Sunday, February 17, 2008

Workers rally at UCSB over wages


Dozens of service workers gathered at a noon rally Thursday on the campus of UC Santa Barbara to emphatically and unequivocally demand that administrators raise the wages of the university’s lowest-paid laborers.
Standing in front of Cheadle Hall, which houses the offices of the chancellor and other top administrators, speakers decried those wages as well below average and cited a report linking the UC system’s low pay to poverty in neighboring communities.

“They don’t see us as human beings,” said Robert Pinto, a service worker at UCSB. “We’re just something they can use to make money.”
In a January report titled “Failing California’s Communities,” put together by the Center for Labor & Community Research and the Partnership for Working Families, findings show that UC workers statewide earn about 25 percent less than workers at similar positions in California.
“UC workers in service and patient care positions earn significantly less than the livable wages other colleges and hospitals in the state pay, a fact that bodes ill for the 55 communities around the state in which these low-wage employees are concentrated,” Leslie Moody, executive director of the Partnership for Working Families, wrote in a foreword.
UCSB administrators acknowledged the wage gap and said they have developed plans to address that issue locally.
“We know that certain job categories here are certainly paid below market value,” said Paul Desruisseaux, associate vice chancellor for public affairs.
However, he said the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, the statewide union for UC service and patient care workers, turned down a contract extension that would have allowed the wage-increase proposal to move forward on a local level.
“The plan would be to address their wage inequities and to try to make sure that in doing so … the wages of other [classifications] of employees would not be thrown out of whack,” Desruisseaux said. “…This plan does indeed do that and it’s something that the campus is prepared to move forward with, but not without a valid statewide contract.”
The union’s contract expired in January and unless an agreement is reached at the bargaining table, Desruisseaux said UCSB is not authorized to implement its comprehensive plan to level out wages for its lowest-paid workforce.
But Julian Posadas, a local organizer and executive vice president of the Local 3299, took issue with that argument, saying individual UC campuses are free to address wages at a local level.
“The university can, at any time, increase the wages of workers when they come forward and say, I believe I am way below market,” Posadas said.
After groundskeepers recently received a wage adjustment at three campuses — UCSB, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Berkeley — Posadas said a group of service workers approached the local administration to seek their own wage equity proposal.
“[Campus administrators] stated that they were aware of the market lag, that the chancellor was supportive of the increase, and that they were working on a process to find money with the existing budget,” he said.
But Posadas said that proposal turned up as part of a contract extension offered to the statewide union rather than the local chapter, along with similar proposals for other UC campuses, and the statewide bargaining unit had no choice but to turn down the offer.
“It doesn’t really address the issue,” he said. “First of all, it doesn’t include all the workers.”
Of the 56 classifications of workers that AFSCME represents at UCSB, Posadas said only 25 were included in the proposal — leaving out patient care workers, custodians, building maintenance workers, nurse assistants, and others.
“The money that was allocated through this proposal is already local money,” he said. “…If you have already identified this money, why don’t you release it to the workers?”
He said agreeing to the statewide offer in order to receive the “charity package” would have also meant extending the previous contract through January 2009.
“We weren’t willing to do that because it’s only a temporary fix,” he said. “…The bargaining team wants to settle on a three-year contract with a wage scale system similar to [Santa Barbara] City College and the City of Santa Barbara.”
Messages left for UCSB Chancellor Dr. Henry T. Yang for comment were not immediately returned.
Union organizers put together Thursday's rally as an attempt to draw attention to the “Failing California’s Communities” report and drew speakers such as Santa Barbara City Councilmember Das Williams and UCSB professor of sociology William Robinson.
Both highlighted inequities in pay for service employees and urged UC administrators to lift those wages as soon as possible.
“Enough of social and class apartheid,” Robinson said. “Let us close the social chasm between a privileged minority at the top — whether in the UC system or in our society at large — who control the institutional levers of decision-making, and on the other hand, the impoverished workers and communities who sustain such privilege.”
In asking whether the workers can be at their best when commuting long distances to work, when facing no chance for advancement, and when accorded little value, Williams received a resounding “No!” from the crowd in each instance.
“Without you guys being able to prosper, the community cannot prosper,” Williams said.
Raising wages simply to the market standard will give a much-needed boost to the economy and vitality of neighboring communities such as Goleta and Lompoc, where many of the UCSB service workers live, union organizers contended, citing examples from the report.
If UC paid market-rate wages, the report declared statewide impacts would include $147 million in increased spending on local goods and services, 900 new jobs and $9 million in increased state and local tax revenue.
“The low- and moderate-income areas where the University of California’s lowest paid workers are concentrated are among those most in need of greater economic development and opportunity,” according to the report. “UC patient care and service workers are concentrated in cities and neighborhoods where income is 15 percent lower and poverty is 50 percent higher than the county as a whole.”
Sandra Lopez is one of those service workers, a senior custodian at UCSB. She started four years ago at minimum wage, which worked out to about $1,600 a month after taxes. Since then, she has received a 3 percent raise.
When asked if that income alone can support her, she laughed and said she has two other jobs, working at a dry cleaner and with developmentally disabled people.
“I just sleep about four hours a day,” she said. Her husband is also a custodial worker at UCSB and holds down another job. She only sees him when they are working on the campus at the same time.
She said she has been to several similar rallies for higher wages.
“We don’t see any change. I have hopes, but that is about all I have.”

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