Cleaning up UC's mess

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

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

news@sfbg.com

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.

Comments

Posted by Guest on Jun. 22, 2011 @ 10:31 am

RE: “Cleaning up UC's mess”, by Maggie Beidelman

While I share the Guardians disgust at UC execs pulling in six-figure incomes and justifying this with cries that such largess is required to retain the best and brightest, I am less thrilled with the analysis on the economic plight of janitor Arnold Meza who is depicted as struggling as a single father to provide for four children. It may be a human right to have as many children as you want, but it is not an intelligent choice to father so many kids on a janitor’s salary - even the $40,000 plus health care and retirement benefits he brings home.

One can only ask: had he had eight children would he have earned twice the Guardian’s sympathy?

Posted by WandaBerger on Jun. 25, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

Wanda Berger,

Since when is it okay to form lifestyle restrictions on the blue collar workers of America? Shall we force him to live in a one bedroom house, ban him from shopping for a new car, or tattoo his arm so he cannot purchase jeans more than $20 a pair? It's not at all okay to victimize the staff of UC who merely want to pursue a life dream, which is to have a family. Arnold Meza is a brave man who (as hard as it is for you to believe) does not live in China where there are restrictions on how many children you have, depending on how much money you have. What I am saying is: your point is not remotely relevant to this article.

Yes, statistically the Hispanic population is the fastest growing and the least educated, but guess what: the nation's youth is now a majority Hispanic, meaning this country in a few odd decades will be a largely Hispanic country. If you and others don't stop the prejudiced "it's their fault, they brought this on themselves" argument which has a smattering of racism, you will soon find yourself in a minority.

There is more to life than economic decisions. He made the intelligent choice of having a family, which is far more important than squeezing a penny here or there. He works hard and is not asking for an increase in pay, per se, he is asking to keep pace with the other employees at UC who have appropriately adjusted incomes every year to cope with the financial burdens, and have a proper staff to be sure that they aren't overworked.

Arnold Meza has a family to raise. If he had eight kids to raise then he has eight kids to raise then so be it, nobody has the right to tell him otherwise, at least not in America.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 09, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

RE: “Cleaning up UC's mess”, by Maggie Beidelman

While I share the Guardians disgust at UC execs pulling in six-figure incomes and justifying this with cries that such largess is required to retain the best and brightest, I am less thrilled with the analysis on the economic plight of janitor Arnold Meza who is depicted as struggling as a single father to provide for four children. It may be a human right to have as many children as you want, but it is not an intelligent choice to father so many kids on a janitor’s salary - even the $40,000 plus health care and retirement benefits he brings home.

One can only ask: had he had eight children would he have earned twice the Guardian’s sympathy?

Posted by WandaBerger on Jun. 25, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

(The author has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at UC Berkeley (Cal) where he observed the culture & way senior management work)

Cal. Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) has forgotten that he is a public servant, steward of the public money, not overseer of his own fiefdom (these are not isolated examples): recruits (uses California tax $) out of state $50,000 tuition students that displace qualified Californians from public university education; spends $7,000,000 + for consultants to do his & many vice chancellors jobs (prominent East Coast university accomplishing same 0 cost); pays ex Michigan governor $300,000 for lectures; in procuring a $3,000,000 consulting firm he failed to receive proposals from other firms; Latino enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010; tuition to Return on Investment drops below top 10; Breslauer all employees meeting – only 50 attend; visits to Cal down 20%; NCAA places basketball program on probation, absence institutional control.

It’s all shameful. There is no justification for such practices by a steward of the public trust. Absolutely none.

Birgeneau’s practices will not change. UC Board of Regents Chair Sherry Lansing and President Yudof must do a better job of vigorously enforcing oversight than has been done in the past over Chancellors who, like Birgeneau, see the campus as their fiefdom.

Posted by Milan Moravec on Jun. 25, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

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