UC workers need employment security amid pandemic to remain housed

Illustration of various union members at work, with some slowly fading away with their surroundings
Jericho Tang/Staff

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Composed of unions representing low-wage workers in the UC system, the UC Union Coalition has many members who faced housing vulnerability before the global pandemic. Now, with COVID-19, housing insecurity is an even scarier reality. The shelter-in-place and safer-at-home orders will not keep us, and many other vulnerable populations, safe if we cannot stay housed.

To put it simply, the UC system is as unreliable an employer as it is a landlord. Outgoing UC President Janet Napolitano recently pledged that the university would not lay off any career employees due to COVID-19 through June 30. What happens after that is unclear.

Our statewide labor coalition includes a dozen unions representing more than 80,000 UC employees. Our members hold a diversity of positions across the university. We are your classroom instructors, graduate student teaching assistants, undergraduate tutors, janitors, groundskeepers, cafeteria and facilities workers, clerical and administrative staff, skilled trades workers and information technology support staff (especially helpful in running online classes).

Collectively, our labor runs the UC system, a world-class public university.

While we look ahead as a labor coalition at the tremendous difficulties of returning to university life during a pandemic, the realities of California’s housing crisis and the unlikelihood of silver-bullet solutions, we are resolute in our efforts to organize for housing rights and stability. For our members who live in UC family housing facilities, and whose partners have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, security of employment in the UC system is essential in keeping them and their families safely housed and ensuring a continuity of health insurance.

For our members on temporary or year-to-year employment contracts, signing a lease is difficult when they don’t know where their next job will be. Owning a home is far out of reach. And if you lose your home, trying to get rehoused is next to impossible. The ripple effects and subsequent waves of COVID-19 add even greater levels of uncertainty to our members’ lives.

For workers living off campus, skyrocketing rent and housing prices have already pushed them farther and farther away from their workplaces and put them in situations of housing and food insecurity. Layoffs or other reductions in pay would force impossible choices between maintaining adequate housing and adequate nutrition for our members and their families.

Several of our statewide unions have formed housing committees and are taking action by calling legislators to demand rent and mortgage cancellation throughout the crisis. We’re meeting regularly and sharing resources on eviction moratoriums and renters’ rights.

California’s public universities are essential to the health of our communities and to the economic recovery of our state. As part of the statewide housing rights movement, we recognize that the UC system, as the largest public employer in the state, has enormous power to limit the harm of future layoffs and help ensure we remain housed.

Mass layoffs in the middle of the most severe pandemic and economic recession of the last century would surely leave UC workers and their families unable to pay rent in some of the most unaffordable housing markets in the country. As the governor’s office announces a 10% reduction in the state’s funding to the UC system, we ask students to stand with workers across the UC system in demanding continued full employment, wages and benefits in order to ensure that all UC workers and their families remain housed and safe amid the pandemic and beyond.

We have a responsibility to each other, especially now, and the UC president and Board of Regents have a responsibility to the thousands of workers who ensure the university continues to run.

Gerard Ramm is a campus graduate student in the English department and the UC Berkeley unit chair for United Auto Workers 2865. This article was written on behalf of the UC Union Coalition, which comprises 12 unions representing more than 80,000 workers at UC campuses across the state.