69 Hired, Thousands to Go: Under Pressure, Berkeley Takes First Steps to End UC Labor Abuses

Boycotts and sit-ins force UC Berkeley to hire outsourced custodians and parking lot attendants, giving them higher wages and better benefits.
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Hundreds of students march at UC Berkeley in solidarity with campus workers fighting for direct University employment and the wages, benefits, and job security that come with it. Photo by Jonatan Garibay.

After working 22 years as a subcontracted parking lot attendant at the University of California, Berkeley, Antonio Ruiz will finally become a full-time UC employee.

“I will have better wages, and I won’t have to sacrifice myself like before.”

An agreement on March 18 between the Berkeley administration and the union representing the school’s service workers, AFSCME 3299 (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), resulted in the “insourcing” of Ruiz’s part-time job, as well as that of 68 other custodians and parking-lot attendants at the school. They’ll be employed within 30 days. This also put an end to the speaker’s boycott AFSCME called for in February, when the union urged scheduled speakers to cancel talks until workers were hired.

“I’m going to go see my kids. I’m going to have time to help them with their homework, see my little Jessica grow up,” Ruiz says. “I will have better wages, and I won’t have to sacrifice myself like before.”

Although he does the same job as other workers directly employed by the campus, Ruiz was hired through a private parking company that Berkeley contracted. He made only $13 an hour, the UC’s minimum wage. His unionized employee counterparts earn $24 an hour. Employees also get health care benefits and paid vacation time; subcontracters do not.

The statewide UC system and AFSCME admit that they don’t know how many subcontracted laborers exist in California’s university system, but, in an email, the union estimated there are thousands. Because the UC system is the state’s third-largest employer, its labor practices influence those of other employers.

Ninety-nine percent of the UC’s in-house service workers—disproportionately people of color—qualify for some form of public assistance. And the UC is bringing in more and more low-wage workers through outsourcing. In 2012, UC San Francisco Medical Center doubled its outsourced food service workers from 30 to 60, “even though 30 out of 40 service workers directly employed by UCSF are struggling part-timers,” according to an AFSCME report. The UC saves money and shifts the burden to the public.

The UC system and UC Berkeley were asked for  comment. They did not respond in time for publication.

Because the UC is the state’s third-largest employer, its labor practices become a template for many people.

The income inequality so widespread in the United States is reflected in the UC system’s ballooning executive pay. The number of individuals earning more than $200,000, excluding overtime or bonuses, has increased by 77 percent since 2008, driving up university costs by $286 million to cover the salaries of fewer than 2,000 individuals. Activists point to this figure as proof that the public university system does, in fact, have money, but its priorities need fixing.

Workers had help from student organizers in addressing some of these priorities. Together, the two groups protested on picket lines at numerous events since the speaker’s boycott began. The students were key participants in moments of civil disobedience that gained immediate results.

“I feel compelled to fight for them because I see my mother in them, I see my family in them—and everyone else I know,” says Noemi Elias, a student and organizer at Berkeley.

Workers and students unite on the picket lines to boycott speakers coming to UC Berkeley until workers are insourced. Photo courtesy of the Student Labor Committee. 

The Student Labor Committee (SLC), the campus group organizing in support of contract workers, participated in numerous actions alongside workers: marching with them when workers presented petitions for employment to the UC in August 2015, leading about 150 students to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ front door in November, and conducting sit-ins to save the job of one subcontracted worker who was allegedly wrongfully terminated.

Kristian Kim, an undergraduate at Berkeley, says students have a unique position within the university, given that they’re its primary constituency.

“Essentially, what we were doing was disrupting the exchange of prestige between the university and these famous rich speakers who are coming,” she says, “and by disrupting business as usual, we hoped to unsettle the university’s attitude toward workers.”

A conference featuring Bill and Chelsea Clinton is scheduled for April. Kim believes the university settled the labor dispute in part because administrators were nervous the Clintons would cancel their talk, as they’ve honored such boycotts in the past.

“By disrupting business as usual, we hoped to unsettle the university’s attitude toward workers.”

At one action in December 2015, at least 50 students showed up at California Hall and sat down in the lobby outside the chancellor’s office under a blue banner that read “#JUSTICE4UCWORKERS.” They occupied the space, chanting and singing until police showed up two hours later. Law enforcement appeared in bulletproof vests, issued multiple dispersal warnings, and threatened chemical agents, batons, and other force over a loudspeaker. As workers picketed outside, 22 students were arrested on charges of trespassing and unlawful assembly. Actions like this continued throughout the winter until AFSCME says it called for the speaker’s boycott as a last resort.

Winnie Wong, a core Occupy organizer, says that direct action has been popularized. “I think there’s a misconception that direct actions are run by a specific type of person,” Wong says. “What we’re seeing [since Occupy Wall Street] is large groups of different activist-organizers create actions and participating, so it’s changed the national meaning of what actually is a direct action.

“Anytime you participate in a political process or a process that creates conditions for social change, you’re participating in direct action,” Wong says, calling disruption a necessary part of direct action.

The coalition of students and workers succeeded, if Ruiz, the newly hired father, has anything to say about it. “A lot of students were arrested so they were our inspiration in this fight,” he says. “Some of these students, they look like my daughter. It was melting my heart, the way that they helped us.

“I hope my kids, in the future, they do the same thing.”