At the closing of a dinner shift, I wipe down the tables at Crossroads and glance up every now and then to see hordes of students anxiously waiting for Late Night. While they decide what to order, a coworker of mine wonders how he will his pay rent in distress. He says he has not been paid in a month. Another set of students from Foothill alleged they worked the entirety of summer 2016 as student leads, with all of the increased responsibility and not a penny of the promised pay raise. Another student at Cafe 3 struggles with their academics because of the long hours they put into their job just to make ends meet. As an employee of Cal Dining myself of about three years, I make the same amount as a new hire because my wage has been restarted twice, completely eradicating my eight semesterly raises. Across the university, students are both footing the bill and running their campuses on poverty wages.
Today, seven in 10 students work in order to pay for college nationwide. For the past few decades, as tuition has been steadily rising and living expenses have become exceedingly unaffordable, state funding has all but disappeared, and these immense financial burdens have shifted onto the shoulders of students. In turn, the university exploits students’ financial insecurities by structuring loans and work-study into their financial aid packages to directly employ cheap, precarious student labor to run campus facilities in positions of hyper-flexibility and exemption from labor protections enjoyed by other UC employees.
Cal Dining’s website reads, “We pay our employees a living wage and full benefits.” Despite this rhetoric, student-workers in dining halls across the UC Berkeley campus believe they are consistently underpaid and overworked. Student-workers experience low wages, fewer benefits and greater vulnerability to workplace violations. Nonacademic student labor is the only classification of worker exempt from the UC minimum wage of $15. Students’ hours are capped at 19.5 per week, falling short of the 20 hours per week one needs to qualify for the UC Fair Wage/Fair Work Plan. Nevertheless, student-workers constantly work over this cap, as articulated by UCLA’s Dana Carrera, out of necessity to pay the bills. This is because we must meet an average estimated rent of $1,024 per month and tuition of $14,068 per year. Mathematically, this is not possible on $12.53 per hour, capped at 19.5 hours per week, meaning we must cut corners. This includes skipping meals or facing eviction. Even then, student-workers receive paychecks from the university only to funnel the majority of their wages back to tuition, academic expenses and university housing. This means that the chancellor’s $700,000 fence and a newly proposed hotel are built off the backs of those we rely upon for services throughout campus.
Cal Dining promises all student-workers a pay raise in $0.25 per hour with each semester they work. But when the minimum wage increased to $12.53, I, along with hundreds of my coworkers across the dining halls, saw my wage reset and was robbed of my semesterly pay raises. When employees raised concerns with management, associate director of Dining Administration Michael Laux replied that the mandatory increase in minimum wage “was a pretty good jump for most of our student-workers.” That is, the legal absolute minimum is considered to be a “raise” large enough to then erase the pay raises that Cal Dining guarantees all of its 450 student-workers.
Student-workers have unionized with the aim of winning back pay for wage theft and securing pay increases because without labor protections and a voice on the job, employers can exploit the nature of student labor. With low wages and high flexibility, I am paid the minimum and asked to do things that extend my job description. Cal Dining advertises full-time positions at $15.39 an hour for cashiers, $16.51 an hour for food service workers, $17.18 an hour for cooks and $18.50 an hour for custodians, while they pay students $12.53 an hour to do all of these things. Underpaying student-workers not only hurts us, but is also used to undercut full-time positions, undermine unions and divide workers. We are not asking for equal pay for equal work, but rather to be fairly compensated for our tasks. We aim to stand in solidarity with career workers by not taking on their jobs and replacing them.
The university yields a public mission dedicated to bettering the lives of students. But it creates an atmosphere of financial instability. The institution we rely upon for our education as students is at the same time completely dependent on the poverty of students. Yet, students who work to ensure that the rest of us can eat our meals, study in the libraries and more can no longer be ignored. As the workforce that enables the daily operations of our campus, the university as we know it would cease to function without our highly undervalued yet highly depended-upon labor.
Now that student-workers are fighting for a just workplace and university, how can you support those who make each and every day on this campus possible?
Lucy Nguyen Tate is a student-worker at Crossroads and former coordinator for the Cal Dining Sustainability Team.