Campus community should rally behind laid off staff

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Irene Chen/Staff

Next week, 28 staff members at Campus Shared Services, or CSS, who received layoff notices in December will be working their last day at the university — just a little over a year after CSS went “live” for the entire Berkeley campus. Further layoffs may be planned. Supporters of the laid-off employees, led by UPTE, or University Professional and Technical Employees, and Teamsters 2010 will soon be delivering petitions to Chancellor Dirks demanding that the layoffs be halted and that the University investigate alternative solutions to the problems that have plagued Shared Services from the beginning.

CSS is a program initiated in 2011 with the stated aim of increasing administrative efficiency and savings across UC Berkeley by centralizing administrative services that used to differ across departments, such as information technology, human resources, finance, and research administration. We believe that the root of the problems with CSS is that it was developed by highly paid outside consultants and imposed by the campus administration as a reaction to what has become a permanent budget crisis for the university in the wake of reduced state funding. But why do UC workers, students and faculty (or any Californians for that matter) have to do with less — to withstand budget cuts, layoffs and reduced services — when the university’s top-earners are enjoying a greater share of the wealth we create here at the university than ever before?

One of the primary reasons is that decision makers at the university — and across the U.S. economy — are in the process of deskilling and dividing their own most valuable asset, core staff, through cost-saving technologies and techniques of dubious benefit to end users. While in the private sector the benefits of this kind of cost-cutting are shared openly and directly by highly paid managers and shareholders, in the public sector the relationship is more subtle but essentially the same; the benefits of “streamlining,” “efficiencies” and the like ultimately accrue to the very same tier of upper-level managers, who are rewarded for perceived cost-savings at the expense of quality of service.

So while university administration — from President Janet Napolitano down to UC Berkeley CSS Chief Operating Officer Peggy Huston  — may raise meek protests at having their own budgets cut by the state, their ability to implement austerity in the workplace still allows them to justify their comfortable salaries and ensures their places in the UC system.

The same cannot be said for the first 28 CSS staff members (employees in IT, HR and financial and research administration) whose positions have been eliminated — nor for those whose livelihoods may be on the chopping block later this year. It is unclear whether these employees have actually been made “redundant” by the new efficiencies — indeed, complaints about the service and questions about the “efficiencies” provided by CSS are widespread — or whether the downsizing of the unit is an attempt to force workers to do the same jobs with fewer resources in order to realize the much ballyhooed promised cost-savings of CSS. Associate Vice Chancellor John Wilton, whose office has been responsible for the implementation of CSS and who might be able to answer this question, has announced his intention to step down this February.

UC workers have an undeniable interest in real increased efficiencies when they benefit stakeholders. Those of us who make the university run are more than happy to streamline processes and learn from each other’s ingenuity — while continuing to deliver quality service — especially if such efforts improve the lives of students, faculty and staff. We have neither the ability nor the interest in doing so as long as our workplaces are run by administrators in the interest of those already at the top of the pay scale, when “efficiency” is merely code for layoffs and speed-ups.

So while we demand that the layoffs be halted, that the campus and CSS budgets be made transparent and that solutions beyond layoffs be pursued, we also urge the UC system to take the voices of frontline CSS employees and the users of shared services into account. In the absence of acknowledgment of the skills of employees and of the users of CSS, the current layoffs can only be interpreted as part of the broader attack on public education that is central to the attempt to recreate a low-wage, profit-to-the-few economy in the United States.

UC faculty, staff and students have a vested interest in standing together with workers at CSS for a university that serves all our interests — and those of the vast majority of Californians — not simply those of the few who stand to profit from a leaner, less effective and frankly demoralized group of campus workers.

Dan Russell is a business and technical support analyst at Campus Shared Services. Jean Day is the president of UPTE-CWA 9119, Local 1 (Berkeley) and Lyn Hejinian is a John F. Hotchkis professor of English at UC Berkeley.

Correction(s):
The byline and tagline for a previous version of this op-ed incorrectly included John Hotchkis as an author. In fact, Lyn Hejinian is the John Hotchkis professor of English at UC Berkeley.