By Carolyn Steinle. Gillian Vickers. Maricela Lechuga.
Campus News Reporters

For Barbra Cano, free time is a luxury she cannot afford. The single mother of four children has been a janitor at UC Santa Cruz for 19 years and struggles with the University of California’s low wages.

“I have two jobs,” Cano said. “My kids are in sports and sometimes I have not been able to enroll them because I didn’t have money for their uniforms. I had to get another job because I want them to be successful, but with this pay it’s hard.”

Cano’s story is not unusual. She is only one of 20,000 University of California employees organized under the American Federation for State, Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Many, like Cano, have been forced to work extra jobs and make cuts to family and personal spending in order to make a living.

Cano and other AFSCME members are anticipating the final word on a contract that would raise their wages. If the UC and the union cannot agree on a contract by mid-May, workers have the legal right to strike.

The labor union’s local chapter, AFSCME 3299, represents 11,000 patient technical care (PTC) employees who work at UC medical centers. The unionized PTC workers include a variety of occupations, from anesthesia technicians to pharmacy assistants.

AFSCME 3299 also represents the university’s 9,000 service workers including custodians, food service workers, groundskeepers, shuttle drivers, building maintenance workers and security workers — all of whose services are vital to maintaining the university.

AFSCME has been at the bargaining table with the university since August 2007 to negotiate PTC and service workers’ contracts. The lengthy negotiation process is finally coming to a close, and workers will soon decide whether to go to work or to the picket line.

If they choose to strike, it will not be the first time. In 2005 AFSCME organized a one-day strike on behalf of UC service workers, which was successful in establishing a $9.27 minimum wage. The resulting contract in 2005 expired in January 2008.

AFSCME will not settle until the UC establishes a new minimum rate of $15 per hour and a step system to ensure worker’s wages increase based on experience and seniority.

“It’s damn near 2009 and you don’t have people making $15 per hour,” said Ernesto Encinas, a cook at the Colleges Nine/Ten Dining Hall and an active union member. “Other places pay it. Why can’t the UC? It’s in their power — they can do it.”

The union is also asking for market wages, making UC workers’ pay comparable to the salary of their counterpart workers at community colleges and health centers like Kaiser. According to AFMSCE calculations, UC workers make up to 30 percent less than workers at community colleges.

For workers like Padilla, who has to work part-time at a Vallero gas station in addition to her full time job on campus as a UC food service worker, such a raise would dramatically improve her situation.

“I would like to see that we can get the same salary [as workers] at other schools,” Padilla said. “That way maybe we can have just one job.”

AFSCME also wants the new agreement to guarantee that pension plans, parking fees and health care will not change throughout the life of the contract. Under the expired contract, UC increased the cost of employee healthcare premiums, parking rates and co-pays without negotiation.

Alison Sirny-Guevara, an AFSCME 3299 organizer, stressed that the union is demanding guaranteed benefits.

“We’re trying to get better benefits protection [because] over the last few years UC has been trying to do pay cuts in order to provide pension plans and healthcare,” she said. “But we are trying to say that the UC has to negotiate with us before they can do any change like that.”

The UC rejected AFSCME’s service workers’ proposals, but offered on Jan. 30 “a five-month contract extension along with a proposal worth approximately $2.8 million in wage increases for various employees,” according to the website of the UC Office of the President.

Nicholas Gutierrez, an AFSCME bargaining team member and UC Santa Cruz custodian, explained why AFMSCE rejected the UC’s $2.8 million proposal and petitioned for impasse.

“At UC Santa Cruz here, the custodians, some TAPS personnel and garage fleet service people were not included [in the proposal],” Gutierriez said. “Only two types were included: some of the food service people and some of the grounds department people. That’s not what we asked for. Our proposal was that everyone gets the same amount increase across the table.”

Nicole Savickas, the human resources communications coordinator for the UC Office of the President, acknowledged that many workers’ salaries are below market level. The UC has a commitment to being an employer of choice, she said, but state budget cuts impede its ability to keep all wages at employee demands.

“Employee groups have been faced with a lag in wages in comparison to market demand,” Savickas said. “The UC is committed to wage increases for employees earning $40,000 or less. It is at the forefront of our priorities, but we have to do what we can given the state budget. We have been told that there will be cuts next year and we’re at the limit.”

But many say the UC’s dependence on the state budget is an invalid excuse.

When AFSCME and the UC could not settle the service workers’ contract in 2005, a three-member fact-finding panel reviewed both parties’ positions. In March 2005, neutral fact-finder Carol Vendrillo issued the statement: “Perhaps the most important point the [fact-finding] panel wishes to make is that wage increases for service employees under the [2005-2008] agreement should not be dependent on state funding or any other particular funding source.”

Vendrillo is currently composing fact-finding recommendations to be issued to AFSCME and the UC by mid-May. Because these recommendations are confidential, Vendrillo declined to comment.

AFSMCE and the UC will then have 10 days to review the recommendations. The fact-finders’ recommendations will be released to the public if both parties are still unable to agree upon a contract. At this point the UC has the right to implement the previous contract’s proposals, while the union and its workers retain the right to strike.

Although a last resort, striking is the legal means that workers can turn to in order to change their contract after the negotiation process fails.

“We don’t have time to go on a strike. We have two jobs,” Padilla said. “But if they don’t leave us another option, we’re going to have to.”

Many workers disagree with the UC’s argument that the state budget cuts restrict wage increases.

“They’re always saying there’s no money,” Encinas said. “Let’s face it: The UC is not dependent on the state of California. The UC is a multi-million-dollar corporation.”

David Kaun, economics professor at UCSC, attributed the underpayment of service workers to an “elitist” attitude from the university. Although the faculty on this campus might also be underpaid, he said, they are not put in a position of poverty as some service workers are.

“A substantial portion of the faculty may be slightly below the market rate, but the market rate for academic salaries does not put us in poverty in any way, shape or form,” Kaun said. “The university has always been an elitist institution in many respects and one of those respects is the relationship between the faculty, all of whom are Ph.D.s, and everybody else.”

Julian Posada, a former UCSC labor organizer who currently organizes at UC Santa Barbara, expressed his frustrations with the UC’s contradictory inability to meet market standard pay for service workers while increasing the salaries of higher-ups.

“They always cry wolf [and say] that there is no money,” Posada said. “The UC always uses the same excuse —‘Oh, the budget, the budget’ — yet executive pay keeps going up and tuition keeps going up. Everything keeps going up except for the services for students and the wages for workers. This university has become a complete monster [and it] has lost its prestige in our communities by not providing dignified wages for workers.”

Executive pay has been going up. In January 2008 Diane M. Griffiths, secretary and chief of staff to the Board of Regents, received a 26.1-percent salary increase, bringing her annual base salary from $234,000 to $295,000. The regents added additional duties to Griffiths’ portfolio, resulting in a recommendation for a higher grade and salary adjustment.

Executives are not the only UC employees whose workload is increasing. Padilla stressed that increased student enrollment affects her job.

“We feed more students than [workers at Cabrillo] and we get less money,” she said. “Every year it’s more and more students that come. And it’s hard.”

David Capellas, a tree-trimmer at UCSC for over seven years, said executives, not service workers, should bear the burden of budget cuts.

“The top one-fifth of administration is getting 25-percent raises,” he said. “If we’re truly in an economic crisis, then our ‘leaders’ should be the first to tighten their belts and make sacrifices. To turn to the poorest [workers] in the system and say, ‘You need to make sacrifices’ is just wrong.”

Capellas explained the effect of the sacrifice in his life.

“I have two children,” he said. “At the end of the month, if I don’t do at least $1,000 to $1,200 worth of side work, I can’t pay basic bills. And that’s with my partner — she’s making more money than I am.”

Only 8.6 percent of the workers’ salaries are funded by the state budget, according to AFSCME’s “UC Financial Fact Sheet,” which highlights the institution’s financial health and diverse funding sources for workers’ salaries.

Savickas pointed out that AFSCME’s fact sheet combines the salaries of both patient technical care and service workers despite the fact that their funding sources are different.

“When AFSCME does their calculations they often lump patient technical care and service workers in the same place,” Savickas said. “Patient technical care’s salaries come from the medical centers …we have workers paid through state funding such as [service workers].”

Although AFSCME patient technical care and service workers have separate contracts and different funding sources, in 2007 the union decided that all 20,00 AFSCME-represented workers could strike together under the slogan “One Union, One Fight.”

The UC disagreed with AFSCME’s decision to combine patient care technical workers with service workers.

“[Patient technical care employees] are not only a separate bargaining unit under the law, but they have also traditionally bargained separately over their terms and conditions of employment,” according to the website of the UC Human Resources department in 2007.

The contract demands of both PTC and service workers are the same and are represented by the same bargaining team, Sirny-Guevara said, which is why they have decided to strike together.

AFSCME workers are also counting on student support from the Student Worker Coalition for Justice. The coalition has been advocating for workers’ rights since 2003.

John Williams, a UCSC student coalition member and AFSCME intern, explained why he works with the coalition.

“Students have a moral responsibility to make sure that the people who clean their rooms and cook their food aren’t living in poverty,” he said.

Capellas emphasized that student support is “integral to the whole process.”

“I don’t think we’d be successful without the [Student Worker Coalition for Justice],” Capellas said. “I’ve been given a lot of hope for the future because of what they’ve done.”

Students from the coalition plan to hold signs on the picket line if workers strike.

“No one wants to strike, but we’re ready,” Encinas said. As a Member Action Team leader, Encinas constantly communicates union updates to his fellow workers at the Colleges Nine/Ten Dining Hall.

“We got these guys on their toes,” continued Encinas, referring to his co-workers. “When we say ‘jump’, they jump.”