On Wednesday, the ASUC Student Union Board of Directors met at Anna Head Alumnae Hall. Students, campus staff and members of the community attended to express their concerns about the Lower Sproul Redevelopment Project and subcontracted labor.
As a student involved in the study and practice of human rights, albeit from the top-down approach, I found that attending a public event such as this to point out problems with the issue of subcontracted labor was a bit unusual. The last community event I attended was at Howard University to support the parents of the missing Ayotzinapa students. But most of my experience comes from my semester in Washington, D.C., attending closed-door meetings — with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, for example — to advocate human rights abroad.
At Anna Head on Wednesday, I spoke because a friend on the Student Labor Committee invited me to attend and share my thoughts. After I talked, the statements of several Latino subcontracted workers on campus exposed just how much of a difference a few more dollars an hour can make in their livelihood and that of their families. Some even let the board know of their children’s dreams of attending UC Berkeley but expressed concern about making that a reality because of low income, among other well-known systemic barriers of discrimination in the American political economy. I know this firsthand because I come from South Central Los Angeles and was raised by Mexican immigrants. The narratives continue to remind me of the struggle that many underrepresented minority workers — and even their children, who aspire to attend universities such as UC Berkeley — face.
As the campus prepares for the reopening of Lower Sproul this coming semester, I urge the board to reassess its contract with Chartwells and choose to make the Student Union’s service workers employees of the campus.
It is bad risk management on the ASUC’s part to continue with this contractor. If Chartwells’ “employees” make very low wages and are denied critical safety nets, such as affordable health care, then the risks of employee walkouts and a hit to political capital for the ASUC are great. A fairly recent example of this was in 2013, when Chartwells’ food-service workers at the University of Miami walked out on the job to protest conditions that could be replicated here at UC Berkeley.
Aside from that, these workers will be serving students and other members of the UC Berkeley community knowing that they are not members of it but guests. This leaves them with a greater chance of being harassed and little room to negotiate their work conditions. Yet it is our tuition and fees that would be funding this exploitative employment practice. Furthermore, the ASUC will also benefit financially from this with annual revenue of at least $160,000.
I can only hope the ASUC understands that its decision making in this matter will affect the livelihood of community members. Many of those community members are underrepresented minorities, who as contract or temporary workers will be almost four times more likely than noncontracted laborers to rely on welfare income, according to a report published by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. While many members of the ASUC ran on platforms of serving the community, Chartwells has no accountability for doing so. Do not outsource these campus jobs and push others into poverty.
Ultimately, it is bad risk management on our part and provides low job security to laborers brought into Lower Sproul. As political activist Barbara Ehrenreich has noted before, in this exploitative campus environment, “what you learn as a student is that your needs, your convenience, outweigh the most basic economic needs of people around you” and “that ethics and fine ideals belong in seminars and in books, but not in dining halls.” These workers need job contracts with UC Berkeley, and if that requires a delay in the opening of the Student Union building, then so be it. Their economic needs far outweigh any inconveniences in time for us.
Kevin D. Reyes is a UC Berkeley student studying international history and political economy, and a 2015 fellow at the Goldman School’s Center on Civility and Democratic Engagement.