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USC Workers Launch Fast in Job Dispute

Labor: Service union seeks to ensure employees will not be displaced. University says it needs to have flexibility.

November 19, 1998|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A handful of unionized service workers at Los Angeles' largest private employer, the University of Southern California, are conducting a public fast this week to draw attention to what has turned into a bitter three-year quest for job security.

"All the time it's, 'Don't worry, don't worry, your job is [safe] here,' " said one of those fasting, 55-year-old Trinidad Ornellas, who said she has worked at the school for 18 years. "But I don't trust the USC. I don't trust the administration. . . . They lie all the time."

As the campus stirred with preparations for Saturday's football showdown with cross-town rival UCLA, scores of students streamed by protesters such as Ornellas, who earn less than the school's annual tuition of $21,000, without appearing to much notice them or their banner proclaiming that they are "Hungry for Justice." Most students receive some financial aid.

The workers are not fasting for higher wages. In the context of the low-wage service economy that provides jobs for a growing number of working poor in Los Angeles, Ornellas' pay of $9.23 per hour is a sought-after deal.

Her issue is keeping her job. She and her union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11, are seeking a written pledge from USC not to hire outside contractors to fill the jobs of food service and dormitory workers who earn, the union says, from $7.75 to $12 an hour.

USC has refused, saying that it has no intention to subcontract the workers' jobs and is pleased with their performance, but needs flexibility if circumstances change. "We're a private university and when we can't meet a payroll, we can't go to taxpayers," said USC Senior Vice President of Administration Dennis Dougherty. He said the university had reluctantly decided in 1992 that it had to lay off 900 mostly management and clerical workers to cope with declining revenue during an economic downturn. Most are now back, he said.

This kind of talk sounds ominous to Ornellas and other workers who said the university had once assured a separate group of janitors that their jobs would be safe, then later contracted out their work. A lawyer for the university denied that any such promise to the janitors had been made.

Philip J. Chiaramonte, associate vice president for auxiliary services, said he senses the workers' fear. "I talk to the workers all the time [and they say], 'Look, Phil, you're saying things and we trust you, but look what happened to the janitors.' "

In the janitors' case, said the university's lawyer, Stephen Berry, USC insisted that its contractor hire, at USC pay and benefit rates, the same janitors that the university had jettisoned after concluding that it was unable to manage them effectively.

Janitors who had not been on staff for 15 years lost one cherished benefit peculiar to long-term university employment--free tuition for qualified children. Ornellas said she used that benefit for one of her children and said she regarded it as very important to her family.

The leader of Local 11, Maria Elena Durazo, who is on a diet of water and fruit juice for four days, said the subcontracting of janitorial services resonated with workers in her group as a "real breach of trust."

She blasted the university as classist. "I think they are very upset that a group of workers at this level--low-wage service workers, immigrants, people of color--would have the [guts] to be so demanding of them," she said.

Berry, who is the university's lead negotiator in the dispute, responded that the workers have become pawns of union leadership. "The history of how [well] USC has treated the dining and housing employees shows that what is really going on here is a national union campaign against an employer's right to retain flexibility . . . and not really what is in the best interests of employees."

The union and the university came to terms on wage and benefit increases three years ago, but have been at an impasse over the union's demand for job security. Despite the lack of a contract, the university on its own gave the workers a raise and, by expanding its food service network to include fast-food franchises staffed with university employees, expanded the bargaining unit as well.

But university officials drew the line at offering absolute job security, saying that it is an outrageous demand and that it would be unfair to other employees to grant it just to this group.

As a compromise, Berry said USC has proposed giving any workers in this group whose jobs are contracted out a first crack at working for a private contractor, a second crack at other university jobs and a minimum of three months pay if no work is available.

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