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UC Workers Avert Walkout To Continue Contract Talks


Have you been to a University of California campus, hospital or student health center? If so, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3299, helped you. Some 1,300 service workers and 2,600 patient-care techs labor at Sacramento ‘s UC Davis Medical Center and the UC campus in Davis . These university employees account for 20 percent of the 20,000-person union statewide. UC has been negotiating new contracts with the Oakland-based AFSCME for its patient-care unit since last August and over the past seven months for the service workers. 

"We’re asking for equal pay for equal work," said John Tinker, a magnetic resonance imaging tech at UCDMC.

In mid-April UC and AFSCME reached an impasse in talks for a new contract for service workers, whose ranks include bus drivers, cooks, custodians, gardeners and parking attendants. As a result, AFSCME and UC submitted their positions on a host of bargaining issues-from benefits to contracting out, future contract length, work hours, layoffs and wages-to a neutral fact-finder, Carol A. Vendrillo. She delivered her 41-page report on May 2, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of both sides’ evidence. 

Vendrillo found convincing the union’s case that UC has the funds to increase the pay of its service employees. "It is not a lack of state funding but the University’s priorities that leaves the service workers’ wage at the bottom of the list," she said.  

Still, the UC-AFSCME impasse continued. Nearly 100 percent of the union’s rank and file, upset at the collective bargaining stalemate, voted from May 17-22 to walk off the job on June 4-5.

The state Public Employment Relations Board, based in part on UC’s view that AFSCME workers were crucial to daily patient care on the 10 campuses and five medical centers, halted the two-day walkout. The PERB ordered both sides back to bargaining on May 30.

So instead of a job action, AFSCME members went to work, where they wore green union t-shirts and gathered at campus locations system-wide on June 4. In the Sacramento region, they rallied at the UCDMC cafeteria. There, Ann Madden Rice, the CEO of the med center, met with them. Union members asked her if she’d help to settle a new contract, according to Gail Price, a UC clerical employee and AFSCME organizer.

"Rice wouldn’t answer our questions except to say the ongoing mediation was a ‘process’ and left after about 10 minutes," Price said.

Leticia Garcia-Prado, a member of the AFSCME bargaining team, is a medical assistant at UCD’s Cowell Student Health Center . She checks in new patients, takes their blood pressure and other vital signs, assists doctors as necessary and makes follow-up patient appointments. In a typical workday, Garcia-Prado cares for up to 40 patients. She earns $14.00 per hour now, up from $10.00 an hour 10 years ago. Currently, the beginning hourly pay for a UC medical assistant is $13.53. Kaiser Permanente (a health maintenance organization) hires new medical assistants at $19.46 per hour, according to AFSCME’s figures.

This 44 percent wage gap causes UC staffing shortages, the union said. In turn, AFSCME added, UC relies too much on temporary patient-care workers for staffing shortages.

UC took two years to hire a new medical assistant at the UCD student health center, and newly-hired patient-care workers often leave for higher-paid employment with Kaiser or Sutter Health, said Garcia-Prado. "It’s a constant revolving door."

Hiring new UC employees can add hidden costs, Tinker added. "Our last two hires came from Alaska and New Jersey . UC had to pay them a bonus and moving expenses, plus fees to a job recruiter," he said.

Against this backdrop, the demand for health-care workers is strong across the U.S. In fact, the sector is one of the few adding jobs as the slowing economy cuts business spending on new workers.  

According to AFSCME, UC pays its patient care and service workers, on average, wages which are 25 percent below what workers make in comparable employment at California community colleges, and Kaiser and Sutter Health hospitals. "It’s difficult for UC to understand that," said Matt Tidd, a UCD parking attendant who is on the AFSCME bargaining team. 

Further, AFSCME wants to end UC’s "open range" system of pay rates. It features two main parts. First, managers decide the beginning pay of new employees. Second, management sets the frequency and rate of wage increases for experienced workers, said Tinker.

For the new contract of both bargaining units, AFSCME wants to change to a "step system" of wages. That would take into account UC and related work experience in setting new employees’ pay. It would also increase the wages of veteran workers in a series of steps based on their recent time on the job, i.e., six months, one year, etc.

AFSCME is also demanding a minimum starting pay of $15.00 per hour for all UC workers. Currently, some service workers earn the beginning wage of $10.28 per hour. The union said, further, that 96 percent of the UC service workers’ wages make them eligible to receive public assistance to pay for food, health care and shelter.

Vendrillo’s May 2 fact-finding report included workers’ testimony. Juanita Cannon, a UCDMC housekeeper, testified that she is unable to buy needed prescription medication on her salary.   

Vendrillo "recommends that the University retire the ‘open range’ pay scale and make the $12.00 hourly wage rate the bottom rung of a new step system" for the service workers’ unit.

UC conducted third-party surveys on medical-center job classes in five communities to determine market-comparable pay scales, said Nicole Savickas, a university spokeswoman. Later, UC compared this data with the last AFSCME contract to see where workers’ pay lagged. Sharing the data with the union, UC proposed wage increases of four to 15 percent for the first year of the contract, plus changing to a step system of wage growth for the patient-care unit, she said.

Savickas disagrees with the union’s assertion of staff turnover which is harming UC patient care, with an over-reliance on temporary workers. "We’re not seeing that," she said.

UC added this to the debate on patients’ satisfaction with their health care. 

"Several UC Davis Health System nursing units and clinics are being honored for their high patient satisfaction ratings this week at Professional Research Consultant’s (PRC) annual client education conference in Baltimore , Md. ," said a UC statement last month.

The California Nurses Association represents UC nurses. AFSCME’s patient-care unit represents medical assistants, medical techs and respiratory therapists at UC.

According to Savickas, UC is not having difficulty recruiting and training new employees. Just ask UC President Mark G. Yudof, who arrived on June 16. His compensation for the 2008-2009 year is valued at $828,000, said a UC statement. Yudof, who seeks "cost savings among the campuses," also gets a monthly car allowance of $743, plus UC-provided housing.

Currently, PR firm Hill & Knowlton is regularly updating the UC Web site during the AFSCME talks, Savickas said.

Asked about H&K’s record on employer-union negotiations, Sheldon Rampton, author and research director for the Center for Media & Democracy, said, "Everything that we have seen about H&K’s activities regarding labor issues suggests that it is the sort of company people hire when they plan to engage in union-busting or when they have a reputation for unfair labor practices. This was the case, for example, when Wal-Mart hired H&K in January 2005 to assist with a national PR blitz aimed at countering criticisms of its labor practices."

Arkansas-based Wal-Mart is the nation’s biggest employer, with a non-union work force of over 1.3 million Americans, some of whom earn wages low enough to qualify for public assistance. 

H&K has been on the UC payroll "for the past several years," according to Claudine Moore, an H&K spokeswoman.

Former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez (D-LA) cancelled his June 11 commencement speech at UCD in support of AFSCME workers getting a favorable contract. Likewise in a show of political support for the union, former Democratic President Bill Clinton opted out of his June 13 graduation address at UCLA.

Does a kind of "liberalism" explain this show of force from Núñez and Clinton? It is unclear if that accurately captures their thinking. What is clear is the money trail from the union to the party. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the national AFSCME (comprised of 3,500 local unions) outstripped AT&T as the top all-time political donor since 1989, giving 99 percent of $39.4 million to the Democratic Party.

UC resumed talks with the patient-care unit of AFSCME June 9 – 12, which were "pretty futile," Tinker said.  Dates for resuming discussions between the service unit and UC are "in a holding pattern," he added.

As to whether the patient-care workers will agree to a new contract before the service unit does, Tinker said, "We are negotiating new contracts together."

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento ssandronsky@yahoo.com.

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