This year marks the 150th anniversary of the University of California. UC administrators want us to believe that this milestone marks 150 years of the UC pioneering a better future for its students and workers, 150 years of egalitarianism and inclusion and 150 years as a socio-economic ladder for students and workers.
Unfortunately, this narrative is little more than a mythology. With 150 years since the University’s inception, UC workers are fighting an ongoing battle against administrative greed and hypocrisy – and it’s time for students to join that fight.
Just last quarter, the UC Board of Regents convened at UCLA and raised the cost of tuition for out-of-state and international students. Students, campus workers and faculty members came out in droves to protest this decision – but many of us also came out to protest the UC’s exploitative labor practices. It is of the utmost importance that as students, while we continue to mobilize around the issues that affect us most, we also uplift the struggles of campus workers and join the fight against labor exploitation at the UC.
AFSCME 3299, the union that represents campus service workers, hospital patient care workers, and more, is fighting an uphill battle in its contract negotiations with University administrators. The UC wants to make major cuts to workers’ health care benefits and replace their hard-earned pensions with unstable 401(k) retirement plans, and its original offer imposed a multiyear freeze on workers’ wages. The UC’s final offer still does not offer employees a living wage, and refuses to address underlying issues in its labor structure, such as exploitative subcontracting practices and pay inequity across gendered and racial lines. These failures leave campus workers underpaid, underappreciated and vulnerable.
AFSCME 3299’s recent report found that black women working in the UC are paid significantly less than their white male counterparts. The report found that depending on whether black women are working in service or as patient care workers, their average starting wages are 10 percent or 23 percent lower than for white men – equating to $3,946 or $15,785 respectively per year. For an institution that purportedly devotes itself to expanding economic opportunities and pursuing an “egalitarian ideal,” the UC couldn’t fall any shorter than it does in its treatment of black female workers.
AFSCME 3299’s report exposes myriad other ways in which the UC flouts its supposed ideals, with the steeply widening income gap between its lowest- and highest-paid workers and its blatant exploitation of outsourced workers. We saw the latter example play out on our own campus, with UCLA’s unacceptable treatment of the valet workers at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Valets were displaced from their jobs by the UCLA administration last fall, and many of them are still struggling to find work. These predominantly black, brown and immigrant workers fought to be insourced, pushing back against wage theft and poor working conditions, which led some to develop respiratory illnesses. In retaliation, UCLA ended its contract with ABM, the subcontractor through which the valets were hired, and replaced half of them with student workers who receive less pay to perform the same job. Some of these valet workers had been working at the hospital for nearly a decade and nearly all of them have families to support. Our university, however, has treated them as little more than exploitable and discardable entities.
These workers are the people who keep our campus functioning each day, yet their labor has been continuously, egregiously undervalued by the UC administration. It is incumbent upon us students to take on the fight against worker exploitation at the UC as our own. Students and workers are fighting the same fight against administrators’ neglect. Just as tuition hikes threaten our ability as students to afford housing, food, health care and other basic necessities, exploitative labor practices within the University threaten the ability of campus workers to provide for themselves and their families.
Even though students and workers face similar issues at the hands of the University, we as students have greater privileges in our ability to go out and fight for change. Campus workers don’t have the same time capital as students to spend protesting against UC greed.
Furthermore, students have a particular kind of leverage that workers do not possess: We are the population the UC system and the Regents are purportedly meant to serve. Our tuition dollars subsidize a lot of what the University does, and it’s our money that’s being unfairly allocated, with workers getting the short end of the stick while UC executives vote to give themselves raises. Students have an obligation to get involved in the fight against greed and neglect – not just for ourselves, but in solidarity with the workers who make this campus function. Without them, there would be no UC.
We students have to take a stand and fight alongside workers if we want the UC to come anywhere close to fulfilling its ideals of egalitarianism and social progress over the next 150 years. We can’t sit back and allow the University to continue its reprehensible antilabor practices. As the contract battle escalates, it’s only right that students stand up and fight back against the injustices we see on campus.
If you want to join the fight for respect and dignity for our workers, get involved with the Student Labor Advocacy Project at UCLA. We’re a coalition student group committed to supporting workers in their fight for justice.