UW can afford a living wage

May 28, 2014

Steve Leigh reports on what's at stake for Washington Federation of State Employees members in contract talks with the University of Washington Medical Center.

SOME 100 members and supporters of Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Local 1488 rallied in front of the University of Washington (UW) Medical Center on May 22 in preparation for negotiations for a new two-year contract, which is set to start on July 1, 2015.

The local has a new rank-and-file leadership that is pressing for more than the last contract's 4 percent increase over two years. WFSE members received no cost-of-living raise for five years before the last contract. The union represents custodians, groundskeepers, truck drivers, building trades, food service and other groups.

Wages are important, but only one of the issues the union is raising. Management has cut the number of custodial positions on campus by 20 percent in five years while expanding the number of buildings that need to be cleaned. This has resulted in speedups, denial of leave use and unsafe working conditions.

This rally focused on the need to raise low wages and on income inequality generally. In the last seven years, Associate Vice President of Facilities Services Charles Kennedy, the custodians' boss, has received a 35 percent raise. In this same period, WFSE members have received a 2 percent raise, with another 2 percent coming this July. Kennedy makes $156,000 per year, while over 800 WFSE members make less than $15 per hour.

University of Washington custodians picket the medical center
University of Washington custodians picket the medical center

Workers talked about how hard it is to get by on less than $15 an hour. Azmera Zere, a 14-year UW custodian, said, "Living costs are going up and whatever raise we get, they take it back through raising insurance costs anyway. My daughter is going to college this fall, but...I can't afford to send her to a university."

Paula Lukaszek, president of WFSE Local 1488 and a plumber on campus, said, "These are the people cleaning the buildings and maintaining them. They deserve to make a decent living."

$15 AN hour has become a central demand for low-wage workers across the U.S. The Seattle mayor and City Council are discussing a phase-in of this new minimum wage, but it contains loopholes and wouldn't be fully in effect until 2025.

Even this is the result of mass pressure and organizing by the Fight For 15 among low-wage workers and organizing by 15 Now, which is threatening a ballot measure for faster and fuller implementation of the demand. "Any social change happens not because of the powers at the top, but because the workers down below are fighting for it," socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant said at the rally.

The pressure for $15 is so great that even UW officials claim they're for it. UW Associate Vice President Norm Arkans told the Seattle Times that the UW was "interested" in raising wages to $15, but had no plans to do so. "We want to pay our people well," he said. "There are always limitations to that because money doesn't grow on trees."

But it seems that the trees are more laden with money for some people than for others--Arkans makes more than $14,000 a month, which comes to more than $84 an hour. Meanwhile, UW President Michael Young makes more than three times that amount in base salary with a total compensation package of around $750,000 a year. And this just scratches the surface of UW officials with large salaries.

In reality, lack of money isn't the issue. Some $6.4 million was "recaptured" over the last few years from not filling custodial positions. The UW raised $2 billion in a fund drive and has massively raised tuition every year for several years running. The issue is how the UW administration chooses to spend its money.

The UW's priorities are clearly shown in a New York Times report that named the UW as one of the most "unequal" public universities in the U.S. Factors included high executive pay, student debt levels, and low wages and contingent faculty labor.

Unfortunately, the city council's $15 per hour minimum wage proposal won't directly affect UW workers. It excludes coverage of government agencies except for the city of Seattle itself. The UW would likely be exempted legally even from the 15 Now charter amendment, just as the Port of Seattle (SeaTac Airport) was exempted from the SeaTac minimum-wage initiative. The courts even excluded subcontracted employees that worked at the airport.

THE EXCLUSION of UW from the $15 minimum wage means that workers will have to fight all the harder in their contract campaign. WFSE members understand this, and they have held three rallies in the last two months.

Other unions and student groups were at the rally to show support for WFSE. Service Employees International Union Local 925 is also negotiating for a contract to start July 1, 2015. It covers clerical and technical workers at UW. Carol Harris, a member of the local's executive board, whipped up the crowd with calls for solidarity: "The UW tries to divide us between unions. We have to unite. The only way to win is with unity! I say Unity, you say Respect!"

WFSE and SEIU members talked during the rally about how to support each other in fighting for good contracts for each of the unions. SEIU has also been gearing up for its contract campaign. It held a rally of several hundred people on April 29 to demand full funding of education from pre-school through college.

SEIU publicized the fact that Washington state has the most regressive tax structure in the U.S. The poorest section of the population pays 17 percent of its income in state taxes. The richest pay only 3 percent. Corporations and the rich complain that they can't find properly trained workers for their jobs, but then refuse to pay their fair share of taxes to educate the population.

Washington state has been sanctioned by the state Supreme Court for failing to meet its constitutionally mandated "paramount obligation" to fund the public schools. State funding of the UW covers only about 15 percent of the UW's total budget.

The growing unity of unions on campus, especially at the membership level, is an encouraging sign and certainly much needed. Average workers on the UW campus have lost more than 20 percent in real wages after considering inflation since the 1980s. Layoffs during the Great Recession left fewer workers doing more work--even as highly paid administration positions have increased.

Now is the time for a serious fight back--and it seems to be starting.

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