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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Chancellor's Brown Bag Lunch Brings Renewed Calls for Justice For Sodexho Workers

Yesterday UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef had his "brown bag lunch" where he spoke before a group largely made up of his own assistants, provosts, vice-chancellors, and other upper administration.

He spoke at length about a number of his own concerns before turning it over to questions. The biggest concern at this point is a proposed across-the-board cut from the governor due to the budget crisis. A cut that will be as much as 10 percent.

The Chancellor stressed that all options were on the table. Among those options is a higher than the projected 7 percent tuition increase.

Another option is no enrollment growth. He said they were projecting 5000 new students given the enrollment numbers in high schools across the state. The problem with that approach is that for forty years the UC system has taken in the top 12.5 percent of graduating seniors and if they did not do that this year that would be a marked shift in their philosophy and he indicated not a shift they would be comfortable with.

He also put on the table cuts in services to students and cuts in health care coverage to employees. The latter would force employees to dig into their own resources in order to maintain their health coverage.

It is interesting that one item not mentioned as being on the table even though it would not generate a lot of savings would be a roll back of upper administrative salaries. Some may recall the near riots that took place when the UC Board of Regents announced huge tuition hikes while at the same time increased some of their top administrative salaries by $50,000 per year. Symbolic to be sure, but it would be similar to a CEO of a major corporation taking a huge salary increase while at the same they were laying off $10,000 rank and file employees.

Dominating the question and answer period were concerns about worker contracts including Sodexho workers but also university employees who are seeking new contracts amid talks of huge budget cuts.

Don Gibson, a UC Davis student who is VP of the Davis College Democrats and an elected member of the Yolo County Democratic Central Committee. He read from the resolution passed on January 7, 2008 that called for a university contract for food service employees.

The Chancellor asked Janet Gong to speak to this issue.
"In October, the end of the month, we signed what's called a memorandum of understanding between the university and Sodexho. Sodexho is the vendor that supplies contracted out food service for both our vendor halls as well as our retail operations such as you see in this building downstairs.

That MOU provides for increases in wages at classification levels for campus food service workers that are equal between what Sodexho is paying and what campus workers would be making on campus. The wages are identical in terms of the classification wages.

It also spoke to health insurance and we did find that there were disparities in health insurance between what benefits the university would provide employees and what the vendor was providing. So we arranged with Sodexho to go from a 60-40 employer-employee pay plan to an 80-20 plan. And we supplemented that with $100.10 per month as a stipend that could also go to employees for insurance.

Wages were increased in September, insurance increases were effective in January, since that time there has been a 47 percent increase in the number of Sodexho employees who are now receiving health insurance."
Ms. Gong further suggested that:
"We've agreed to undertake a process to look at all options... certainly the option of bringing food service employees in house is one of the options that we're looking at. To do that we are mining all kinds of operational and financial data."
The goal according to Janet Gong was to have preliminary recommendations by April as to whether they should bring food service employees in house. It seems obvious on two levels first that conditions for employees have improved since October both on the wages front and the health care front. However, it also seems obvious that the university would not continue its relationship with Sodexho unless there remained strong financial incentive to do so, which necessarily means that the workers are receiving less in terms of wages and benefits than they would under a university contract. And while the budget crunch is a concern, UC Davis has less excuse on this issue than on others since it is really the only UC outsourcing labor.

Max Alper of AFSCME 3299 disagreed with Janet Gong on some of the points that she raised.
"I just wanted to make sure that everybody saw that there was a report put out by a progressive faculty group for UC Davis that found many interesting things including that Sodexho wages are still even with these changes 5 to 9 percent below UC Davis wages that are paid at the UC Davis medical center. And more disturbing is that health care for families is still 41 percent more expensive including the 100 dollar stipend. And when you ask people to wait until April for preliminary results there are some workers right here who can tell you why they can't wait."
Janet Gong responded that food service workers at the UC Davis medical center are not comparable to the food service workers on campus.
"There are very distinct differences between those two which include things like at the medical center food service workers are dealing directly with patients, there is delivery of food to patients, there is compliance with charting restrictions, with regulations, there are different regulatory agencies, it is a 365, 7 day a week, 24 hour a day operation. Those kind of responsibilities in the job descriptions and classifications are very different than working in a campus food-based operation."
Tarone Bittner unit chair for UAW 2865 at Davis spoke passionately on the issue of outsourced workers and disputed notions by university staff and administration that they were working to bring UC pay inline with market wages.
"I have been here for three years, I have seen no movement on this. Yet we have you sitting here saying that you want to pay market wages. Well do it, what else needs to be done. The Sodexho issue is a sad issue in and of itself because we're talking about out-sourcing which is intolerable... It should be intolerable for every worker on this campus. Because what you're saying is that we're going to take the opportunity to exploit not only the workers that are unionized but the workers in our midst that work for Sodexho. So we're going to pay them even less.

And we all know where this concept comes from, right, outsourcing, downsizing, etc., that happens when a corporation wants to make more money by paying less in labor costs. It makes sense to a certain degree to do that nationally, but to do it in your community is particularly offense because what you're talking about is bringing down your standard of living for everyone in your own community. That doesn't make any sense to me.

There's a social cost here that seems to be missed. So let me reiterate, all of the workers at UC are paid a substandard wage. So let's start right there. Let's fix the thing with Sodexho, we're the last campus in the system that's outsourcing, so we're like the backwater of the UC system.

But we need to fix this so that we can get to the issue of bringing up the wages to market which you said your for. We could deal with that right now. I'm sure all the unions would be happy to meet tomorrow to bring up all the wages to market."
In the end, Sodexho workers Joe Moreno and Esther Juarez tried to talk with the Chancellor about their health situations and the impact of the university's policy on their lives. However, the Chancellor was quickly ushered out the back door and the workers were left frustrated at their lack of ability to express to the Chancellor the impact of the university's policies.

People will look at the improvements and perhaps ask why the workers are continuing their struggle, but it is clear that the university has been forced since October to make concessions they did not want to make and they also are considering more changes. It is difficult to know what will happen in April and it therefore makes sense to continue to press their demands to become UC employees with better wages, better health insurance, and better working conditions.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting