The University of California (UC) recently announced the imposition of its final offer on wages and pension reform to a service and patient-care workers’ union after year-long negotiations ended in deadlock.
Since October 2012, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees 3299 (AFSCME) — the largest union in the UC, representing 20,000 systemwide workers at the 10 campuses and five medical centers — has been bargaining for a new contract for better retirement entitlements and health care coverage.
Eight other UC unions have agreed to these reforms, yet “AFSCME has not accepted any of UC’s proposals and is demanding its members pay less than other UC employees for the same benefits,” according to a press release issued by UC Human Resources and Benefits Department.
UC further alleges that the wages of its service workers are comparably higher than workers from other public and private sectors. The minimum pay for a UC food service worker, for example, is 21 percent, well above that of California State University workers and 20 percent above that of the general market.
The new implementation will subject the service workers from AFSCME 3299 to a two-tiered pension plan: Employees who previously contributed five percent of their pay toward their pension will now contribute 6.5 percent, and those hired on or after July 1 must give seven percent. The university also offers 12 percent of employee pay to workers’ pensions.
Although the offer marks a two percent increase to the workers’ total pensions, it also withholds the workers’ current paychecks to at least $50 to $70 per month, thereby levying immediate financial burdens on low-waged service workers.
“The pay cut equals a tank of gas to get to work, the cost of parking at work, and the cost of a prescription,” said AFSCME 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger, who works as a gardener at UC Berkeley. “The university’s offer exacerbates everyday challenges of the low-waged workers.”
AFSCME spokesman Todd Stenhouse further alleges that the pay cut will amount to an average 1.5 percent decrease in each worker’s lifetime take-home pay, while UC’s highest paid employees — nearly 700 of whom earn higher salaries than the president of the United States — received an average of a three percent increase across the board this past year.
UC spokesperson Shelly Meron refutes the union’s allegation that UC is “cutting” employees’ pay and claims that AFSCME workers have just received a two-percent wage increase in July and up to a five-percent increase in each of the past two years.
Meron reiterated statements made by the university earlier, saying that pension reforms are necessary in ensuring the long-term viability of the retirement program.
“The unfunded liability that we implemented is for enforcing an overtime sustainable retirement benefits. We withhold a small portion of the service workers’ paycheck that will be returned to them upon their retirement,” said Meron.
In a recent UC Regents meeting, however, many workers expressed their concerns that they will never be able to retire and enjoy their retirement privileges with their current financial quandary.
“I’ve been working full-time at UC for 33 years,” said Eugene Stokes, a 53-year-old senior building maintenance worker at UC Berkeley. “I work another job to try and make ends meet, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire. Yesterday, I had to choose between paying the mortgage or helping my daughter with her tuition. On other days, that choice is between medicine and food.”
According to online statistics published by AFSCME, 99 percent of workers are income-eligible for public assistance.
The struggle between UC and AFSCME is unlikely to subside with the final pension reforms offered by the UC. AFSCME suggests that workers might strike again later this year, though further specifics on when that might take place have not yet been decided.