We didn't make this up. Our university happens to be based in the safest city of its size in America. So we wondered, given all this safety: are there stories to be told, people to contemplate, risks to be taken? Find out alongside our blog's authors -- two sections of a journalism reporting class whose goal is to show people at work and at play in and around Irvine, Calif. We invite you to read the articles below.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Saving Workers Instead of Dolphins

An alliance between students and workers

By Viviana Salazar

Fernando Chirino, a fifth year sociology graduate student at UCI, pulled up to Lot 16 at 1:40 pm and parked behind the crowd of UCI custodial workers waiting for the strike to begin at 2pm. He got off of his car and saw that the trunk of Celene Perez’s Toyota Corolla was opened and was full of the various picket signs that they would be using today at the strike. Without hesitation he grabbed a handful of them as if they were lollipops, put them over his shoulders and headed towards the custodial workers. He dropped the signs in the middle of the crowd of workers and began to look around. There were only about twenty workers gathered round.

“This is the most nerve wrecking part” he said as he lit a cigarette, “seeing how many people are actually going to show up.”

“Fer! Como estas?” one of the custodial workers yelled as he was approaching Fernando.

“Hola, como esta?” Fernando replied as he extended his hand at the worker. They shook hands and gave each other a hug.

When Fernando first started his undergraduate work in 2003 he got involved with the worker struggle. At the time, there was a contract fight going on between the union AFSCME (America Federation of State County and Municipal Employees) and the UC system and UC hospitals. The fight was over raising wages to living standards, which the UC refused to do. As Fernando got more involved with this and got to know the workers more and more he saw “a lot of the same stories that my parents had gone through, that I had been through, that my friends and their parents had been through.” He feels closely related to these stories and these people because he believes that he “got a first hand experience of what capitalism means to communities of color, especially immigrant ones.” When he was young, his father started a machine shop where Fernando would have to work to help out his father, he would have to work in dangerous conditions just the way the UCI custodial workers do. On his hands he has scars from those times, and they are a constant reminder of the struggle that he went through, and the struggle the UCI custodial workers are going through.

“If someone is interested in buying clothes for kids, for kids around her age” she pointed at a little girl who was standing next to her mother, “I’m selling some here.” A crowd of women wearing their ABLE shirts followed her to her car. The trunk of the car was filled with old clothes, and the women began rummaging through it.

Little by little, more ABLE custodial workers began to show up, grabbing their picket signs ready for the strike. When Celene, the AFSCME union organizer, got done talking with some of the workers she approached Fernando. They greeted each other with a warm hug.

“We spent all night making these” she said as she pointed to the picket signs Fernando had put on the floor, “and then I had Juan write the letter we’re going to the give to the chancellor.” She had it in her hand and gave it to Fernando so that he can take a look at it. He began to read over it behind his dark sunglasses.

“Are Raul and Eric coming?” she asked Fernando.

“I don’t know, actually let me call them and some other students, I don’t want to be the only one chanting out there” Fernando replied as he reached into his pocket for his phone. He began texting them and walked away.

Fernando is part of the organization at UCI called the Worker Student Alliance (WSA). They are a political group on campus that “actively fights inequality through multi-racial, anti-sexist, working class solidarity…WSA has organized with food service and landscaping workers for the explicit purpose of ending UCI’s racist and super-exploitative outsourcing.” The coalition between workers, the union AFSCME and WSA has helped get two hundred and fifty service and landscaping workers insourced into the university in the past five years. Now, the only group they have left to get insourced is the custodial workers. Fernando and the rest of WSA believe that the importance of having an alliance between students and workers is that “our interests are absolutely similar and common…whenever there’s budget cuts, whenever there’s problems in terms of funding and things like that, the attacks always come down on students and workers. So the importance of having an alliance between them comes up in that they compete us against each other, and really, there is nothing we can do individually that would be as powerful as working in conjunction.”

“Okay!” Celene yelled, “I think it is just about time that we start heading down the campus! Remember why we’re doing this! We want to stop the layoffs, and we know this is what they are thinking of doing because of the letter they sent you guys last week! We want them to insource you guys, we want the university to stop their exploitative practices and to hire you guys directly under the name of the university! Remember, we’re going to march down ring road, then we’re going to go inside the administration building, then we’ll lap around in front of the building while the students and some of you guys go in and talk to the chancellor! “
She began walking out of Lot 16 while the workers followed her. The kids who were there picked up some picket signs and began to follow alongside their parents. Fernando who was done calling students joined Celene at the front of the pack. He was carrying two picket signs on each shoulder, and had put the cigarette down. As they got closer to the biological sciences portables, Eric Kitayama, a union organizer and active member of the Worker Student Alliance was waiting for them near a tree. He already had a picket sign in his hand and in the other hand he had flyers he would pass out to spectators during the strike. As the crowd of ABLE shirts got closer he began to walk alongside them without saying a word. He caught up to Fernando and barely greeted him.

As they were exiting the alley between the Natural Science Buildings I and II Fernando’s loud voice was heard throughout:
“NOW!” the worker’s responded. The strike had begun.
“in…” Fernando began to cough violently, he couldn’t keep going. The worker’s giggles were heard throughout the crowd.
“That was just a warm up!” one of the workers yelled.
“QUE QUEREMOS?” Celene continued, trying not to laugh along with the workers.
They continued walking down ring road towards Aldrich Hall, yelling chants off the top of their lungs. In front of Steinhaus Hall, there was a group of workers sitting under the tree in front of the building. When they saw the crowd of ABLE workers walking towards them they gathered up their stuff and joined them. The crowd got reasonably larger. A few feet away, Raul Perez, another member of the Worker Student Alliance, was waiting for the crowd as well. He joined Celene, Fernando and Eric at the front of the pack. He had some of the flyers with him that they would be passing out as they continued their walk down ring road. Fernando gave him one of the picket signs he had on his shoulders and they continued walking.

“ESCUCHA! ESCUCHA!” Celene continued.
“ESTAMOS EN LA LUCHA!” the workers replied!

As they continued down the Humanities section of the school Eric slowed down to walk next to the crowd to begin handing out flyers. He handed some of them to Silvia, an ABLE custodial worker. She is one of the few that can speak English out of the workers, so she is often the one who does the talking when it comes to speaking to students and recruiting them. She handed a student a flyer and began explaining to him what the flyer and strike were all about.
At the moment, UCI outsources 150 custodians through the company ABLE Industries. UCI is the last out of all UC campuses to outsource its workers. WSA and AFSCME claim that the reason for this is that “the UC bosses’ ultimate plan is to preserve UCI’s outsourcing model in order to reintroduce the practice of outsourcing into the rest of the UC system to deal with future budget problems.”
For the UCI custodial workers, they find that it is not fair that a custodial worker at another UC is doing the same work for the same wage, on top of vision and dental insurance, retirement benefits, and a lot more vacation time. ABLE custodial workers are allowed only two sick days out of the year, and only seven days of holiday, while UC employees get thirteen. Ernesto, an ABLE custodial worker who has worked at UCI for 20 years says, “I want to work for the university because I think it’s just. There have been five subcontracted custodial companies here since I started working at UCI and I want to have the benefits that anyone doing this work deserves. I hope that this struggle ends in a victory soon, and hope dies last, so it’s my hope that I still have.”
Indeed their struggle has seen some gains, but not very positive ones. Before the insourcing campaign went public two years ago, UCI custodial workers only earned nine dollars an hour. As the campaign went on, and UCI administration saw that more workers and students were getting involved in the issue, in response to this UCI increased the wages of the workers by three dollars. Now, they are earning twelve dollars an hour, which is still fifty cents less than custodial workers in other UCs. “When we had a lot of consecutive strong actions the university finally started talking to us and it resulted in the three dollar buy off, they tried to buy us off by raising the worker’s wages” Eric says “The university wants to be seen like a utopia where everyone is happy, where students, faculty staff and workers are all a very close and happy community.” For this reason, WSA and the workers believe that the university increased the worker’s wages. If they got a raise, then perhaps they might end the insourcing campaign. But of course, this did not work. The workers aren’t only interested in money, but also the benefits insourcing would bring them. The union wants these workers to be insourced because once they become UC employees they become part of AFSCME and therefore the workers will have to pay dues to them.
WSA is against the outsourcing of these workers because it is a form of exploitation that is racist and sexist. “It’s not an accident that all ABLE custodial workers are Latino, this is because of our structural positions within a broader system” Fernando says “so when we start talking about racism, we’re talking about a structural kind of racism. We’re not talking about this kind of really weak sort of liberal understanding of what racism is…it means that you can have a person that doesn’t have any prejudices come in and take a position, and they will, because of the way the system is structured, they’ll act out these racist policies even though they don’t have any personal prejudice.” Eric points out that racism is not the only reason they want these workers to be insourced, “we also want these workers to be insourced, these workers that have been contributing to the university for ten, twenty years, to work directly for the university because it is well deserved.”

As they continued down ring road the curiosity of some students forced them to follow the crowd, stopping to ask Silvia or Eric questions about the strike. As they reached the student center, the clubs who were competing for who could sell the cheapest boba, began applauding the workers. At that location, even more workers were waiting for the crowd. The pack had almost doubled from their walk from Lot 16 to the student center, with intrigued students and with workers.

“Pero con ganas!” one of the students yelled.
They continued walking down until they were in front of Aldrich Hall, the building where Chancellor Drake was sitting in his office. At the entrance of the building was one UCI cop, watching the strike.
They began to circle around in front of the building, yelling their chants for a couple of minutes.

After a few minutes of circling in front of Aldrich Hall, Celene stopped them to organize who would be going in to talk to the chancellor.

“So now, we are going to ask five or six companeros to come to the office with the students as a delegation at the chancellor’s office. The message that we are sending today is to remind them that we do not want letters for lay offs to go out again. Also, we know that the company wants to cut hours to workers who have been here for a lot of years, that is another attack, and now we also have the issue of health hazards of the workers and students in terms of the things the company is doing. So we want to send the message to the university that this company is not functioning, and is not working. That it is better that the university becomes responsible and brings these custodial jobs as soon as possible to the university to that they can follow federal laws in terms of your security. So we want to send that message to the university, and the companeros that go can give out that message since you guys are the ones going through it, and you know your story better than anyone else, so you are very important. So I’m going to the ask the six companeros to come here to the side, don’t be afraid.”

A few workers walked over, next to Fernando, Raul and Eric. Some of them took their children with them. They headed into Aldrich Hall, to the fifth floor, to the chancellor’s office.

“UCI YOU’RE NOT GOOD!” Celene continued.
“TREAT YOUR WORKERS LIKE YOU SHOULD!” replied the rest of the workers and students who stayed behind.

Time passed by, and still there were no signs of the workers and students. Celene’s voice began to go hoarse because she was the only one leading the chants. The voices of the workers were getting weaker, and still there was no sign of them coming out.
As they were circling around waiting for Fernando and the rest, one student came from the library and joined the group.
“Hey! How are you?” one of the workers asked her.
“Hi, I’m fine, how are you?”
“I’m just here, doing the same thing as always” he said as he pointed at his picket sign. “How is school going? I haven’t seen you in a while” he asked her.
“Yeah, I have had a lot of studying to do” she said “I was studying right now but I came down for a bit to support you guys.”
“Thank you. Anything helps; we need more of you guys to support us.”


After twenty seven minutes of being in the office, Fernando, Raul, Eric and the workers came out of Aldrich Hall. A sigh of relief was felt throughout the crowd of exhausted workers and students as they came out. They put down their picket signs and gathered round to hear what they had to say.
Fernando and Raul were at the front of the crowd, the workers that went inside with them were right next to them. Eric, was behind everyone, listening in on Fernando’s report:
“Eric went and tried to explain the things going on that they (ABLE) are doing with the hours and everything. They tried to get aggressive with us, so then we responded. Then, we were arguing about the hours, whether it was the responsibility of the school or of the company and we made the argument that they were the ones that sign the contract with the company so if there is anyone interested here, it is them, more than the company because all they care about is making money. So then that lasted about fifteen, twenty minutes, and well, we just came to the agreement that we would talk this over at the meeting tomorrow.”

From there, Raul took over, telling the workers to get a list of arguments ready for the next day. To make sure to tell them about how ABLE does not provide them with uniforms, or cleaning supplies, such as gloves. To tell them about the instance where ABLE didn’t give them adequate cleaning supplies for one week, and the workers were forced to clean the bathrooms and labs with basically water. How ABLE requires them to clean the science labs, even though they never got the proper training, and as a result, some of the workers have gotten hurt handling those dangerous chemicals.

Celene then reminded the workers of why they were there, why it was so important that they do this. That they get more of their co-workers involved, especially the workers of the night shift. She emphasized the fact that they cannot do anything without everyone involved, that it is not enough for the workers to just come when they are the next up on the meat grinder. With that, the strike was over. The workers stacked up the picket signs and went home. The strike was neither a success nor a failure, “it was weak” Eric said.

A Coalition is not a Union

Even though the Worker Student Alliance has a coalition with the union, they work with them but still remain a distant group. “There are a lot of differences in strategy, in strategies, also in priorities between AFSCME and the Worker Student Alliance, but there are a lot of commonalities” Eric says, “because of our political framework, WSA’s political paradigm, we would be often opposed to, for example, trying to lobby, trying to get politicians on our side. We also wouldn’t agree to anything that might slow down the process that might demobilize people from the end goal, which is eliminating subcontracting.” Celene, disagrees with the claims that the union only uses students for their own goals. “That’s not true” she says. WSA’s focus is not only on the struggle to insource these workers, they also do other things, separate actions, from the union such as reaching out and politicizing students in local high schools and also protesting unfair decisions made by administration. For example, they were the ones who organized the March 4 protest earlier this year in response to the 32% fee hike and they were the ones who sat in Aldrich Hall in February a week after the Irvine 11 incident.
Fernando and Eric are two of the heads of the Worker Student Alliance. Eric is the mastermind of the group, he comes up with ideas for actions and he plans them out, he also tries to carry them out, although this is where he has a bit of a problem. As Fernando puts it, he is “very anal about the details,” he wants everything to be done in a certain fashion, which usually is too hard or time consuming. For this reason, Fernando is usually the person who carries out the plan. He is the one who takes control, he tells people what to do, when to do them, and how they should be done. The rest of the core of the Worker Student Alliance are only three others, Raul, Moosa Azadian and Scott Zimmerman (there is also Dennis, but he got suspended after the sit-in on February. No one is sure if he is still alive). They usually do the “dirty work” but also take part in planning actions. WSA is not made up of just these five, they are only the core group, the ones who keep the organization together. As for the rest, there are about twenty students who used to be part of the Worker Student Alliance, but have now graduated. Whenever there is planning of an action, or when they need more people, they usually come out to support. As for students on campus, there are only about twenty students who come out for big events. The rest of the students who show up for WSA events are usually recruited through the graduate student’s classes (WSA graduate students), or through facebook.

Not Enough Support

They meet every Monday in the Social Science Lab 105. Their meetings usually consist of Eric, Fernando and Raul telling Scott and Moosa things that have been going on with the insourcing campaign. One of the major concerns this Fall quarter 2010 is the lack of participation from students.

“There’s just not enough people. We can’t just have the same ten people doing all the shit work” Fernando said, “especially me and Moosa since we’re on probation.”

“What? Why?” Scott asked.
“After the sit-in on February they got arrested, and put on probation” Raul said.

“And where were you?” Scott asked.
“I was outside doing all the work, making a commotion outside so that people knew that there was something going on inside of the building” Raul said.

“Ha! Doing all the work? You didn’t get arrested!” Fernando said.

“Yeah, I did all the work, what were you guys doing? Just sitting there banging on the walls” Raul retorted.

“There’s also the fact that after getting arrested, a lot of people got scared, and now they don’t want to get involved anymore” Fernando continued disregarding Raul’s comment.

“I think we should make Scott a co-signer, so we have more people” Eric interrupted.

“Yeah, I don’t mind taking some of the heat” Scott said.

“Yeah, that would be a good idea. We’ve also got to re-establish a presence at UCI, let people know we are still here, ‘cause we haven’t done shit this quarter” Fernando said.
“Well on November 16 there’s a statewide action to protest the 8% fee hike that they will be voting on that week. We could do something then. It’s about two weeks away, but RSU and everyone else are waiting for us to do something, then to get involved and take the credit.” Eric said.

“Alright, I’ll get in contact with other groups on campus to plan something for that week” Fernando said.

The meeting ended with the agreement that Eric, Moosa, Raul and Scott were going to pass out flyers on ring road the next day and then were going to put up posters all over the campus to promote WSA.

Getting Support
Moosa was the first to arrive. He took a seat on a bench and began reading the newspaper as he waited for the rest to arrive. If there is something to be expected from WSA is that they will always be late. Eric arrived ten minutes later with all the flyers in his backpack. He also had some posters in his hand. Scott arrived a few minutes later, he had just gotten out of class. Eric split up the stack of flyers and handed them to them, Scott and Moosa got right to work, and they began passing out flyers to the students on ring road. Meanwhile, Eric, began to put up the posters.

Scott finished with his stack first. He walked around and began looking around for Eric, but he was nowhere to be seen. He waited for Moosa to be done, when all of a sudden Eric popped out of nowhere.
“You done?” he asked.

“Yeah. Moosa was having a little trouble in the beginning so that’s why he’s taking a little longer” Scott replied.

“Well, I did give him the biggest stack” Eric laughed. They looked at Moosa, who was shyly going up to people offering them a flyer. After a few minutes of watching Moosa struggle, they caught up to him, he was finally done. It was 1:30 by this point; they were late for the workers meeting in Lot 16.
They rushed to UTC and hopped onto Eric’s Acura MDX. Eric cannot park on campus because he is not a student at UCI, never was. As they were driving, Eric began to speak about his family history. Eric is Japanese Peruvian, his parents are immigrants from Peru, although no one could guess it because he looks more Japanese than he looks Peruvian. For this reason, growing up, he carried the issues of racism with him everywhere he went. He grew up in a working class family, “when we first arrived we lived in that kind of neighborhood in Santa Ana, where there’s bars on the windows and bolts on the doors at night, and barbed wire on the fences and at night, every night you hear gunshots and that kind of environment, and every day you see flowers on some corner of the street where some kid is being killed by violence in the community, whether gang violence or police violence…these stories are not too uncommon among poor working class immigrants from Latin America. That’s the kind of context under which my parents came to the U.S., they came here from Peru, and had to work the same kind of service sector jobs…so I mean, when I first started with WSA was because of these personal connections that I had”

He was about to pull up into the parking lot, “Oh shoot, I came to HR!” He made a U-turn and sped to Lot 16. It was 1:43 when they arrived, Celene was already there updating the workers on the latest news on the campaign.

“Hola Eric!” yelled, Ceci one of the ABLE workers.
“Hola!” Eric waved. He lit a cigarette and began translating to Scott what Celene was talking about.

There were only about fifteen workers gathered. These were the night shift workers, the ones whose cooperation was hard to get. “I tell them” Carmen says, “When you see us in a group then you know we are planning something.” Carmen is the delegate for the ABLE workers; she works in the Biological Science buildings. Nati, the representative for the night shift often expresses her frustration with the night workers, “they are the ones least involved in the campaign, and yet the ones who cry loudest when they do something to us.”
After the meeting Eric, Scott and Moosa went back to UTC and met Raul there. They decided to get lunch, but since they could not decide on a place decided to split up and get their food and come back together.

“What is that?” Raul asked Moosa.

“Eggplant sandwich” Moosa replied.

“What are you a vegetarian or something?” Raul asked.

Moosa looked at him in disbelief, “You’ve known me for like five years and you still don’t know that?”

Raul dipped a Hot Cheeto into some hot sauce, he didn’t reply.

“Scott looks like a newspaper boy, with the hat” Eric interrupted “oh, you know who he reminds me of? Pip, from South Park.” They all laughed.

“So now we have Pip, Uncle Jesse (Raul), and Woody (Moosa). What about Fernando?” Eric asked.

“He could be Fidel” Raul said.

“Fidel?” Eric asked.

“Well, I mean, he’s got the beard going for him.”

“No, it’s more like a young Fidel beard, so he could be young Fidel.”

Eric, Pip, Uncle Jesse, and Woody finished their lunch in the absence of young Fidel. Woody had class, Pip had to meet someone, so Eric and Uncle Jesse headed back to campus together to finish working. The next task was to make posters and put them up on campus, they were in response to the eight percent fee hike Yudof had proposed earlier that week.

In the poster room, Eric was having trouble coming up with slogans to put on the posters. He would write something down then scratch it out. Raul came back with poster paper and cut it into four squares. When Eric asked him to help him with the slogans Raul immediately began to write.

Fee Hikes
Join Worker Student Alliance
Meetings: Mondays 6 pm
SSL 105

They made two of those posters and two that demanded UCI to end subcontracting. They then set off to put the posters up all over campus. The first one went on the Humanities Bridge. That’s where most clubs put their posters, and Eric and Raul found a spot for theirs. When they were done, they continued walking and discussing where their next poster would go. They walked right passed a CALPIRG member,

“Hey, would you guys like to save some dolphins?” he asked them.

“No, we’re saving the workers,” Raul responded.

They continued walking, deep in thought of where they should put the next poster.

“We should put some by the sciences. We need more people from the sciences” Raul said.

“Well, we have Moosa” Eric said.

“Yeah, but Moosa is a loner” Raul said.

After quite some thought Eric finally replied, “Have you noticed that all of us that are left are loners?”

The Sell Outs

“So how much would you sell out for Celene?” Eric asked as he took a bite out of his Milanesa sandwich. “Don’t lie, everyone has a price.”
“How much would I sell out for?” she echoed. She thought about it for a bit. “I don’t think I would.”
“Oh c’mon, how much do you make a year? What if they offered you 50K, would you sell out then?”






“But you can take it and then give it back to the poor” Eric said sarcastically.

“Yeah, after I have screwed them over” Celene laughed.

“You can also give some money to the homeless cats” Fernando laughed.

“I don’t think that that is going to help me sleep at night” she replied.

“How about you Fernando? How much would you sell out for?” Eric asked.

“It depends on the context in which they give me the money” Fernando replied.

“Okay, what if they offer you a million dollars?” Eric asked.

“Well it depends. If I need the money to save one of my family members I would take it. Like, if someone offers me a million dollars to never do any action ever again to try and help the working class, and I could use that money to pay for a surgery one of my sick sisters needs, then yeah, I would definitely take it” Fernando said.

“Well, what if your family didn’t need the money, how much would you sell out for?” Eric asked persistently.

“I wouldn’t.”

When Push comes to Shove…

On Thursday December 9, 2010, UCI and the DA filed misdemeanor charges on fifteen of the seventeen protesters who took part in the sit in earlier this year on February 24. Fernando, Moosa and Celene were charged with three misdemeanors which include, trespassing, disturbing the peace and refusal to disperse. Eric got charged with two misdemeanors counts of trespassing, one for disturbing the peace, and one for refusal to disperse.

At 12:16 that night, once all of WSA was informed of the news they all received a text message from Eric:

“When is a convenient time to set up a meeting with wsa for you all? 3 or 6? Let me know asap!!!”

“Unfortunately, we don’t back down,” Fernando says, “especially when it comes to protecting families that otherwise don’t get protected. The school obviously doesn’t give a shit about them…so in terms of negative attention against us, I’m worried, but at the same time conviction forces you to act in a certain way you know…I think some political payback is in order.”

Reporting Notes:
-1 hour interview with Fernando
-1 hour interview with Eric
-1 hour meeting with worker delegation
-Fact Checking with Juan Castillo and Fernando
-Interview with Celene 11/24
-Interview with Raul 11/29
-Weekly WSA meetings
-Weekly WSA,AFSCME and worker meetings
-5am/1:30pm Worker Update meetings
-Organization Promotion Work (Flyers and Posters)
-Worker Strike
-Chancellor Drake Vigil 11/23
-Rally/Action Organizing Meeting
-WSA Blog
-WSA Flyers
-WSA Worker Documentary
-AFSCME flyers
-AFSCME letters to administration
-newspaper reports on previous WSA actions


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