See more of the story

Maria Torres loves her job.

A surgical technologist at UCLA's Santa Monica medical center, the 54-year-old mother of two makes sure operating rooms are sterile, protecting patients against wayward germs. She assists physicians as they repair hernias, operate on cataracts and fix injured knees. She comforts the fearful. She coaches medical students on how to scrub their hands.

And, after 13 years on the job, Torres makes a decent wage: $29.72 an hour plus benefits. "It's amazing to work at such a prestigious place," she says. "When I got hired there, I was so proud."

But in November, Torres joined a picket line, swinging a sign reading, "Inequality Hurts Patient Care," and chanting, "Hey-hey, ho-ho, UC greed has got to go."

The University of California is at war with its largest union, the 26,000-member Local 3299 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). November's one-day strike, with picket lines at 10 UC campuses and five university hospitals across the state, was the sixth such walkout in the three years that the two sides have been fighting over a new contract.

The issue is outsourcing: the sprawling university system's use of workers from temporary help agencies and staffing firms to fill low- and middle-wage service and health care jobs.

UC, the state's third-largest employer, spends some $523 million a year on outside contracts for an estimated 10,000 parking attendants, security guards, custodians, cafeteria workers, groundskeepers and patient-care technicians among dozens of occupations normally represented by Local 3299.

"UC has accelerated the practice of replacing middle-class careers with less stable, lower-wage contract jobs," says Local 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger, who rose through the ranks from a job as a UC Berkeley gardener. "This creates more poverty and less social mobility for thousands of California's most vulnerable workers."

To be sure, outsourcing has been common practice in corporate America for decades. Walmart warehouses are filled with temp workers. Contractors account for more than half of Google's workforce. Amazon relies on independent contractors to deliver goods.

This "fissured workplace," as some economists call it, is increasingly blamed for the nation's growing divide between haves and have-nots.

University officials say contractors give them flexibility to meet complex hiring needs. It also saves money at a time when the UC complex, with a $37.2-billion annual budget, is trying to curb tuition hikes and expand the student body. Temp workers have traditionally been paid less than regular employees and lack the costly benefits that union members enjoy.

Should a public institution be held to stricter standards than for-profit companies?

Under pressure from elected officials, and from a union-led speaker boycott that caused the Democratic National Committee to yank its scheduled Dec. 19 presidential debate away from UCLA, the UC Board of Regents adopted new outsourcing guidelines last month. They require staffing firms to give workers pay and benefits equivalent to what university employees earn for the same job, a move that will cost UC an additional $108 million a year.

"We recognized that this was an area of some concern for our workers," UC President Janet Napolitano said. "We are serious about having a contracting-out policy that protects our workers from displacement, that limits the use of outside labor."

Yet the new five-page policy stops short of strict restraints, saying only that outsourcing should be used "sparingly." So-called perma-temps who work for the university a year or more are not definitively offered employee status, as the union would like, but may "request to be converted," with no guarantee.

"Nobody is safe," Torres said. "I'm putting my daughter through college. I have a car payment. I have a mortgage. But UC can outsource anybody's job. They bring in people who are paid less. A lot of us are afraid our jobs are in jeopardy."