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USC : Union Workers Take Protest to Street


Contract negotiations between USC administrators and about 300 unionized cafeteria and dormitory workers have soured over a dispute about whether the university should be allowed to subcontract outside labor.

The discord recently spilled onto a portion of Vermont Avenue near the university when about 15 union supporters clasped hands and briefly closed off the thoroughfare to rush-hour traffic in an effort to generate community awareness of the issue.

Protesters sat in a semicircle near 36th Place for 15 minutes until police in riot gear pulled them to their feet and arrested them for blocking traffic. They were booked and released from the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest station and face an Aug. 1 court hearing.

Organizers with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11, said the action was necessary to underscore the importance of the issue to rank-and-file members, who say their job security would be threatened if the university prevails.

"We've got no choice but to fight," said USC food service worker Ruby Lewis, one of scores of placard-waving union members and supporters who attended the demonstration.

The dispute centers on the university's attempts to kill a provision in the union's current contract that limits the school to subcontracting only with outside companies that hire displaced union members at union wages.

In its place, administrators are seeking a clause that would allow USC to subcontract with virtually any company after providing the union with names of firms identified as potential subcontractors.

The union, however, wants to ban subcontracting in all areas that conflict with members' job descriptions.

With 325 members, the union represents the largest workers collective at USC, where only a small fraction of employees are unionized. Union organizers fear that number could shrink even more if the university was allowed to subcontract with no requirements to hire displaced workers.

"Our concern is we want to make it absolutely certain our members are protected," union president Maria Elena Durazo said.

Only five days remain until the current contract runs out, and Durazo said the union has not ruled out strikes or work stoppages if no settlement is reached. Both sides are expected to return to the bargaining table Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the university has chided the union for canceling one bargaining session this month and turning down invitations for at least four others.

"They're demonstrating and sitting in the street rather than sitting at the negotiating table, which is where I think we can get things done," said Thomas Moran, vice president of the university's business affairs office.

Durazo, however, responded that the union's chief negotiator, Karin Mansoorian, was unable to attend those meetings because of a back injury.

"It wasn't like we walked out or were refusing to meet," Durazo said.

The negotiations come as both sides await arbitration to settle a disagreement over cleaning work the university subcontracted last summer.

USC hired three outside firms to scrub down dormitories while about 50 union employees remained without summer work after temporary layoffs.

Food service workers are usually laid off during slower summer months, but most are offered seasonal work cleaning residence halls before they are hired back in the fall.

The university claims the move was necessary given the "extraordinary need" to clean the dormitories shortly after classes ended to accommodate a conference.

Durazo, however, contends that the subcontracted laborers remained on campus through the summer, in violation of the current contract.

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