Service workers at UCSB went caroling outside Chancellor Henry Yang’s home on the college campus in hopes of pressuring him to press for better wages during contract negotiations taking place on campus. Yang was not at home at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec.19, when some three dozen food-service workers, groundskeepers and other University of California employees belonging to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) sang modified lyrics to traditional Christmas tunes such as Jingle Bells. (“To the bank,” they chorused, “to the bank, jingle all the way / Regents will not share the wealth and workers have to pay.”) Surrounded by watching police officers, the carolers also left a Christmas stocking filled with charcoal on the walkway of Yang’s on-campus house. The Yangs were still not home shortly after 10 p.m. when about 20 UCSB custodians got off work and gathered outside the on-campus domicile to sing a traditional song of unity and activism, “De Colores,” in Spanish, without changing the lyrics.
The AFSCME represents just over 500 workers at UCSB, and 20,000 in the entire UC system. Continuing negotiations for a new contract took place in a UCen conference room on December 19 and 20. (The old contract is set to expire at the end of January.) At the end of the two days, an agreement was still a long way off, according to both union and UC officials, and the two sides are scheduled to meet next at UC Berkeley on January 3. Bob Pinto, a member of the bargaining team who works as a grounds laborer at UCSB, said the process was frustrating. On the first day, the negotiators listened to testimony from workers, but on the second day, they caucused in a separate room, not appearing at the table until shortly before lunch. The 20 or so members of the bargaining team “fly from all over the state at union expense to come to these things,” he said, “and then they don’t meet with us. It’s discouraging. They say they are working on stuff but who knows what they are doing.”
Julian Posadas, the union’s member organizer at the UCSB campus, contends that UCSB service workers’ wages do not reflect the cost of living in the area, and are 10-30 percent below pay for comparable jobs at government and other large institutions in the surrounding area. Pinto added that the pay ranges that accompany advertising for the jobs are misleading: the pay remains at the low end of that range because practically nobody gets raises. The union is asking the administration for a $15 per hour minimum wage for all of its workers, along with step increases according to how long people have been employed. It is also asking for a freeze in health insurance deductions.
Among workers who testified before the negotiators on Wednesday was Carlos Orellana, a 25-year-old grounds laborer who said that his living expenses so far exceed his $1,700 take-home pay – from a gross monthly income of $2350 – that he has been borrowing from his parents each month to make ends meet. His wife, suffering from a chronic illness, is nevertheless raising their two toddlers and bringing home another $600 a month from her part-time job. They pay $645 for a two-bedroom apartment in Lompoc, plus he spends $320 per month on gas to commute to UCSB and another $240 in car payments. That leaves just $440 cash for utilities, grocery, clothing and other expenses including medical deductibles and co-payments. UC’s medical benefits are generous, he readily admits: His wife’s medical care is covered by his insurance, and UC also lets him use his own vacation and sick days to help his wife when she is ill, although sometimes she needs more assistance from him which further cuts into his paycheck. He has thought about getting another job but feels that it would take time from his family and besides, he feels that his work at UCSB should be enough. “We move rocks, we cut trees, when it rains we dig holes and make sure the drains are empty. We work hard every single day,” he said, adding that the supervisors make doubly sure of that. “I come home tired,” he said, noting that he had already sold his lovingly restored Cadillac Fleetwood and television sets in order to raise cash to survive. The family does without a computer. “I hate my financial living,” he said, “and it’s not the university’s fault, but I would like their help.”
Cynthia Cronk, UCSB’s director of human resources, said that the university is “very concerned” about the service workers’ salaries. She did not argue with the AFSCME’s estimation that wages are lower than those in the surrounding area, saying only that UCSB is in the process of doing its own market evaluation. “We want to be able to pay people a fair salary and that includes being competitive with the local market,” Cronk said. Her boss, Donna Carpenter, the vice chancellor in charge of administration at UCSB, “has repeatedly told AFSCME that these things take time,” Cronk said. “A process has to be followed.” She said that includes making sure that the university can afford the local increases, getting approval through the office of UC President Robert Dynes, and then going through a formal bargaining procedure.” That procedure need not be part of the current round of contract negotiations. “We believe it will happen in time,” said Cronk, “but it won’t happen right away. We are certainly trying to move it along as best we can.”
Carpenter said much the same thing when she met with the AFSCME representatives a day before the caroling protest, according to Posadas. “They say they are on our side but they won’t put figures down on paper.” he said. “I’d hate to see the workers and their families get nothing in the end but a lot of broken promises.” Posadas referred to recent scandals regarding regents’ salaries and perks, and noted that Yang is among the UC chancellors being considered for a raise, to $410,000 from his current salary of $370,000, a figure that does not count his cost-free housing. “They’re claiming his salary is below market and it might be, and he probably deserves that increase,” Posadas said, but he claimed that service workers are also worth more. “We don’t like doing this, really,” he said of the caroling and the coal. “I mean, we’re going to his house. A lot of the workers thought he might come out, because he’s a very humble man. I hope he doesn’t get the wrong message, but we have to keep the pressure on. We’re in a state of limbo.”