Bargaining for a Better Future

It’s Monday morning, and as most people gear up to spend a
day at work, UCSD lead custodian Freddy Serrano prepares for his whole week. He
says goodbye to his family in Riverside
at 5 a.m. to make
his 7:30 shift, knowing that he won’t see them again until the weekend. He
works nine hours at UCSD followed by a graveyard shift for the San Diego Unified School District
and — running on empty — returns to his car, where he tries to get a few hours
of shuteye before restarting the process.

“It affects our togetherness,” Seranno said of his job’s
impact on his relationship with his family. “I can’t see them in order to make
ends meet, to send my kids to college and to pay for extra expenses like their
own cars … it affects me a lot.”

He carries a cell phone at work to check in with family
members and learn what’s going on in their lives while he is away.

This is Seranno’s reality, along with that of many other UC
service workers, which includes custodians, food servers, cooks, bus drivers
and groundskeepers, who have to work two or more jobs just to earn a living
wage. With gas prices soaring and the increased prevalence of people living
further from work, “It’s useless to go home and then come back for a second
job,” Seranno said.

The vast majority of UCSD service and patient care workers
commute from Chula Vista, El
and National City,
said lead organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees Local 3299 Celine Perez. Others trek from Riverside
County or cross the border from Tijuana to work at the
university. The two largest ethnicities are Latino and Filipino workers, many
of whom are immigrants.

Seranno is a 19-year UCSD veteran that was born in the Philippines. He
said he remembers a time when the university was so small he could count its
buildings. Serrano is one of the many employees doing the unglamorous but
imperative work of maintaining the campus and creating the environment that
students and faculty experience every day. Though Serrano has witnessed drastic
changes on the campus over the years, he can’t say the same about his paycheck.
After almost two decades of service, he gets paid $30,000 a year.

Senior custodian Antonio Campos moved to the United States from the Philippines
five years ago, hoping for better employment to support four kids overseas.
After 18 years waiting for his green card, he now lives alone in Mira Mesa,
working at UCSD by day and as a pizza deliveryman by night to send a monthly
check to his family.

According to a wage analysis titled “High Ideals, Low Pay,”
completed in 2005 by the National Economic Development and Law Center,
UC senior custodial wages lag 15 percent behind those of the California State
system and 26
percent behind community colleges. Additionally, the university maintains a
“range pay system” where employees may be paid anywhere from $8 to $15 an hour
without defined starting rates or set wage increases.

AFSCME President Lakesha Harrison said the current system is
arbitrary and that the union wants a “longevity step system,” in which all UC
employees would start at a specified salary and receive automatic wage
increases at defined intervals. Unlike the current method, the step system
would enable upward mobility and provide fair salaries.

The NEDLC wage analysis compared UC service-worker salaries
with the California Self-Sufficiency Standard — the cost of basic family needs
in the counties that host UC campuses and medical centers.

In 2004, the San

standard was $23,934 a year to support a single adult. That number jumps to
$36,730 when adding a preschool-age child and down to $24,816 when adding one
child and another adult, assuming each adult has a working income. In 2004, the
average annual income for a UCSD senior custodian was well below the
requirement, at $21,464. UC food service workers averaged $10,600.

Across the UC system, 35 percent of all service workers
earned wages that inadequately meet
basic needs for a single adult, the report said, with the highest percentage of
workers — 58 percent — coming from UCSD.

Ninety-three percent of these workers could not support
themselves and one child, and the percentage approaches 100 in larger families.
The wages of UC food service workers are low enough to qualify for nine major
welfare programs, the report said.

“After paying for our house, our food and the schooling of
our children, we’re back to zero dollars again,” Seranno said.

These figures have sparked a slew of demonstrations and
protests over the past three years, including a one-day strike in April 2005.

The California
state Legislature announced in July 2005 that it had allocated $8.5 million
from the 2006 state budget for custodial pay increases, but it wasn’t until
spring of 2007 that the money was released.

“Even after UC got money in their budget, they didn’t spend
it on workers until we made them,” Harrison

Last April, all AFSCME-represented employees and members of
the Coalition of University Employees who earned less than $40,000 a year
received a 0.5- to 2-percent raise. In addition, custodians from UC Berkeley,
UCSB and UC Santa Cruz received some of the state-allocated money in the form
of $1.75 hourly increases, while custodians from other campuses obtained raises
of 50 cents per hour.

UC service workers received their final contractual raise
last October, which boosted salaries by 4.5 percent. However, despite recent
increases, wages are still behind market levels, and the issue remains critical
to the union’s negotiators, AFSCME bargaining team member Jessica Agost said.

Along with gaining market wages, current bargaining efforts
center on health care and pension protection, according to Agost. The union has
met with the university on several occasions to present proposals and
counterproposals to no avail.

On Nov. 9, AFSCME arrived at UC Davis to find that the room
they had reserved for bargaining had been given to another group. The workers
held their caucus in the parking lot and waiting room instead, but considered
the university’s conduct to be disrespectful, Agost said.

Another meeting was scheduled Nov. 15 at UCSD, but UC chief
negotiator Michelle Lee refused to meet because of the number of students
present. About 115 people showed up, half of which were student observers,
Agost said.

Considering the low wages and thick politics tied to working
for the UC system, it’s difficult to understand why employees continue working.

For senior custodian Antonio Bujo, the answer is simple — UC
offers good benefits. Bujo works at UCSD half-time, which is just enough to
receive the health care and pension benefits of a full-time employee. The UC
pension plan has historically been funded solely by the university, and
employees only pay roughly half the cost of monthly health care premiums. The
health care plan also covers children while they are in school, a requirement
which Bujo needs for his children.

Others workers, such as food service worker Lamont Morris,
enjoy their student co-workers.

“I haven’t had a bad day with the students yet,” Morris

Serrano also reported a fondness for the students who live
in the Sixth College apartments where he works. He
recalled an apartment of students who asked Seranno and another custodian to
come over to cook and eat chicken adobo, a soy and vinegar dish typical of the Philippines.

These are the things that keep workers going, whether it’s
the company of a fellow employee, the friendliness of a student or the phone
call of a distant relative who they work hard to support.

Bujo upholds three core values in his work — the
requirements of success according to the proverb by which he lives.

“Success is highly dependent on a combination of hard work,
intelligence and honesty,” Bujo said. “If one is missing, it’s not success.”