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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sodexho Workers and Supporters March on Mrak Hall; Mrak Hall Locked Down

In the second large protest on the UC Davis campus this month, over 100 Sodexho Workers, Union Organizers, and other supporters marched from the Memorial Union to Mrak Hall in protest of the University's outsourcing of food service workers. On May 1, over 500 people marched down to the intersection of Anderson and Russell where 24 people sat down in the street and were arrested in a peaceful act of civil disobedience.

According to organizers, the main issues are ability over over 550 food service workers, custodians, and cooks to get university jobs which would entitle them to higher pay. An outsourced worker gets around $10.35 an hour versus a starting minimum over over $12 hour and a max of up to $15.50 for a university employee. However, even more important are health care benefits. One of the workers told me she was paying over $100 for her health care package where a UC Davis employed worker would only pay about 5% of that.

The protesters marched from the Memorial Union to Mrak Hall where they chanted and begged and requested Larry Vanderhoef to come out and talk with them. At one point asking him to quit hiding and to come out and talked.

The organizers read a newly released letter from the Chancellor's office telling them that the university intended to honor their contract with Sodexho until it expired in 2010. This brought an angry reaction from the protesters.

A small contingent of 15 protesters had gotten inside the building prior to the protest and spoke to the crowd from second story windows. According to later reports, 15 of these people were arrested when they refused to leave the building.

The building was eventually locked down out of concern for public safety and the safety of the employees working in the building, although the crowd was largely well organized and did not seem to present a tremendous danger. The doors locked and protesters outside demanding action.

One of the organizers told me that other universities arrangements were made so that the workers could be both Sodexho Employees and university employees, thereby honoring the contract while the workers were able to enjoy the full benefits that other university employees enjoy.

Alma Martinez, one of the organizers, had a strong message to the folks in Davis who may only be somewhat aware of this struggle in their midst.
"Our message is wake up Davis! On May first, you saw what we can do. The perception is that this is just a white town, but we're here, we care about issues, we are not just letting this thing go by.... Here locally there are things happening that we can change, and we can bring up justice in our own community."
Meanwhile the university appears to be trying to run out the clock. According to Alma Martinez,
"It is definitely a stalling tactic. This is not the first time this happened, this also happened two years ago... What they did last time is try to push it back to summer... But this time around we made sure we had enough support [at the] start this time around, that's why we waited so long to actually have the first public action. That's what they are trying to do, summer comes along, students leave, and we have to start all over again. But this summer it's going to be different, we are going to constantly be here. We are definitely going to keeping fighting this until it happens. As Dr. King puts it, injustice to one is injustice to all."
In an April 10, 2007 letter to the Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, State Assemblywoman Lois Wolk said:
"I am very concerned about the practice of contracting out of more than 500 service workers at the University of California, Davis. In talking with some of these workers, many of whom were students and rely on these wages to pay for school, it became apparent that their health benefits are minimal and that their wages are among the lowest in the entire UC system."
Still the Assemblywoman has played a low key role, urging Vanderhoef to meet with the workers and the AFSCME representatives to "discuss how and when UCD will eliminate its contracting-out practice. but not doing so in a public manner. "

Meanwhile it remains clear that this battle is far from over with the university apparently now digging in its heals and the protesters not about to go away.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting