A bitter contract dispute between the University of California and thousands of health and service workers intensified Thursday with news of a five-day strike in March -- the third held by members of AFSCME 3299 since last May.

The union says its service workers -- 8,300 custodial, groundskeeping, facilities maintenance, and food service staffers at the system's medical centers and research laboratories -- are so poorly paid that most are eligible for public assistance.

"By pushing growing numbers of career workers and outside contractors onto public assistance, UC is effectively shifting its labor costs onto the backs of California taxpayers," Jose Mendez, a service worker on the bargaining team, said in an AFSCME news release. "This is what we have come to expect from McDonalds, but it is not what we should expect from a world-class public university."

Also striking in support March 3 through 7 are the union's 13,000 patient care technical workers.

UC President Janet Napolitano -- who personally urged union leaders to return to the table last fall -- did not release a formal statement Thursday. But UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said contract negotiations with the union are scheduled for next week, and that administration had offered patient-care and service workers 20 percent and 16 percent increases over the next four years and a freeze in health-care costs.

"AFSCME's two strikes last year have benefited nobody and a third will be equally detrimental to workers, patients and their families and the university as a whole," Kleinn said.


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