The battle over union representation for graduate-student employees at the University of California may be heating up again. The 45-day cooling-off period that interrupted the December strike by grad workers on eight campuses expired this month with no movement from UC administrators. And UC officials continue to stonewall despite recent decisions favoring a union, employee representatives say.

“Unfortunately, the university has failed to address in any meaningful way the single issue over which the strike was called — the recognition of teaching assistants,” said Ricardo Ochoa, president of the Association of Graduate Student Employees at UC Berkeley.

In December, the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) upheld an administrative-law judge’s decision that UCLA graduate-student workers, including teaching assistants, are covered by the state’s Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act. The board also scheduled a union vote at UCLA for March 9 to 11.

The PERB also ruled last year that the 500 grad-student workers on the UC San Diego campus were covered employees. In June, the graduate employees voted by a 3-1 majority in favor of representation by their student-employee association. PERB rejected a university appeal of the vote.

With 129,000 undergraduates, UC is the second largest public university system in the United States (after the California state — CSU — system), and depends on graduate students to supplement professors’ crowded lectures with discussion groups, office hours and paper grading. Student-employee salaries average $14,000 for a nine-month appointment at half time.

“We urge the Legislature to aggressively intervene with university officials before they again place undergraduate education at risk,” declared Connie Razza, a member of the Student Association of Graduate Employees at UCLA.

—David Bacon

Life’s a Gas

Here at OffBeat, we’ve found that paying our utility bills in person is a great way to learn how to survive in the big city. Our visit to the gas company this week did not disappoint.

As we waited before the single open window, the guy in back of us, who identified himself as a beer-truck driver, started talking.

“My bill is $48,” he announced.

“You’re kidding. For how long?” said a second man, dressed in a striped jersey.

“Two months,” beer-truck guy said. “Of course my wife never cooks. We all sleep in the living room . . . I never pay until I get the pink [disconnection] slip.” We all nod sagely. Lesson No. 1: Don’t pay until they cut you off.

“You got to pay the gas company,” beer-truck guy continued. “Electric, they forget about it, but the gas, they’re right out there cutting you off . . . Of course I just turn it back on.” More murmurs of assent. OffBeat is the only one who never turned her gas back on herself. Lesson No. 2: If they cut you off, turn it back on yourself.

“Now the cable? I only get it so the kids can have Cartoon Network,” beer-truck guy continued. “But it’s $31 a month. That’s too much. What you do is call up and ask the cable company to rent a cable for $16. Then you buy a hot box.”

“Yeah, the box costs $250, $300, but you make up the money in a year,” agreed striped jersey. “You get everything, pay per view, HBO . . .”

“And the porno,” beer-truck guy interrupted. “All the porno.” More agreement all around. OffBeat asked where to get a hot box. The room filled with chortles.

“You got to know somebody. Or just look in the supermarket recycler,” beer-truck guy said.

At this point, a tall African man laid down $1,000 cash toward a $1,300 bill. He began arguing loudly that he should be reconnected immediately. The lady behind the glass refused, also loudly.

“Why did he pay at all, if that’s how they’re going to do him?” striped jersey said. “That’s not right.” A final lesson: Never pay unless they hook you up again.

Abnormally Normal

“I’m fuckin’ angry,” thundered Bill Panzer, defense attorney for sick people facing jail time for medical use of pot. “It isn’t about marijuana, it’s about personal freedom!”

The 100-something reefer activists in the conference room of the Pismo Beach Marie Callenders’ roared back in approval. The occasion was the annual gathering last weekend of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). A colorful mélange of medical advocates, hempsters and legalizers watched activist Mikki Norris’ poignant slide show about cruel and unusual sentences handed down to drug-war prisoners ensnared in the mandatory minimum terms passed during Reagan’s Reign of Terror. Example: Amy Pofahl, who refused to rat out her estranged husband after he was popped for conspiracy to import and distribute Ecstasy. Pofahl, who’s still incarcerated, was given a 24-year sentence, while her husband received six years and got out in four.

But the primary topic was the lack of legal protection afforded by Proposition 215, the California voter initiative that quasi-legalized medical marijuana use for the seriously ill. Several patients facing pokey time, including Bill Britt, Bob Ames and Steve McWilliams, spoke of their frustration at relying on 215 only to find it completely ignored by local law enforcement. A moment of silence was observed for Marvin Chavez, director of the Orange County Cannabis Co-operative, who recently got a six-year sentence for distributing marijuana in spite of his attempts to cooperate with local authorities.

Conventioneers were also encouraged, however, by news that newly elected California Attorney General Bill Lockyer had convened a task force on implementing 215. The convention had its fair share of eccentrics, including a woman sporting fake elf ears. Self-intoxication took place discreetly outside the conference room in order to minimize the odor of burning rope. At least one grumpy reporter had to trek three-quarters of a mile to find a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.

—Michael Simmons

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