By Jose San Mateo and Andrea Pyka

Members of the Union of Academic Workers (UAW) ratified a new contract, ending seven months of bargaining with the University of California.

UAW Local 2865, which represents over 12,000 teaching assistants across the UC, agreed to the tentative contract on Oct. 1, then voted to ratify the contract by a sizeable margin last week.

Daraka Larimore-Hall, a member of UAW 2865, said, “The new contract will help create exciting improvements that will make the UC a more friendly, family workplace.”

Highlights of the new contract include a five percent wage increase for all employees and additional health care benefits. Dental and vision plans will also be extended to all campuses by the 2008-2009 school year.

Nicole Savickas, a spokesperson with the University Office of the President, said the UC is also pleased with the new contract. “Academic Student Employees (ASE) are vital to the University,” she said.

Unlike previous three-year contracts, the new agreement with the UC is set to expire in two years. Larimore-Hall hopes that through continued efforts and contract revisions, UAW can strive towards developing a statewide healthcare plan for ASE.

“Every UC campus has a different healthcare plan, some campuses offer decent coverage, while others have huge gaps in coverage, we are looking to create one system-wide plan [for all the UCs],” Larimore-Hall said.

The contract was fought hard on both sides and took months of tenuous negotiations between the UAW bargaining team and the UC. “The University likes to stall,” Larimore-Hall said, when asked why the negotiations took months. “they were using illegal tactics to stall. So we threatened to strike.”

Savickas said that the university did not approach this situation any different than it would approach a situation with any union. “When negotiating anything, we have very similar priorities: to recruit, retain, and reward all employees,” she said. “The issue of a strike was a concern, but it did not speed up negotiations. We can’t reach an agreement unless we sit at the table.”

The American Federation of State, County, and Municpal Employees (AFSCME) is a union currently involved in negotiations with the UC. Nicolas Gutierrez, a member of the bargaining team for AFSCME local 3299, questioned the UC’s bargaining tactics. He echoed Larimore-Hall’s concerns, “UC management can be really stubborn. They don’t want to negotiate about anything.”

Gutierrez said a common tactic when negotiating with the UC is to aim high, but the threat of a strike is never the first option. “A strike is the last method,” he said. ”We sure don’t want to throw that at the beginning of negotiations.”

Despite the challenges though, both the UAW and the UC appear happy about the outcome of negotiations. Larimore-Hall said, “This is an exciting new contract because we didn’t lose any ground, which is rare for a 4th contract.”

For more information about UAW visit the website at www.uaw.org