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USC Workers Launch Fast in Job Dispute

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A handful of unionized service workers at Los Angeles’ largest private employer, the University of Southern California, are conducting a public fast this week to draw attention to what has turned into a bitter three-year quest for job security.

“All the time it’s, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, your job is [safe] here,’ ” said one of those fasting, 55-year-old Trinidad Ornellas, who said she has worked at the school for 18 years. “But I don’t trust the USC. I don’t trust the administration. . . . They lie all the time.”

As the campus stirred with preparations for Saturday’s football showdown with cross-town rival UCLA, scores of students streamed by protesters such as Ornellas, who earn less than the school’s annual tuition of $21,000, without appearing to much notice them or their banner proclaiming that they are “Hungry for Justice.” Most students receive some financial aid.

The workers are not fasting for higher wages. In the context of the low-wage service economy that provides jobs for a growing number of working poor in Los Angeles, Ornellas’ pay of $9.23 per hour is a sought-after deal.

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Her issue is keeping her job. She and her union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11, are seeking a written pledge from USC not to hire outside contractors to fill the jobs of food service and dormitory workers who earn, the union says, from $7.75 to $12 an hour.

USC has refused, saying that it has no intention to subcontract the workers’ jobs and is pleased with their performance, but needs flexibility if circumstances change. “We’re a private university and when we can’t meet a payroll, we can’t go to taxpayers,” said USC Senior Vice President of Administration Dennis Dougherty. He said the university had reluctantly decided in 1992 that it had to lay off 900 mostly management and clerical workers to cope with declining revenue during an economic downturn. Most are now back, he said.

This kind of talk sounds ominous to Ornellas and other workers who said the university had once assured a separate group of janitors that their jobs would be safe, then later contracted out their work. A lawyer for the university denied that any such promise to the janitors had been made.

Philip J. Chiaramonte, associate vice president for auxiliary services, said he senses the workers’ fear. “I talk to the workers all the time [and they say], ‘Look, Phil, you’re saying things and we trust you, but look what happened to the janitors.’ ”

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In the janitors’ case, said the university’s lawyer, Stephen Berry, USC insisted that its contractor hire, at USC pay and benefit rates, the same janitors that the university had jettisoned after concluding that it was unable to manage them effectively.

Janitors who had not been on staff for 15 years lost one cherished benefit peculiar to long-term university employment--free tuition for qualified children. Ornellas said she used that benefit for one of her children and said she regarded it as very important to her family.

The leader of Local 11, Maria Elena Durazo, who is on a diet of water and fruit juice for four days, said the subcontracting of janitorial services resonated with workers in her group as a “real breach of trust.”

She blasted the university as classist. “I think they are very upset that a group of workers at this level--low-wage service workers, immigrants, people of color--would have the [guts] to be so demanding of them,” she said.

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Berry, who is the university’s lead negotiator in the dispute, responded that the workers have become pawns of union leadership. “The history of how [well] USC has treated the dining and housing employees shows that what is really going on here is a national union campaign against an employer’s right to retain flexibility . . . and not really what is in the best interests of employees.”

The union and the university came to terms on wage and benefit increases three years ago, but have been at an impasse over the union’s demand for job security. Despite the lack of a contract, the university on its own gave the workers a raise and, by expanding its food service network to include fast-food franchises staffed with university employees, expanded the bargaining unit as well.

But university officials drew the line at offering absolute job security, saying that it is an outrageous demand and that it would be unfair to other employees to grant it just to this group.

As a compromise, Berry said USC has proposed giving any workers in this group whose jobs are contracted out a first crack at working for a private contractor, a second crack at other university jobs and a minimum of three months pay if no work is available.

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As the leader of the bargaining group of 340 employees at the largely nonunion, 9,000-employee university, Durazo has steadily escalated protests. The union has called four progressively longer strikes, occupied the outer office of a trustee, engaged in civil disobedience timed to interfere with access to last spring’s graduation and, according to the university, been fined $4,000 for violating an injunction barring interference with university operations.

It also has exploited language in the university’s 1994 strategic plan that, among other things, referred to “the dangers of continuing instability in USC’s immediate neighborhoods” under the headline “environmental threats.” In what amounted to a guerrilla attack, the union made a videotape about USC and the surrounding community, titled “Uneasy in South-Central,” which it distributed to high school guidance counselors nationwide.

The union also has formed an alliance with some nearby priests and ministers--its hunger strike took place in a church parking lot--in an effort to illustrate what it says is the university’s poor relationship with the community.

This has grieved university officials such as Jane Pisano, the vice president of external affairs, whose job is community relations. Handing a reporter a thick stack of brochures and magazines about various university programs in the surrounding neighborhood, Pisano said the university has made its largest statement of commitment by staying in a struggling neighborhood rather than relocating, as Pepperdine University did, to a place like Malibu.

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Laura Pulido, a tenured associate professor of geography who studies labor organizing and said she joined the hunger strike out of conviction that the workers’ cause is just, referred to the brochures as she expressed a sense of mystification shared by both sides that the dispute has gotten so heated and extreme.

“I’m not sure what the university’s real motives are,” she said, “but I have a couple of ideas. One is that they backed themselves into a corner. To compromise would be to lose face. Also I think they fear that growing militancy could spread to other workers on campus. It certainly can’t be about the bottom line,” she said.

“I mean, the amount of money this place squanders on irrelevancy,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and shivering in a thin sweatshirt in the November chill. “I mean on PR, on slick brochures. . . .”


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