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Who’s cleaning up at UC?

Jack Miles, the author of "God: A Biography" and other works, is distinguished professor of English and religious studies at UC Irvine.

A single parent living in Riverside County or Orange County needs to earn $24.74 an hour to make ends meet, according to a report released last October by the California Budget Project, a nonpartisan think tank. In a two-parent household, each parent needs to earn at least $17.48 an hour to break even.

But after 10 months of negotiation, $11.50 an hour is the last, best offer the 10-campus University of California has made to 8,500 gardeners, janitors, kitchen workers, parking attendants and the like. In response, their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, called a five-day strike, which began Monday.

UC hospital workers, represented by the same union and also in stalled negotiations over wages, have been offered a somewhat better deal: $13.50 an hour. They aren’t technically on strike but, with the union’s blessing, those who feel they could walk out without harming patient safety have joined the picket lines.

Will the world notice? Will Californians? So far, the main blip of attention came in June when 20 UC commencement speakers, including former President Clinton, canceled their speeches because a fair contract had not yet been offered to the university’s service workers.

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Labor negotiations for the UC administration are handled by its executive director of labor relations, the tough-talking Howard Pripas. One rationale for the university’s intransigence? It’s facing a budget shortfall. Union leaders are quick to point out that only 8% of the UC hospitals’ budgets come from the state, and the campuses, too, are not entirely funded by state money.

The high-profile administrators of the university, who cultivate donors and maintain UC’s reputation with the Legislature and the public, keep themselves studiously in the background during labor negotiations. UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake, for example, told me the negotiations are entirely out of his hands. (Union sources characterize him as more sympathetic to the workers than some of his UC counterparts.)

And yet the pittance paid to the campus service workers (and hospital workers) has the potential to call into question the compensation paid to just such administrators, beginning with the $828,084 a year promised to the university’s incoming president, Mark G. Yudof -- a compensation package nearly twice what his predecessor was paid.

As it happens, the accelerating concentration of wealth in the United States is a hot academic topic just now. The cover story in the July-August issue of Harvard magazine is “Unequal America: The Growing Gap.” But campus wealth gaps themselves command, to say the least, much less faculty attention. Few UC faculty or administrators I’ve spoken with are aware that those who empty their wastebaskets, vacuum their offices and clean their toilets earn so little and have been working for months without a contract.

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Few UC Irvine faculty members know that, according to union sources, the chief executives of all of the UC hospitals but Irvine’s were prepared to offer the patient-care workers $14.50 an hour, which was acceptable to the union. Maureen Zehntner, chief executive of the UC Irvine medical center (salary $555,000 a year), held out for $13.50 an hour, claiming that living costs in Orange County are lower than elsewhere in California. (I requested a comment, but Zehntner did not return my call.)

The union, for its part, has so far refrained from a major confrontation -- for example, a strike during student registration or commencement. But if negotiations don’t succeed, that could change. The climate is perceptibly worsening for an amicable solution; the union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that university threats of disciplinary action over this week’s strike constitute illegal intimidation. Meanwhile, the regents of the University of California have obtained a court injunction against the strike and a ruling from the state Public Employment Relations Board that the union failed to bargain in good faith by not initially stipulating the dates of the strike and by calling on patient-care workers to follow their consciences in participating or not.

The union intends to litigate that ruling, but if a longer strike ensues, it could trigger a mass firing on the model of President Reagan’s action against the air traffic controllers union when it went on strike in 1981. In that case, calling the strike illegal allowed the president to destroy the union. Is Yudof prepared to take comparable action against AFSCME Local 3299?

What the law allows always depends, to some extent, on what the political climate allows, and the political climate may be changing. Should Barack Obama win the presidency and should Republican losses in Congress be as large as some anticipate, the endlessly announced but never quite accomplished death of organized labor could yield to a new birth of collective bargaining. In that case, the current strike of janitors and gardeners at the University of California may seem in retrospect like a harbinger of things to come. Times are tough just now, very tough, and the world -- in its own distracted way -- is watching.


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