By Julia Guest

Fifth-year student Mark Lopez, a member of UC Santa Cruz’s Coalition for Justice, stands on the Quarry Plaza steps wearing a green shirt that reads, “Taking Back Our University — We Make UC Happen.” He introduces himself to the cheering crowd of fellow green-shirt-wearers banging pots and pans and says, “I’m just here to say, ‘What the fuck?’”

Last Thursday afternoon, many UC workers and students gathered for a protest concerning the healthcare and service workers of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or local AFSCME 3299. Students and workers surrounded themselves with white picket signs, marching in a circle around the Quarry Plaza and continuing through McLaughlin Drive.

“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” they shouted as they made their way toward upper campus.

Over 20,000 workers at the University of California are represented by AFSCME and receive wages 30 percent below the wages of workers with the same jobs at other universities.

The contracts of UC workers expired the end of January, and workers are now in the process of negotiating an improved contract that would offer market wages. UC hires sub-contracted, temporary and student workers, who do not have benefits. This hurts the quality of service at UC, according to AFSCME. Thursday’s protest was not the first at UCSC about this issue. There have also been numerous protests statewide at UC medical centers and other UC campuses since last year.

Rosaria Cortez and Yolanda Lopez are senior custodians who have been working for UCSC for 18 years. In their many years working eight-hour days for the university and other jobs, they say they have not seen a significant rise in salary.

“We will do whatever it takes to get the new contract if it means more rallies and meetings,” Cortez said. “We will let our voices be heard.”

As of Jan. 1, a bill signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger that allows UC workers and students to participate in employee compensation meetings is in effect.

Allison Simy-Guevara, organizer for AFSCME 3299, said the Public Employment Relations Board is now bargaining with the union, and she hopes the university will agree to proposals offered by AFSCME 3299.

“We’ve been aiming to fix problems we’ve had in our contract for a long time,” Simy-Guevara said. “It’s kind of a slap in the face, what the university is offering.”

Simy-Guevara is also concerned with the multiple jobs workers need to pay their standard expenses.

“The cost of living goes up six percent each year,” she said. “How are they going to pay the rent in the next few years? How are they going to send their kids to school? How can our workers provide the best services to our stud ents if they’re up all night working two or three other jobs?”

Simy-Guevera said that AFSCME 3299 is still not close to reaching an agreement with the university and could very well begin to strike. Workers have to reach the final “impasse stage” before they have the legal right to strike, but they are already preparing to take this action.

Nicole Savickas, HR communications coordinator, said there are current negotiations for two different employee groups: patient care technicians and service employees.

“Patient care technical employees have been negotiating for contracts since August,” Savickas said. “We just had our last day of mediation and we reached impasse.”

“If no one listens, we will do a strike,” Cortez said, clenching her sheet of protest chants.

Lopez added, “It’s the last resort. It’s not possible to stop now. The chancellor said he supports us, but they’re only words. He doesn’t take a compromise.”