By Cody-Leigh Mullin

“They said it couldn’t be done. They said that the workers in UC Santa Cruz would not come out. They said that the students would not come out, and we are here!”

Jose La Luz was one of roughly 2,700 protesters UC-wide who demonstrated against the university’s long-running contract negotiations with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). La Luz, an international labor-rights activist and keynote speaker for Saturday’s Labor Studies conference in Santa Cruz, addressed UCSC workers and students Jan. 31 at a rally in front of Kerr Hall:

“This is not an accident—we have been working hard to make this moment happen and we are getting ready for the big moment when we say, ‘We are going to stop this University!’”

On January 31, AFSCME’s contract with the UC came to an end, which prompted the march at UCSC from Quarry Plaza to Kerr Hall last week. Protesters gathered to support the union, as the new contract will affect roughly 9,000 UC workers statewide. The protest followed a meeting between AFSCME and the UC Jan. 30, when the two parties discussed the UC’s newest contract proposal.

According to an economic analysis impact model, if UC workers employed at UC-run schools and medical centers earned the same wages as those who do the same work at state hospitals and California Community Colleges, they would receive, on average, a 25 percent raise.

At one point during the UCSC protest, Santa Cruz City Councilmember Tony Madrigal addressed the crowd of workers and students: “I’m very proud to get out here with every single one of you. A fight against you is a fight against me—we’re in this together. Are you guys gonna back down?”

UC employee Maria Padilla knows that AFSCME is up against a fierce contender, but she said that the union’s demands are not extreme. “We’re just asking for normal things, to be able to live everyday, especially since it’s an expensive city,” she said from within the crowd of protesters. “[Our] wages aren’t enough to live in Santa Cruz.”

Organizers created a list of New Years Resolutions to give to Chancellor Blumenthal. The list was sent to all 10 campus Chancellors, as well as to the UC medical centers’ CEOs. The list, created by AFSCME members, their relatives and UC students, outlined steps for the UC system to take in order to fulfill its duty to its employees.

Protesters demanded a written response from the Chancellor.

They also demanded that the UC draft a fair contract to cover affordable health care premiums, yearly bonuses and higher wages, urging the UC to take better care of all its workers.

Tony Madrigal believes the university needs to step up. “These workers live in Santa Cruz, they shop in Santa Cruz, they pay rent in Santa Cruz, they donate in Santa Cruz, and their children go to school in Santa Cruz,” he said. “The University needs to [support] the people with the same commitment that it shows when it invests in its projects up on campus.”

AFSCME and the UC system have been bargaining for a fair contract with market rate standards and benefits protections since October 2007. Since then, the AFSCME local chapter 3299 — composed of over 500 UCSC workers — has organized multiple demonstrations on campus.

During the Wednesday meeting between AFSCME members and the UC, Human Resources Communications Coordinator Nicole Savickas said that AFSCME presented the university with a proposal to extend the contract by five months and pass wage increases for a number of service workers in the union, which would total about $2.8 million. “The union rejected that proposal and they let us know of their intent to file for impasse—which is the next step in bargaining—with the Public Employment Relationship Board (PERB),” Savickas said. “To declare impasse is saying that the two parties can not reach any further progress.”

If PERB declares impasse, it will appoint a third party mediator to meet with the union.

Savickas continued, “Both parties have passed a number of proposals and we have discussed our demands back and forth. So I believe both parties have a pretty good idea of where we stand.”

As of now, the contract issue has no definite solution. Yet after witnessing and participating in the rally, Padilla said with confidence, “We’re going to keep fighting no matter what.”

_Additional reporting by Rachel Tennenbaum._