Thursday, December 3, 2009

What About the Workers?

by Jason Chung

When we hear about budget cuts, the first thing that comes to our minds is the students and how many of them will soon be unable to afford their UC education thanks to the recent 32 percent hike in tuition. But what about the workers? The campus custodians? The food and service staff? The gardeners? These contract workers are not true employees of the UC system staff. Their status as outsourced workers offer them no job security. Therefore, they were amongst the first to end up on the chopping board when our school system failed to obtain a workable budget from the California state funds.

As students, we have a mass of organizations dedicated to fighting for our causes, even if we are not activists ourselves. But for the hundreds of workers who are already working long hours for minimum wages, they do not have the luxury of going on strike or holding rallies to garner attention for their situations. They have families to feed. Their children's next meal to consider. Taking time off from work to plead their cases is simply not an option.

Here is where the UC Irvine Worker-Student Alliance (WSA) come into play.

“The WSA was formed in 2007,” says Abraham Medina, a senior Sociology undergraduate member, “when we felt that the mainstream student organizations here on campus are not giving adequate attention to worker issues.” Its members range from graduate and undergraduate students, UCI alumni and the workers themselves. Though relatively small in number, most of its roughly 50 student members belong to more than two other organizations, and are extremely active in reaching out to the community. Medina, for example, is also part of the Orange County DREAM Team that assist undocumented youths gain access to higher education. The group prides itself for its practicalness and lack of a hierarchy structure, believing that to fight for equality, they must first treat each other as equals.

The group immediately went to work in May of that same year, when outsourced workers from UC Berkeley, Irvine, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz joined together demanding an improvement to their substandard wages. After numerous petitions, rallies and letters to the Chancellors of each campus, along with the backing of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 union, the workers finally won a crucial battle for their rights when they reached a settlement with the UC system to increase wages for UC Berkeley, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz workers by $1.75, while UC Irvine is to immediately stop further outsourcing from one of the companies, Commercial Landscaping Service, who provides the campus with groundskeepers, and in-house those who were already working here.

However, UCI received the short-end of the bargain when the Office of the President denied that the funds to in-house the UCI workers existed. As such, as of today, these workers remain outside laborers with no health insurance, no sick-days, and no pension plans for retirement. Since then, the WSA has continued to fight feverishly for workers' rights.

More recently, when it was announced that major cuts must be implemented in UCI in order to keep the university running, the WSA reemerged in the spotlight. On April 29, 2009, the group held a panel titled “A Worker Struggle is a Student Struggle”, in which these subcontracted workers were given the opportunity to describe their personal experiences working for UCI in hopes of drawing the backing of students. “However,” says Sandra Flores, a sophomore History undergraduate member, “UC administrators have only answered with divisive practices and tactics of intimidation in order to prevent any worker movement on the campus...UCI [was] threatening to fire and replace all present workers [at the time] to avoid in-sourcing the current workers.”

On May 14, 2009, they hosted a rally titled “Protest UCI Racism” in which they again called for the in-housing of the 150 subcontracted workers hired through ABM Industries, one of the largest facilities services contractors in the U.S., who were still denied employment after over two decades of service. As outsource workers, not only are they paid minimum wage ($8.25), as opposed to the $12 that UCI-employed workers earn, they are not entitled to vision and dental insurance, retirement benefits or vacation time. Although hundreds of students showed up at the rally in front of the administration building that day, “negotiations have deteriorated,” says Fernando Chirino, a fourth year Sociology graduate student member, “three workers who have already been laid off have just received letters saying they will never be [rehired].” In August, 35 more custodial positions were cut in the university's attempt to close the $77 million gap left behind by state budget cuts.

Currently, the WSA is partnering with several other activist groups in the Defend-UCI coalition. They have temporarily switched their focus from fighting for workers' rights to helping laid-off workers get through this difficult period. Aside from the usual protests and rallies to garner attention to their cause, the group is also holding can drives to lighten the unfortunate workers' loads.

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