Despite making it to the University of California, Berkeley, I have never actually graduated from anything in my life. When I was in middle school, I had pneumonia and couldn’t participate in the graduation ceremony. I never graduated from high school because I dropped out when I was 17 to focus on my health and help support myself and my family. Even when I graduated from community college, I was too busy working two jobs to participate in my graduation ceremony. It’s safe to say, finally graduating from UC Berkeley is a huge deal for myself and my family.
For the last year, I have been fantasizing about how great it is going to feel when I finally get to graduate. Through the late nights and anxiety-fueled cramming for exams, this idea that I would finally be recognized for my academic achievement and share that with my family is what always kept me going.
I am beyond proud of myself and my fellow graduates, but as the buildup to commencement grows, this idyllic vision of what commencement is supposed to feel like is clouded by the fact that I don’t feel very proud of my university.
I cannot proudly and comfortably walk across a stage to accept my diploma knowing that I attend a university that does not respect its workers.
On Monday, the UC’s largest employee union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, or AFSCME Local 3299 — went on strike to protest a forced contract and to demand fair and equitable wages for women and people of color employed by the university and students all across the UC.
I am ashamed that I am attending a school where women and people of color are paid less for the same work than their white and male coworkers. I’m disappointed that the UC has knowledge of these inequities and refuses to do anything about it, all the while, it contributes to widening wage inequality by increasing pay for the top 10 percent of workers on its payroll and decreasing pay for the bottom 50 percent. At the UC, it seems like we crave every bit of diversity, but when it comes to supporting diverse workers who keep this institution functioning each and every day, we have a gross case of cognitive dissonance.
But it isn’t just me, the pugnacious Berkeley student, who is drawing attention to the UC’s egregious actions. Lawmakers across California have been speaking out against the UC’s decision to ignore collective bargaining. Last week, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) wrote a letter along with two dozen California state legislators emphasizing the UC’s responsibility to meet the equitable pay demands of the union along with addressing other issues they have imposed on workers, such as higher healthcare premiums, an older retirement age and outsourcing of jobs. While the UC bypasses the collective bargaining asks of UC workers, those who represent our state in the capitol — and more importantly, dictate the amount of public funding we receive — are well aware that the UC must meet the demands of AFSCME Local 3299 if it is to continue to uphold the values of California. As Assemblywoman Gonzalez stated while commenting on the strike, “the University of California has a responsibility to lift up all boats”
On Monday, Senator Kamala Harris announced that, in support of the strike by AFSCME Local 3299, she will not be speaking at my commencement, and I could not be happier. I urge commencement speakers across the UC to put the same pressure on this institution.
When I made the decision to come to the University of California, I did so with the understanding that this university system has values rooted in respect and integrity, but it seems as if it is making an exception to act with those values in mind when negotiating with its workers. I shame the UC because I am passionate about its mission and I care about this institution and the services that public universities provide to thousands of students, researchers, faculty and staff each year. This is unacceptable and the UC must quickly act to provide workers and students with a university where it’s workers feel supported.
I support AFSCME Local 3299’s strike because we, as students, should be supporting the people who do the everyday work to support our campus — the ones who keep this campus functioning so that we have the luxury of studying here.
For my graduating peers, believe me — I feel the same conflict you are feeling. The University of California has put us, as graduates, in an uncomfortable and morally compromising position by refusing to meet the asks of its workers, and we should be using our power as graduating students to pressure the UC to provide these workers with the agreements they require. I understand that this isn’t the commencement that you have probably imagined. It is absolutely not the one that got me through my last few hardworking years here, but for many UC workers, this isn’t the treatment they deserve or had imagined they’d get when they began working here.
We can celebrate and bask in the fact that we have made it this far — we have earned it — but we should not be complacent toward the oppression of those who have worked daily to support us at this university since the first day we stepped on campus.
Victoria Berdin is a graduating senior majoring in society and environment and a UC worker.