then Speaker of the California Assembly Fabian Nunez.

California state-appointed neutral fact finder Carol Vendrillo, who evaluated the service workers’ labor agreement, said:

“U.C. has demonstrated the ability to increase compensation when it fits with certain priorities without any demonstrable link to a state funding source. It is time for UC to take a broader view of its priorities by honoring the important contribution that service workers make to the U.C. community and compensating them with wages that are in line with the competitive market rate.

“At UC, patient workers are concerned that lack of competitive pay is contributing to high-turnover, staffing shortages, and over-reliance on temps, compromising patient care as extra time is needed to train the constant flow of new staff. For service workers, wages are as low as $10 an hour, forcing many to work 2-3 jobs or rely on public assistance to meet their families basic needs.”

Lakesha Harrison, a Licensed Vocational Nurse and President of AFSCME 3299 put it this way:

“No one wants to strike, but UC Executives need to make a shift and prioritize providing enough to protect quality patient care and support our families. No one wants to get rich, we just want equal pay for equal work. UC is losing quality staff that we train to those other institutions that pay 25% higher, and many of us are living in poverty.”

Mario Pinto, a senior custodian at the UC-Santa Clara campus, said before the strike: “We are living with our whole family together, our kids and grandkids, packed in one house, but we still can’t get by because everything is so expensive….It is a very critical situation for us. We can’t live in peace. We always have to be thinking about how are we going to make it next month and put food on the table for the kids.”

These workers are seeking a pay increase to $15 an hour. University officials offered to increase wages to between $11.50 and $12 an hour and that has been rejected.

Yee arrived on the picket line to show his support for their plight and said: “It is unconscionable what the UC administration is doing to these workers and their families. The wages of these workers are dramatically behind other hospitals and even California’s community colleges, where workers average twenty-five percent more for the same work. UC hospitals made over $371 million in profits last year, yet they refuse to provide the workers a fair wage. While UC executives live high on the hog, workers, students, and patients are left in the cold.”

According to Yee, the service workers’ wages are as low as $10 an hour, and 96 percent of UC service workers are income eligible for at least one of the following public assistance programs: food stamps, WIC (women, infants, and children), public housing subsidies, and reduced lunch. Many work two or three jobs to meet their families’ basic needs.

Yee contrasts this with UC executives who have consistently received double digit pay increases on top of what he considers to be already exorbitant salaries. He cites the recent UC Board of Regents approval of over $800,000 for the system’s incoming president. He also notes that Regents have significantly increased student fees each year, making the state’s higher education system unaffordable for many students.

Reprinted from the California Progress Report (www.californiaprogressreport.com).

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