Napolitano ushers in 9 labor agreements since taking office

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Michael Drummond/File

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When Janet Napolitano assumed the role of UC president September 30, she also assumed the responsibility of overseeing ongoing negotiations between the university and 10 of its systemwide bargaining units, some of which had been going on for more than a year.

Since she took office, Napolitano has negotiated nine contracts — seven of which were settled during her first three months in office. Now, only the student academic workers union and a new, small physicians and dentists union — which the university began negotiating with in late January — lack contracts.

According to the university, Napolitano acted as a catalyst for resolving many of these contracts — and the unions generally agree.

“The momentum of Janet coming into the office with a fresh set of eyes and spending time with each of our unions had a definite positive effect,” said UC vice president for human resources Dwaine Duckett.

Bill Quirk, a spokesperson for the UC librarians and lecturers union, agreed that Napolitano led a series of genuinely good turns in negotiations. And Todd Stenhouse, who represents the union for university patient-care and service workers, drew a contrast between Napolitano and her predecessor, Mark Yudof.

“Yudof left a mess of labor relations,” said Stenhouse, a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299. “What we’ve seen over the last seven months is some resolution to the disconnect and tone-deafness.”

The university said Yudof presided over a “tough time” for the UC system, with state disinvestment making labor negotiations particularly difficult.

Under a still-tough financial climate, Napolitano has helped implement a campaign of pension reform. All nine union agreements she helped reach included a mix of higher contributions or lower benefits to keep the pension fund financially stable.

Yet after closing contracts with seven separate groups of workers in her first 11 weeks, it took about double that time to reach an agreement with AFSCME, and the university is still negotiating with the student academic workers union, which went on a two-day strike last week.

These two unions are also the only groups to call primary strikes within the last year and represent some of the lowest-paid workers in the university.

The physicians and dentists union also remains in negotiations, and the new union is negotiating its first-ever contract. Their negotiations are proceeding “without hiccup,” Duckett said.

Duckett described negotiations with AFSCME and the student academic workers union as “confrontational and charged,” contrasting them with the more “businesslike and collaborative” talks with the nurses, research workers, technical workers and others.

The patient care and service workers union
After Napolitano entered office, it took 25 weeks for the university and AFSCME patient-care workers at UC hospitals and medical centers to reach a contract and 21 weeks for AFSCME service workers, including custodians and gardeners.
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The patient-care workers received 16.5 percent across-the-board wage increases over the four years of their contract, slightly more than the 16 percent nurses accepted. The service workers received 13.5 percent across-the-board increases over their contract’s term. Both unions also secured frozen health-care rates for lower-paid workers and protections against the university contracting out work.

Although it took longer to reach an agreement, AFSCME saw a change with the advent of Napolitano’s presidency. Whereas Yudof imposed contract terms on both these groups of workers, bypassing collective bargaining, Stenhouse said, Napolitano met with the union when she came into office and showed a “concerted effort” to restore bargaining.

Duckett attributes the longer bargaining time to strikes, new issues cropping up and what he called the “confrontational” attitude of the union. But Stenhouse said it comes down to the university’s negotiating strategy, adding that the only new issue brought into negotiations was the university’s introduction of “sweeping new layoff powers” in the 18th month of bargaining.

Stenhouse did say, however, that the union was unusual in that some of their primary demands focused on staffing. These included seniority protections, increased safety and checks on contracting out work.

In addition to a strike in May, AFSCME has called three strikes since Napolitano came into office. Two were not officially about the negotiations but alleged unfair labor practices by the university, including intimidation and regressive bargaining.

“The notion that strikes help is untrue,” Duckett said. “Strikes did not really cause the university to do anything differently.”

Still, both AFSCME bargaining units — and the nurses, who had called a sympathy strike in November —  reached agreements with the university within a week of when they would have gone on strike.

“We are truly interested in seeing the University of California thrive and succeed,” Stenhouse said. “These agreements help that happen.”

The student academic workers union
The student academic workers union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, is the only long-standing union currently operating without a contract. UAW represents nearly 12,000 graduate student instructors, readers and tutors across the UC system.

UAW spokesperson Josh Brahinsky, a teaching assistant at UC Santa Cruz, said the union wants wages closer to those offered at other top universities, a say in class sizes and better access to campus services for undocumented workers and others. However, UC spokesperson Dianne Klein said the union’s demand for input on class sizes is “out of the purview of the contract.”

“We are sympathetic to the issue,” Klein said. “These are conscientious graduate students who want to do the best for their undergraduates. But it’s really an academic issue at the level of the campuses.”

Duckett attributes the lack of agreement to the same factors as with AFSCME: new issues cropping up, a “confrontational” attitude and strikes. In addition to last week’s strike, UAW went on a sympathy strike with AFSCME in November.

“The issues we’re dealing with are ones of educational quality,” Brahinsky said. “Maybe the UC isn’t ready to deal with that yet.”

UAW and the university are scheduled to meet next week and again at the end of April.

Daniel Tutt covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @danielgtutt.