Thousands of clerical workers who have not gotten a raise in two years went on strike on the University of California’s 10 campuses Monday to demand higher wages.
The three-day strike was organized by the Coalition of University Employees,  a union that represents about 16,500 security dispatchers, library assistants, and clerical workers in the university system.
The pickets and protests did not substantially disrupt university activities, and were mostly “just noisy,” said Noel Gallagher, a spokeswoman on the Berkeley campus, as she looked out her window at about 60 people on the picket line. “Nothing has been cancelled or closed in light of this strike.”
The dispute was two years in the making.
Going into the 2003-4 academic year, the university promised $30 million in clerical workers’ wages, on the condition that the state of California contributed $10 million of that sum. The state did not pony up, and the university used its money for expanding dormitories and parking facilities, among other valid uses, according to university officials. “All the clerical workers are on the same contract,” said university spokesman Noel Van Nyhuis. “So if workers in one department get a raise, all workers have to get a raise, and we couldn’t accomplish that without the extra money.” Needless to say, the clerical workers did not sit idly by as what they viewed as their pot of gold receded over the rainbow.
Amidst a stalemate in negotiations, the state appointed a three-member fact-finding panel in November 2004, led by a neutral individual, to issue recommendations.  The panel noted that, although it did not constitute the “across the board” raises that the union wanted, almost 80 percent of the university’s full-time employees received some sort of raise in 2003-4, and that the university’s lack of any wage increase “for the clerical workers, who are among the lowest paid of all the employees at the university, seemed unfair to the majority of fact-finders.”
University clerical workers average about $30,000 per year, according to the union. “Some make a lot less,” said Margy Wilkinson, a union spokeswoman and a library assistant who has worked on the Berkeley campus for 38 years. “This is one of most prestigious universities in the world, and the idea that some people work here full time and qualify for public assistance is a scandal.”
The fact-finding report noted that many University of California clerical workers earn 20-30 percent less than their counterparts in the California State University System. “We certainly understand their frustration and are sympathetic,” said Van Nyhuis. But he said that until the legislature passes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2004 Higher Education Compact,  the university cannot bank on an exact amount of state funds and “our hands are tied.”
The fact-finding report did note that, with $1 billion less than it had requested from the state in 2003-4, it would be difficult for the university to give across-the-board raises to clerical workers, but still recommended some equity adjustments.
The strike is not the first labor uprising the university has dealt with this year. In April, some of the university’s service workers went on a one-day strike. The university responded by raising the minimum salary for all service workers, pending passage of the Higher Education Compact, a deal that met with 97 percent approval from the workers, according to the university.
In the clerical workers’ case, 94 percent of the workers voted to strike, because “they were ignoring the [fact-finding] report,” said Wilkinson. She said that the protests are just now occurring because it took time to allow the university react, and to take a statewide vote on whether to strike. But, with negotiations for a new contract for clerical workers currently underway, university officials see the timing as a power play. “It’s an obvious attempt to pressure the university for the new [2005-08] contract negotiations,” said Van Nyhuis.
In the meantime, the university kept health care premiums for clerical workers stable, which was among the union’s requests. The union also wants parking rates, which rose this year, exceeding $100 a month in some cases, to vary according to employee salary. “A $10-a-month increase isn’t much for a professor making $125,000, but it’s more significant for someone who makes $29,000 and has three kids,” Wilkinson said. The university said it would violate institutional policy to force some users of a service to pay more than others. The report did not issue a clear recommendation on the issue, but questioned the university’s logic in light of the special considerations made for health care premiums for workers with lower salaries.
As clerical workers have watched time pass without a raise, their ire has been bolstered on occasions such as when the regents appointed a new chancellor last summer at $390,000 per year, almost 25 percent more than the previous chancellor. Van Nyhuis noted that the package did not constitute a raise, but an offer to help draw top-flight administrators. “We still have to offer the best package we can to be competitive,” he said. “There’s no doubt we have salary lags. The budget crisis the last couple of years has affected our ability to give increases system-wide. Our top executives now lag far behind too.”
On Wednesday, workers from all the campuses will converge on the president’s office. “We think they owe us the $20 million,” said Wilkinson. She added that some employees are holding off retirement because they are hoping raises will take effect retroactively, as of October 2003. “And we want it now.”