More than 50 protesters gathered in UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion Wednesday morning to deliver numerous public displays of discontent to the University of California’s Board of Regents, who are holding their bimonthly meeting on campus this week. The protesters spent the day addressing concerns ranging from complaints about local proposals for University-related development in Goleta, to expressions of sadness, solidarity and support for the ongoing UC workers’ strike.
Newly-appointed UC President Mark Yudof, attending his first Regents meeting this week, made some of his first public comments about the strike, at Wednesday’s meeting, expressing sympathy for the many affected employees, but ultimately pointing blame at the worker’s union for the lack of progress in ending the dispute because of what he called its “refusal to negotiate.” The strike, a product of a major dispute between the University and its service and healthcare workers’ union over compensation issues, is expected to last throughout the week.
After UCSB police officers turned away at least 40 more striking UC service workers as a result of limited spacing in the pavilion, the workers waited outside Corwin Pavilion, hoping to listen to ten or so of their colleagues and fellow union members speak to the Regents about how the University’s low wages are driving many of its service workers into a cycle of poverty. (Several of the regents, however, left the room for the public comment period.)
Robert Pinto, a speaker at the public comment session who identified himself as a laborer at UCSB, echoed the statements of several union representatives who spoke before him about their feelings of frustration at being underrepresented in and unappreciated by the University. Pinto noted hardships he felt workers endure – from low wages and the strike as well. “All of us [workers] here are very vital to the University,” Pinto said to the Regents. “Unfortunately, though, we don’t get listened to.”
“We’re not asking to get rich here,” Pinto continued, drawing applause from the audience of colleagues behind him. “We want to serve the University, but we want to make market wage for it.”
The workers’ union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), is representing the striking employees in the ongoing dispute, which alleges that the UC’s policies have mandated excessively low wages for its service and healthcare workers, and denied many of them the standard annual pay increases that most public employees are gradually awarded with longevity.
The University has offered the union a compromise: a package that promised five years of annual minimum wage increases for healthcare workers, and increases in minimum hourly rates for service employees, in addition to healthcare and pension benefits. At a brief press conference after the public comment period, Regents Chairman Richard Blum explained that the offer was basically sum of about $140 million, over a four year period, to compensate a deficit in salary pay for all 8,500 affected service workers, and all 11,000 healthcare workers throughout the system.
Though there’s no way to calculate exactly how much cash this would translate to in each individual worker’s salary, Blum said this figure would roughly amount to a $4 per-hour wage increase for every worker, over a four year period. So, a UC worker who is currently making $10 per hour, Blum explained, would have his salary gradually increase over four years until it eventually capped at $14 per hour.
However, AFSCME declined the Regents’ offer on March 14, saying in a statement that the wage increases and compensation its workers are entitled to are worth much more than the Regents were offering. They chose instead to strike.
Carmen Perez, a service employee in UCSB’s Department of Housing and Residential Services, also made her plight to the Regents during the public comment period. She extended an invitation to all board members to come in for a day on the job with her at the residential housing complex where she and several other protesters present at the meeting work. “We ask you for a contract, [and] for justice,” Perez said. “And, we are inviting you to come in and work with us today, to see the kind of jobs we do and how much we make for how much we are working.”
The Regents also made campus history at the meeting Wednesday, when they formally appointed UCSB student Jesse Bernal to the post of Student Regent for the upcoming school year – marking just the third time in more than thirty years that a student from the Santa Barbara campus has secured the position amidst heavy competition from other hopeful applicants at all of the nine other UC campuses. Bernal’s selection for the Student Regent position is a rather unusual appointment to the Board, as it’s been more than a decade since a UCSB student has been chosen for the position, which was created by the Regents in 1975, mostly as a response to widespread student protests against the University in the 1960s and ’70s.
Though UCSB was the undergraduate school of the first appointed Student Regent, Carol Lynn Mock, the next Gaucho to be selected for this sought-after position wasn’t appointed for about twenty sluggish years, in 1996. And, for the past 15 years, the Student Regent has almost always been a graduate-level student pursuing a juris doctor degree at some of UC’s more elite law schools, like those at the Los Angeles, Berkeley and Davis campuses – so Santa Barbara’s undergraduate-oriented campus has been unsuccessful in appointing a Student Regent until Bernal’s induction at yesterday’s meeting. Bernal will end his term in 2009.
Later on in the meeting, after most of the striking workers had left for the day, Yudof briefly responded to media inquires about the UC worker strike at a short press conference. “I am very sympathetic to the plight of these workers,” Yudof said. “They are a part of what the heart of the UC is.”
As to where the negotiations between the University and its workers stand today, Yudof alluded that he believes the ball is in AFSCME’s court – and encouraged its representatives to come back to negotiate further. “The problem is that the AFSCME [union] people have not come to the table,” he continued. “They won’t bargain. And in order for us to reach a resolution, I’d say to the union that they need to come back to the bargaining table. But right now, we don’t have anyone to bargain with.”
Durring tomorrow’s meeting – the last of the three-day-long conference – the Regents are expecting to hear reports from both their long-range planning and finance subcommittees, the first of which is concerning University’s accountability framework, the second and third of which will be routine budget reports. Later, the Board will hold open- and closed-session discussions about two measures that are on the agenda for tomorrow: the appointment of and compensation hearing for a senior vice president for external relations, and the proposal for a 2008-2009 budget for the president emeritus. Then they will vote in these measures.