Around 15 protesters dressed in black and holding flower-adorned coffins held a “Funeral for Workers’ Rights” on Sproul Plaza Thursday morning in protest of proposed cuts to UC workers’ benefits.
The mock funeral was part of a universitywide day of student action in support of yearlong negotiations with the UC system for better workers’ benefits. The negotiations are being led by AFSCME 3299, a statewide union representing UC employees. Protesters complained about a staff salary freeze as well as the use of a two-tier system for pension plans in which newly hired employees receive less financial contribution from the university.
“I’m standing in solidarity with campus workers,” said UC Berkeley student and UC United Students Against Sweatshops spokesperson Amanda Mendez. “The university right now can’t afford to give workers a raise, yet we can afford a $50,000 bonus for the chancellor.”
Mendez said she saw firsthand how undercompensated and overworked UC employees are through her own experience as a student employee at Peet’s Coffee on campus.
In the past, employees were expected to contribute 5 percent of their salaries toward their pension plans. The two-tier pension system increases that contribution for new employees to 7 percent and 6.5 percent for current employees beginning in July.
The protest comes three weeks after UC President Mark Yudof announced in a letter that the university will not be able to implement salary increases for staff during the current fiscal year.
After the mock funeral procession at Sather Gate, protesters marched to California Hall in an effort to voice their concerns to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
Debra Harrington, the campus’s employee and labor relations director, accepted the mock coffin protesters had made. Harrington told the protesters that the chancellor understands the concerns of organizers and that the administration is currently trying to end the bargaining process in a timely manner.
“The Berkeley campus is committed to bargaining in faith,” Harrington said to the protesters. “Bargaining is actively is occurring right now, and we are hoping for an amicable and early resolution.”
The protest came to a close shortly after Harrington went back inside, ending with a unity clap and plans to mobilize further with worker sit-ins and additional demonstrations.
“I think it’s really disappointing that the chancellor sent out a representative,” said labor organizer KB Brower. “They lie to our face and say that they care, but they haven’t been acting in a timely fashion. They’ve known our demands for a year.”
The rally had relatively low turnout compared to a similar protest more than a month ago, in which more than 100 students and service workers blocked the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue in a systemwide AFSCME 3299 union picket against the reduced pension plan.