UC Workers Deserve Control Over Pensions

    UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA — The University of California is consistently praised for the high quality of its educational and research programs, and attracts the best students and faculty from around the nation. But beneath this glowing exterior are the thousands of workers who form the backbone of the 10-campus system, many of whom could never be able to afford to send their children to earn a degree from the very university that employs them.

    Charged with maintaining buildings and grounds and providing cafeteria and bus services, these workers are almost consistently locked in complicated battles with the university for increased wages and benefits to bring their salaries up to par with service workers at state community colleges, who earn about 25 percent more than their UC counterparts.

    While UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox rakes in an annual salary just under $400,000 and UCSD Medical Center CEO Richard J. Liekweg tops out near $600,000, workers such as senior custodian Yolanda Burdette earn a mere $1,600 a month, barely enough to pay for basic necessities.

    In fact, service workers are the lowest-paid in the UC system and currently receive no wage increases for extended service, according to Lakesha Harrison, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing approximately 20,000 service workers systemwide. While the university has offered during back-and-forth negotiations to gradually increase the salaries of service workers to $13.25 an hour by 2012 and implement a raise system that rewards employees based on experience, these plans are still years away from producing any tangible benefits for workers like Burdette.

    Amid this jumble of demands and counterdemands, however, stands a promising provision sponsored by state legislators which would give workers an increased voice regarding their UC Retirement Plans.

    Unlike other state employees, UC workers have no say over the way their pensions are organized. The provision, called ACA 5, aims to change the current system, amending the state constitution to establish a board of trustees to oversee the $43-billion UCRP. Backed by AFSCME, the provision must secure the support of 694,000 voters to appear on the June 2010 ballot.

    The University of California is a prestigious institution, but the way it treats its hardworking service workers is embarrassing. At a time when they continually struggle to make ends meet, this provision is a vital step toward lifting employees from poverty. While the union and the university are locked horn-to-horn over wages, citizens across the state now hold the power to significantly better the lives of service workers by supporting ACA 5 and allowing them control over UCRP. Although more contentious issues such as pay raises still need to be ironed out, ACA 5 is a much-needed step toward giving UC workers a say in the governance of retirement plans funded by wages they have already fought so diligently to secure. To not support it would be a slap in the face to the very workers that keep the university on its feet.

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