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Berkeleyan

One-day AFSCME strike called for Thursday
Other unions may join in sympathy, as both sides work to move past impasse

| 13 April 2005

For up-to-date information on campus operations on April 14, with links to the UCOP and AFSCME websites, visit newscenter.berkeley.edu/labor/
As the campus gears up for its biggest party in recent memory - a three-day gala capped by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's formal inauguration on Friday and Cal Day on Saturday - two unions representing thousands of Berkeley service and clerical workers are urging members to stay off their jobs on Thursday, April 14.

The one-day strike was called by Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employ-ees (AFSCME), the bargaining unit for the UC system's 7,300 service workers, including roughly 1,000 custodians, food-service workers, bus drivers, and groundskeepers on the Berkeley campus. The Coalition of University Employees (CUE), which represents some 1,800 clerical employees on the core campus and at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, says it plans to honor picket lines on Thursday. Other staff and student groups are expected to lend support as well.

"We're trying to send a very strong message to this university," said Faith Raider, an AFSCME spokeswoman. "We believe that the university is not negotiating in good faith."

Separate contracts with AFSCME and CUE expired in 2004, and talks with UC have stalled over a range of issues including wage increases, promotion and training opportunities, and workloads. In March, AFSCME members - mostly immigrant and minority workers, according to the union - voted by a 9-to-1 ratio to authorize a strike if the sides can't reach agreement on a new contract.

"We're considering this an opening shot," said Raider, a former Berkeley student, of the one-day walkout. If AFSCME doesn't see movement toward an acceptable agreement, she added, "we will continue to take militant action" with potentially longer-lasting impacts than Thursday's 24-hour job action.

UC insists it's offering all it can given existing budget constraints. "It's a little disingenuous for the union to talk about good-faith bargaining," said Noel Van Nyhuis of the UC Office of the President, referring to the threat of a strike while the process is still under way. "We've been negotiating willingly and proactively for many months on these issues."

Negotiations have reached formal impasse, a status that is less final than it sounds. In accordance with state law, a neutral fact-finder, having heard testimony from both sides, has issued a report that by agreement of the parties has not been made public. Next, a mediator will attempt to break the deadlock with the aid of those findings. Talks are scheduled to resume
April 18.

The two-year freeze on "across-the-board" raises, Van Nyhuis said, is "definitely something we're sensitive to and something we're trying to rectify." Although most of UC's budget comes from non-state sources - a fact repeatedly emphasized by the unions - he said state funding is the system's largest and most reliable source of revenue, and thus governs its ability to grant such raises. While promised funding under UC's compact with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is "still subject to legislative approval," he added, UC administrators hope to offer systemwide salary increases next year.

Van Nyhuis said raises given to police, nurses, and other groups of employees last year were "exceptions," and were "based on severe recruitment and safety issues." Union members, though, say it's a question of fairness.

"What it really comes down to," said Raider, "is it's the lowest-paid workers they can't give raises to."

Other key points of contention between the two sides include promotion and training opportunities and workloads.

Clerical workers have formally notified the university of their intention to honor picket lines. "Basically, people recognize that many of AFSCME's issues are the same issues that we have," said the president of CUE's Berkeley local, Amatullah Alaji-Sabrie.

A legal assistant in the Boalt Hall School of Law, Alaji-Sabrie said that in addition to pay hikes, CUE members were demanding "respectful fair treatment" from supervisors, citing "many reports systemwide" of "ill-prepared, ill-trained supervisors who in many ways try to run roughshod over our people."

Alaji-Sabrie added that CUE locals on every UC campus are polling their members, suggesting that CUE could soon follow AFSCME's lead in authorizing a strike. "I would say that's a possibility," she said.

In a Q&A posted on its website, UCOP maintains that AFSCME "has not allowed both parties sufficient time to consider the [fact-finding] report and is therefore not bargaining in good faith," and insists the university is trying to reach "a fair and equitable settlement."

"The university does not want a strike," Van Nyhuis told the Berkeleyan. "These issues are best resolved at the bargaining table."

Berkeley administrators said campus housing and dining services would remain open during the one-day action, and that scheduled events would take place as planned.