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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Union protest pre-empts chancellor's annual meeting with staff
Birgeneau voices commitment to fair wages and collective bargaining, offers to reschedule meeting

– Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's annual question-and-answer session with staff ended before it had a chance to begin Thursday, when union members seeking his support for raises for the lowest-paid campus employees took over the meeting.

Members of AFSCME, which is locked in contract negotiations with the UC Office of the President, chose the lunchtime meeting at Alumni House to confront Birgeneau and try to enlist his support for raising the minimum campus wage to $15 an hour.

Prefacing his opening comments by saying, "I'll make a statement, but not one that will satisfy you," Birgeneau told the room: "I think everyone here knows that I'm committed to improving the situation of the lowest-paid staff and want to see their situation improved markedly."

Interrupted frequently, he continued: "And I think all of you know that UC Berkeley was the first campus, and one of only two, four years ago shortly after I came, to establish a baseline wage for employees of $11.25 an hour… and then to $11.70 an hour. ... And the current average salary for Service Unit employees at Berkeley is $14.45 an hour."

A shout of "try to live on that!" was answered by others in the audience calling for quiet, one voice saying, "You're not the only people represented here."

The chancellor went on to say, "You don't have to convince me or anyone who grew up the way I did that living on low wages in the high-cost Bay Area is difficult. … However, I also believe strongly in the collective bargaining process, and so I'm not going to make a public statement here."

He urged the union workers to support collective bargaining efforts between AFSCME leaders and the Office of the President, talks that nearly led to a two-day strike June 4-5 before it was called off.

In response, union members wearing green AFSCME t-shirts began chanting "no justice, no peace" and "no contract, no peace," drowning out calls from others in the audience to "let the chancellor speak" and "it's our meeting too." The chanting also overwhelmed efforts by members of the Berkeley Staff Assembly, which organized the meeting, to restore quiet.

The chancellor stood calmly to the side of the podium until BSA chair-elect Kate Benn called the meeting to a close at 12:25 p.m., an hour early. The chancellor and meeting organizers then left through a door near the podium.

Later in the day, the chancellor contacted BSA and offered to reschedule a meeting with staff next week, saying he had hoped to use Thursday's event to ask staff members their advice on various scenarios for dealing with UC's budget problems.

Benn said that BSA "definitely wants to follow through with another program, but we don't know when." She said options are being discussed with the chancellor's office.