Fed up with what they call “poverty” wages, service workers began a strike for increased pay Monday, July 14th, at the University of California’s campuses and hospitals, including the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

Service employees with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents about 8,500 service workers throughout the state, followed through on their call for higher wages despite a court order barring a strike against the University of California system.

The workers — custodians, security officers, bus drivers, parking attendants, food service workers and other employees — planned to picket for five days at the university’s ten campuses and five medical centers. Some University of California patient-care workers joined in the effort to support the service employees.

The action comes after months of contract negotiations have been without a resolution.

“We’re on the low end of the totem pole in terms of pay,” said Carlos Young, a security officer who has worked at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center for five years.

“We’re the first face you see when you walk into the hospital,” he said, referring to security officers. “We police the hospital, help you receive information — we’re involved in so many things.”

Union members claim that service workers are earning “poverty” wages of as low as $10 an hour and many are forced to work two jobs to help pay increasing gas and food prices. Wages in the University of California system are an average of 25 percent less than at other hospitals and community colleges in the state, union leaders say.

Approximately 96 percent of the university’s service workers are eligible for eight different public assistance programs, such as food stamps, according to the union.

“I feel we’re just underpaid,” said another Santa Monica-UCLA security officer, Willis Wright. “We’re trying to make a change here.”

A Superior Court judge in San Francisco issued a court order earlier this month prohibiting a strike by service workers unless adequate notice of the exact dates of the strike was given. But union leaders said they provided notice of the planned action prior to the strike and were in compliance with the court ruling.

“We’re in compliance with the order, but even if we weren’t, it’s our right to strike,” said Lakesha Harrison, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 president.

University officials said they were disappointed that the union members decided to walk off the job despite the court order, but noted that the strike had no major effect on hospital services during the first day of the action.

“We regret that we have not been able to reach an agreement with the union and hope its leadership will return to the bargaining table so we can continue our discussions,” said Howard Pripas, executive director for university labor relations. “Our employees deserve good contracts and they deserve them now.”

Of the 736 employees represented by the union at the Santa Monica-UCLA hospital, only 20, or about 2.7 percent, took part on the first day of the strike, hospital spokesman Ted Braun said.

“We’re seeing a very small percentage of our (union) members participating in the job action,” Braun said.

The hospital did not have to cancel any surgeries or procedures and its Emergency Center was fully staffed July 14th, he said.

“There has been no effect at all on our hospital operations and services,” Braun said. “We have ample replacement staff to fill in throughout our hospital, as needed.”

Some service workers on strike at the Santa Monica-UCLA hospital alleged that “scare tactics” used by management has led to a lower turnout in Santa Monica, compared to the new Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood.

University officials said they strive to offer employees the most competitive salaries and benefits within available resources. The university has offered raises of more than 26 percent over five years for patient care employees and increases in hourly rates from $10.28 to $11.50 or $12, depending on location.

But union members say those increases would not cover all employees and claim that offer is unacceptable.

“They know our demands and they’ve offered us basically nothing,” Harrison said.

University officials say they remain hopeful that a fair and equitable resolution can soon be reached in the contract process.