UC workers' long battle ends in a victory

University of California (UC) service workers won a new contract that the union calls "historic" after a year and a half of bargaining that saw mounting protests by workers, including a five-day strike last summer.

The agreement covers 8,500 UC service employees, among them custodians, groundskeepers, cooks and parking attendants. According to their union, AFSCME Local 3299, these workers are so poorly paid under the current contract that 96 percent are eligible for some form of public assistance.

The contract includes annual wage increases that will bring workers who make as little as $10 an hour now to at least $14 an hour over five years.

As part of the campaign to pressure UC administrators, on January 16, 60 workers and their supporters held a sit-in in the private office of UC Board of Regents Chair Richard Blum.

Kathryn Lybarger, a gardener at UC-Berkeley and member of the union bargaining committee, participated in the sit-in. She talked to Alessandro Tinonga about the struggle to win the new contract.

Workers at the UCSD hospital on the picket line during a five-day strike in July 2008 (Rick Greenblatt | SW)Workers at the UCSD hospital on the picket line during a five-day strike in July 2008 (Rick Greenblatt | SW)

I UNDERSTAND the union just reached an agreement on the contract. What are the details?

IT'S NOT everything we wanted, but we got the main items we were going for, including a first-ever guaranteed step system and across-the-board wage increases--18 percent over five years, and minimum wage increases that mean up to an additional 40 percent wage increase after five years for our poorest-paid workers.

It's the best contract we've ever had, and I consider it a victory at a time when thousands of workers are losing their jobs and taking pay cuts.

We started negotiating for the service contract back in October 2007. Then our contract expired in January 2008. So, we've been negotiating for over a year and have been without a contract for a full year. It took a long fight, but we won.

CAN YOU talk about the sit-in?

WE WENT into the private office of Richard Blum's investment firm, which is Private Capital Partners, and occupied it. Nineteen of us were arrested.

The reason we targeted Blum is because he's the chairman of the Board of Regents, and in that position, he has a lot of power. For example, he hired UC President Mark Yudof.

We focused on him because we knew that if he said to Mark Yudof, "Settle the contract and do what the mediator says," then it would happen. Of course, there would be some discussion, but if he wanted, Blum could have influenced the board enough to make things happen. Also, he's the husband of [California] Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

We spent over a year negotiating with UC. We went on strike in July, and after that, we decided to really hone in on the key decision-makers. So we decided to make our contract fight personal with President Yudof and Richard Blum.

We've had a campaign to show up wherever they are, at all the Regents' meetings; we showed up to one in Lake Tahoe. We've set up a picket line or jammed up whatever public venue they happened to be at.

After a while, we finally got to communicate with them through a mediator that they agreed to--Art Pulaski, who is head of the California Labor Federation. Back in early December, I think, he made a recommendation for a contract agreement. But Richard Blum wouldn't call the mediator back.

In the week before Christmas, we confronted Blum on three different occasions, and on one of those occasions we got him to agree to contact Mark Yudof about really trying to reach a settlement. We thought we were getting somewhere. However, despite an initial call out, the university again failed to return calls to the mediator.

After that, several of my brothers and sisters were very upset and decided to occupy Blum's office. It was clear that they were stalling, waiting things out, and we got fed up. We weren't going to take it anymore; we wanted to settle the contract.

In my opinion, when a millionaire wants something bad enough, they get it. They act on it and get it done. We just thought it was really time to hit them and take action, and so we did.

WHAT EFFECT did the sit-in have?

AFTERWARD, I learned that the university was really freaking out about the action. A memo was sent out that same day informing staff about our campaign. I should mention that throughout that week, members visited many offices and homes of several different Regents, talking to their neighbors. After we occupied Blum's office, they recognized that it was part of a campaign.

The effect was that after almost a month of silence, they called us back to bargaining. During our occupation, the mediator got in contact with Richard Blum briefly. Blum told the mediator that he wasn't going to talk to us, that he was on his way to a meeting and would turn off his phone, and he said not to call him again.

Management got really angry and told us that they were going to offer us a strong proposal, but now they wouldn't. They called us back within a week of the action.

It was clear that they called us back because we escalated things. It's clear that things did change in the office of the president as a result of our action.

HOW WAS the mood in your local been affected by the Republic workers sit-in in Chicago, protests against the Oscar Grant killing, the marches against Proposition 8 and the inauguration of Barack Obama? Has there been a change?

I THINK people have been engaged and excited by these stories individually.

Members of the local who heard about the sit-down at Republic were really fired up. My co-workers have been really excited by the response to the Oscar Grant case. Many people that followed the fight against Prop 8 were really encouraged by the response to that, and everyone is really amped about Obama and the possibilities.

But all these feelings are mixed with the idea that we need to be patient, and most people's confidence is dampened by the crisis in the economy.

While the positive examples of fightback haven't yet been generalized broadly throughout the membership, it feels like we have a new and uneven terrain in terms of what workers are thinking. It's clear that the environment has drastically changed since we started bargaining.

The leadership of the union has been very firm that despite the nosedive in the economy, it hasn't affected the ability of UC to pay us what we're demanding. UC still has the money to pay us.

WHAT WILL the impact of state budget cuts be for students and workers?

THE UNIVERSITY has taken some cuts. They're talking about decreasing enrollment, and they're using the crisis as a way to not pay workers. Workers who aren't in unions aren't going to see their wages rise. Other unions are still not working with a contract and still fighting for gains.

The same excuses that are used for them are used on us. The impact of budget cuts on workers only goes as far as workers believe what the UC is telling them.

It's interesting when you compare UC to the California State University system. The CSUs have halted all their construction projects, but UC hasn't; its projects are rolling right along.

Workers are going to have to face a heavier workload because the university isn't going to hire new people. Plus, they're implying that layoffs may be around the corner later this year, or next year.

In my opinion, I think what happens to workers has a lot to do with how much fight workers put up against it.

It's really a fight against the university and its priorities. For example, in 2007, the university spent $14.5 million in bonuses and salary increases to UC's top executives. That's a significant percentage of the UC service workers' wage demands.

Service workers didn't get a raise last year. If the university chose to give service workers a raise, instead of administrators who already make six-figure salaries, they could have done it. It's just a matter of priorities.

Yes, there's a budget crisis, but there's absolutely no excuse for the university to have people on their payroll who work full time, yet qualify for welfare. They have the money to do the right thing, and they should, especially during a bad economy, when workers are really taking a hit.

The executives did announce a cap on pay increases, but I think the only reason why they're doing it is because at this point, it would just look really bad for them. I think that's the only reason.