UC must keep up fight for workers’ rights

Jenny Wu/Staff

On July 22, UC President Janet Napolitano revealed the Fair Wage/Fair Work Plan: an effort to ensure higher minimum wage and better working conditions for the University of California’s direct employees and service contractors. The plan stipulates that all UC employees hired to work at least 20 hours a week be paid at least $15 per hour. The plan will be phased in by October 2017.

The increase at the University of California — the third largest employer in the state — accentuates the minimum-wage debate at the local, state and national levels. The university is now the first public university in the United States to voluntarily establish a minimum wage of $15 for its 195,000 workers at its 10 campuses, five medical centers and three national labs.

This momentous change comes at a pivotal time as labor activists across the nation fight for a $15 minimum wage in their cities. For years, AFSCME Local 3299, the university’s largest employee union, has voiced its disillusionment with the wages and treatment of UC workers. Some of the frustrations articulated by UC workers were rectified in the Fair Wage/Fair Work Plan unveiled at the July 22 UC Board of Regents meeting. While unions lobby for the university to provide outside contractors with wages and benefits equal to those of university employees (a bill is being debated in the state Legislature), the new plan is largely regarded as a step in the right direction.

Stagnating employee wages are symptomatic of widening income inequality, and progressive middle-out solvencies are the cornerstone of creating positive change. Today, many adult breadwinners are minimum-wage workers. Investing in middle-income workers, who are the lifeblood of the economy, is not just good economics — it’s simply the right thing to do. Bringing the issue of economic and social disparities to the forefront of the debate is imperative. For the past 65 years, the real value of the minimum wage has steadily declined, while productivity has grown a whopping 273 percent. Shrinking disposable incomes and dismal economic growth, coupled with higher living costs, are producing an unsustainable economy and a struggling middle class. Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of Americans now have 42 percent of the nation’s entire wealth. Too much wealth and power is unrightfully concentrated in the hands of a few who oftentimes act unscrupulously to the benefit of their own interests. U.S. colleges and universities have the opportunity to set it right by deviating from this skewed paradigm and investing in a better economy for everyone.

By taking a firm stance on the minimum wage and the protection of its workers, the UC system is exercising its power as an anchor institution. Anchor institutions are nonprofit entities — such as hospitals, schools and churches — that are tied to a community. Anchor institutions have the financial and economic power to lead the fight against economic inequality in their region. By anchoring good jobs and economic models, schools across the country can leverage entire communities and produce viable solutions for a more equitable future. As the plan is implemented over the next three years, the UC system will be demonstrating the significance of valuing its workers and its communities so that other colleges and universities can follow.

Fortunately, the Fair Wage/Fair Work Plan will not require students to cover the direct costs of the wage increase. According to the press release, the university will cover most of the costs of the increase by using revenue from “self-supporting auxiliary services,” such as bookstores and food services.

The intentions behind the Fair Wage/Fair Work Plan are ones we hope to spread. At the Roosevelt Institute, students and fellows can examine anchor-based economic systems that foster community wealth, and can advance solutions that promote broadly shared economic progress through the Rethinking Communities Initiative.

By putting pressure on colleges and universities to be more conscious of the many ways they act to serve their communities, we can hold colleges and universities accountable for their actions. For example, the Roosevelt Institute’s recently established chapters at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Irvine will help to do this by continuing to monitor the UC system’s progress toward a more prosperous and equitable economic future. Roosevelt students across the country are committed to challenging the status quo. Students continually coalesce to ask where their college’s endowment goes and how their university procures things. Being a good anchor means that the answers to these fundamental questions encompass what’s best for the surrounding community. By regularly attending chapter meetings at their schools and participating in a widespread national dialogue, students can stay informed and adept at confronting the issue of fair wages for university workers as well as other social, political and economic challenges.

The UC Board of Regents has placed itself in a unique position. Altering the system to contour to the needs of workers not only leverages them as members of society but also creates a virtuous cycle that has the potential — through our student advocacy — to take root at the national level and incentivize other institutions to pursue the same objective.

Lauren Gaytan is a UC Berkeley junior and the founder of the Roosevelt Institute chapter at UC Berkeley.

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