Cleaning up UC's mess

Low-wage University of California workers live in poverty while top executives get big bonuses

Arnold Meza doesn't make enough to support his family as a custodian at UC Berkeley.

By 7 a.m., when engineering students begin to trickle into Cory Hall at UC Berkeley, Arnold Meza has already scrubbed the floors, wiped clean the chalkboards, and emptied the trash of 30 offices and many of the classrooms and hallways of the six-floor building.

His early shift as a custodian is a gift, he says, because it is steady compared to his former swing-shift schedule, but Meza is still barely making rent. And he is a single father of four. Like many service workers in the University of California system, Meza wonders how the university can refuse to give him a 3 percent wage increase while top UC executives receive six-figure bonuses every year.

"It falls on broken promises," Meza said while tying up a bag of trash, one of hundreds he would take out that week. Meza was referring to an agreement in 2009 between the university and its service workers unions, including Meza's union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). At that time, the administration established a minimum wage (currently $13 per hour) for the more than 7,000 service workers and agreed, if funding was available, to increase wages annually to bring their low-wage workers out of poverty.

But the university is going back on its promise, refusing to increase wages with the funding dedicated for that very purpose, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and the Partnership for Working Families (EBASE) notes in its recent report titled "Bad Budgeting, Broken Promises."

As the UC Office of the President sees it, the 2009 discussion was not an agreement at all, but a "conditional memorandum of understanding" that would only be effective if state funding was available, said UCOP spokeswoman Dianne Klein.

"We've already taken $500 million in cuts. We'll have to take another $500 million in cuts. Because there is no new money, the memorandum of understanding is moot," Klein told us.

The state budget vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown last week would have set the UC system back $150 million in cuts on top of the $500 million in cuts approved by Brown in January. How much more will actually be cut from UC funding remains to be seen, but the forecast is not promising.

Despite the cuts, the proposed budget bill states that $3 million in distributed state funds should go toward the salaries and benefit of service workers in the UC system. In a March 24 letter to the governor, UC President Mark Yudof requested that the governor veto that restriction so the university could use the dedicated $3 million "to preserve our flexibility in dealing with the $500 million reduction."

Compared to the total UC budget of $21.8 billion, that $3 million makes up only 0.014 percent — nickels and dimes to give employees a living wage.

Meanwhile, Meza and his fellow coworkers struggle to put food on the table, making ends meet by working two jobs. After his 4 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday shift, Meza works eight-hour shifts as a car mechanic on weekends. Similarly, many UC service workers collect cans to get a few dollars from the recycling center.

"When I started here 20 years ago, I was making close to $9 an hour. That wasn't enough," recalled Meza, who put his four children through public high school on that salary. Today, Meza brings home about $2,400 a month, barely enough to cover rent and a few bills at his El Cerrito home.

"I want my kids to go to college. But financially, I can't afford it," he said. "For me, it's a sad reality."

Meza's union, AFSCME, is working with UC to lower the workers' contribution to retirement pensions to 1.5 percent. The university proposes a 3.5 percent pension plan to go into effect this July and 5 percent in July 2012—the same amount requested from top UC executives. At their low wage, that would cost the service workers the equivalent of one biweekly paycheck a year.

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