13 Months Later, Worker Contract Still Pending

Last week’s demonstration was part of a statewide wage-increase movement fueled by numerous rallies, acts of civil disobedience and a five-day strike. (Joseph Ho /Guardian)

Over 100 students, employees and community members rallied on Library Walk Nov. 25 in support of the university’s 8,500 service workers, who have been campaigning for wage increases since October 2007.
Amplified by bullhorns, homemade noisemakers and a steady snare drum, the crowd of demonstrators marched, chanted and waved placards for roughly an hour, ultimately filing into Chancellor Marye Anne Fox’s office.

“It’s not about what we want; it’s about what we need,” UCSD groundskeeper Jorge Olvera said to the chancellor’s office staff. “[The chancellors] are supposed to be here to improve and empower the lives of all of us. Somehow, that mission got lost.”

According to Olvera — who serves on the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees bargaining team — UC service workers have seen their wages fall 25 to 30 percent below average rates at competing public universities and colleges in California. As a result, the majority of these employees hold two jobs, and 96 percent are eligible for public assistance, he said.

The university’s most recent contract proposal, presented Nov. 17 and 18, includes $26 million in wage increases over three years and guarantees a $12 minimum wage in the first year of the contract.

In a statement following the meetings, AFSCME officials said the university’s offer would translate to annual increases of only 1 to 1.5 percent, and that it still does not guarantee the step-based wage-increase system that has been one of the union’s key requests throughout contract negotiations.

UC spokesman Brad Hayward said the university has made repeated efforts to address its employees’ concerns — for example, last week’s proposal increased the sum of wage increases by $6 million — but that the state’s current budget crisis requires compromises on both sides.

“We are offering some significant wage increases for service employees at a time when we and the rest of the state are facing a difficult economic and budget situation,” he said. “We’re looking at the potential of very serious budget cuts.”

Although last week’s demonstration marked the beginning of on-campus public action for service workers this quarter, the event was not the first of its kind. In June, nearly 400 UCSD students and workers staged a similar protest with local activists at the same site, and their cause drew statewide attention in July when thousands of service employees participated in a five-day, systemwide strike.

In addition, seven labor officials representing regional councils in the state were arrested in San Francisco Nov. 20 after causing a 30-minute delay at a UC Board of Regents meeting in protest of the university’s poverty wages.

Rev. Wayne Riggs, pastor of San Diego’s Plymouth Congregational Church and a member of the local Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, delivered an opening prayer at last week’s demonstration. He and numerous other ICWJ members have participated in the service worker campaign since negotiations began 13 months ago.

“Every human being in all of our faith traditions is noble and worthy of dignity, and when workers are paid so little for what they do, it means their lives are undervalued,” he said. “That’s why we stand with them. This is our campus — we’re from right here in San Diego — so this is where we come to put in our two cents.”

Olvera said Fox and Vice Chancellor of Business Affairs Steven L. Relyea have previously demonstrated their support for the service workers’ cause by writing letters to UC President Mark G. Yudof, and that if the two officials follow up on their requests and engage other campus administrators, UCSD could set an example for the rest of the UC system to follow.

“We are now demanding that they put a little more meaning behind their actions,” Olvera said.

The chancellor’s office could not be reached for comment by press time.

Joseph Ho /Guardian

Demonstrators pleaded with campus administrators to stand up for the university’s 8,500 service workers, who are among the lowest-paid employees in the UC system. (Joseph Ho /Guardian)