Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Worker and union leader: “The truth of the matter is UC does not get that much money from the state to begin with."

By Soraya Sadeghpour

I interviewed Dianna Sahhar, President of Local No. 9/ Irvine Campus Local of the Coalition of University Employees (CUE). Her union, representing clerical workers, is currently negotiating a new contract and opposes the budget cuts. During the interview, Sahhar said that CUE had hired an economist whose number crunching supports the claim that the UC system has unrestricted reserves it’s not using.

Q: What are the tasks of this coalition and what are your specific tasks as president of this Local?

A : I'm on the statewide executive board so we have teleconference meetings every month, and we meet four times a year in person. We just make decisions regarding the organization and how things are run. And each local has employees/staff that are not UC employees, so we deal with those issues as well. I'm also a bargainer, and we're negotiating a new contract right now with UC management (UC Office of the President), labor relations, and we try to go north and south to different campuses. This week they're actually in Santa Cruz, I didn't bargain because I just started this job, so I'm taking a break on the traveling (laughs). But our contract expired in September, and was extended till in the end October, so right now we're in what's called a "status quo," which means they can't repose any new work rules or anything like that, we have to stay with the old contract until we get a new one.

Q: So the Coalition definitely focuses more on employee rights than on student rights?

A: Clerical and allied services is who we cover, so we have clericals throughout the state who are library assistants, dispatchers, we have people at the medical centers also, receptionists, cashiers, housing, dining, administrative assistants, the secretaries, cashiers, registrars and any kind of clerical position you can think of.

Q: So the negotiation, then, is surrounding the financial support of those areas?

A: If you go to, you can click on our contract and see what articles we have, there's everything from respectful and fair treatment to health and safety, discrimination, and wages is part of it. UC has given us a proposal last time I was bargaining of 0 wages, for the next three years. And then, of course, we know they want to cut us from 4-8% (called the Salary Reduction and Furlough Plan) depending on what peoples' salary wage is, and we have not agreed to that. We believe it's illegal, because they've (UC) has told us that either we accept this "Furlough Plan" or they're going to temporarily lay us off. The way the furlough plan works, is if you get a 4% reduction that equals 11 days off, and they're calling them "furlough days," or if you get the 6% cut then that equal 16 days. So instead of us accepting that plan, they're saying they're going to lay us off for those 11 or 16 days, depending on what our pay cut would have been...So those
complaints go to the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). We also asked for an injunction to have UC stop the temporary layoffs, so right now there have been some that have been issued, but rescinded right away (like the next day) because I think they realized "oops, you know, they filed for unfair labor practices, we better not do this." There are many people who have received notices for temporary layoffs in May of next year, so we're going to have to see how that turns out...

Q: Workers at the Irvine campus in particular?

A: All throughout. Riverside got many notices...we got notices in the physicians billing group, they got three or four layoffs this week but the next day they rescinded. So I think HR [Human Resources of UCI] told them, "hey, you can't do that, we're still negotiating." And, the thing with UC President [Mark G.] Yudof is he says he wants to negotiate with the unions that are not accepting it, but he told us to give him an alternate plan. And
we're giving them alternate plans and they're rejecting every one of them.

Q: I've heard theories that both Governor Schwarzenegger as well as Yudof are trying to privatize the UCs, and basically slowly reject the principles laid down in the Master Plan, shifting the tuition more and more upon students and their families. Do you agree with this?

A: Yes, and it's totally wrong that they're doing that. I heard Yudof say in a speech that Gov. Schwarzenegger told him to raise fees because the fees are so low. And he compared them to some private institution. So I totally believe that that's what they're trying to do. You guys got a, what, 9% this year? And then they want to give you 30 plus next year? That's just outrageous! When I was a student here, I paid $10,000 for my entire four years.

Q: You went to Irvine?

A: Yes, as a social ecology major.

Q: I know you went over this a little bit already, but can you point out exactly what your goal is in your position in the Coalition and how you intend to accomplish it?

A: We're trying right now to avoid the layoffs and this [Salary Reduction and Furlough] Plan. We don't believe that UC has this financial crisis, we think they're just jumping on the bandwagon with the state. They have over $5 billion in unrestricted funds and now Yudof is putting up a PR effort that it's a myth that they have unrestricted funds. But it's not a myth. We have an economist that we hired, and he went around to each UC and gave a presentation (there's actually an interview with him on our website, KUCI interviewed him a couple of weeks ago. It's going to be on DVD and we'll post it on our website when it's ready). But he looked at their own, published finances that they give to the accounting office as compliance with general accounting rules, and they have it printed there that they have these unrestricted funds. And unrestricted means unrestricted. They give excuses about the restricted funds, trying to mix apples and oranges and confuse the public. But the truth of the matter is UC does not get that much money from the state to begin with, so the fact that the state's having a crisis shouldn't be affecting UC that much, because it's only about 2 1/2% of their final budget that comes from the state.

Q: Really? I heard something like 14%.

A: Well it's tricky because there are so many different funds...I guess it depends on what specific department you're talking about...but we had a teleconference with the Vice President of the Budget Office, and he told us it was under 3%. The rest comes from tuition, fees, and services that UC offers. For example, the bookstore, or housing, or dining, parking, that kind of thing. And of course the medical centers are making big bucks, they make a profit every year.

Q: So then, what are those rainy day funds for if not for rainy days like

A: That's what we're saying! It's pouring right now, why not use those funds? In his latest interview, Yudof said they've used $300 million of that so far, so okay, instead of $5.4 billion they have $5.1 (laughs) so it's not that big of a deal. They pulled out $1 million to pay for security for Michelle Obama to speak at UC Merced from the unrestricted funds, so they do exist...

What they're telling us is that they want $13 million from us, the clerical unit. And our economist thinks that's way high, he thinks it should be more like $5 million. We're trying to find out where they came up with that number. So they gave us an excel spreadsheet, and we started looking at the numbers and they didn't add up, they were totally wrong.

Q: They physically didn't add up?

A: We looked at their formulas and they were funky. The next day they gave us a revised version, and they didn't have any formulas at all.

Q: Is that document available to the public? May I see it?

A: No, I don't think it is at this point. But we asked, "why are there no formulas in here?" "oh, I just punched in those numbers." Well we need to know where they are getting their figures from. (This is all from our direct dealing with the UC Office of the President, Labor Relations, and with the Budget Office.) They always "don't know" and explain "oh, I have to get back to you on that," and we have to give them written requests for information whenever we want to know anything, and then we have to wait to get it back. And we've been waiting months. I mean we've been waiting three years from some information discrepancies from our last contract, and we still haven't received some of that information regarding the finances.

Q: So you basically think that UC is finding excuses, and lying to the workers.

A: And to the students, and to the public. I think they're making a lot of interest on those funds, the executive pay increases have continued, the bonuses continue. I mean, they gave out about $380 million in bonuses last November, and the regents approved it...They're telling us they have no money, so then how are they able to give all of these bonuses out? And they (top executives, etc) already make more in a month than we do in a year. So for them to want to cut some of the lowest paid workers, so they can provide
bonuses for those at the top is just absurd.

Q: Have you personally been affected by these cuts?

A: Not yet, because we haven't signed off to the plan. There's another program out there called "START," where you can voluntarily reduce your time from 5-50% but your accruals will remain 100%, so I still get my accruals for vacation, sick leave and service credit.

Q: So, no children at the UCs or anything like that?

A: No, I don't.

Q: Then what drew you to working with the coalition?

A: I had been working at the UCI Library for almost 20 years, and I was in a manager/supervisor position, and I supervised about 10 or 15 students. And then they decided that supervising students didn't make you a supervisor. So I became what is called a "Non representative," meaning I didn't have a union. In 2006, they put me back into the unit. I was also experiencing a bad manager, that's the best way I can put it, so I got involved just to protect myself, because I felt I was being harassed. Then I was appointed by the [inaudible] to be a bargainer...and I was eventually elected as President.


Q: As someone who worked in the library for 20 years, did you see many students
utilizing those late hours?

A: Yes. I was the Sunday supervisor so I used to close the library, and we always had to kick people out. Some people would stay all night if they could. Now people have access to the Gateway Study Center, from, I believe, 6 pm -3am, but then the students don't have access to the books.


Q: Do you think the same thing might happen to Yudof?

A : I’m hoping so. The unions are the ones that pushed him out of the University of Texas, and the unions pushed him out of the University of Minnesota, and he did the same thing there. And I actually think he was brought in to do this. I think that they really do want to privatize UC, and I think it's illegal, I think the state needs to step in.

The way it works right now, the regents are autonomous, no one can tell them what to do, and they're appointed by the governor, and we have a Republican governor. So we've got some really conservative people on the Regents Board, and I think they need to do away with the autonomy and have them report to the legislature, because right now they have no accountability whatsoever. They're not only privatizing the university, they're corporatizing it as well.

Look, you have British Petroleum and look at the labs, we're making nuclear warheads. I mean come on! People should be protesting in the street. Plus this is our public institution, this was created for the state of California, for the people.

Q: Along the lines of this research you are talking about, the labs and the petroleum, do you think that when the UCs experience budget cuts that the humanities and the arts suffer long before the engineering and science departments?

A: Absolutely...and it's a shame. And even more than that, I think Yudof wants to get rid of undergraduate altogether, to price you guys out of it. I think he wants you to go to a junior college or a Cal State for your general ed, and to make UC a graduate school. That seems logical to me, because how could most students afford a 30% increase?

Q: Ultimately, what would you like to see happen?

A: I'd like to see Yudof step down, and see somebody in there at half the price, who's more of a people person. Someone who understands the mission of the University, which is education, research and service. Right now, Yudof is not servicing the needs of the community, by educating the people and supporting research. And I think we need to be working more closely with the state of California. Like I said, the regents can do whatever they want to, I think there needs to be some oversight by the state legislature. The warheads, the British Petroleum, needs to go to the state to decide whether they support it. Look at the Research Department we have out here, and in San Diego it's the same thing, you're seeing more and more of these big companies coming in. Qualcomm, all the big engineering and computer stuff, though more in San Diego than here. I just think there needs to be more oversight by the state, because since this is a public, state institution, the state seems like the right place to do it.

Q: Do you think the state legislature is a responsible overseer?

A: Well, I think it's a start. That fluctuates to, depending on elections.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent interview, thanks Soraya & Dianna. Great job ladies!