‘Rent is too damn high’: UC workers rally for wage increases, affordable housing

As the cost of living in California continues to rise, workers struggle to make ends meet.

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Hundreds of University of California workers rallied across the UC system Wednesday, demanding a minimum wage increase to $25 an hour as California’s cost of living continues to skyrocket.

Patient care and student workers picketed all 10 UC campuses and several medical centers up and down the state. In Westwood, frontline employees marched across the UCLA campus, calling out stagnant wages making it difficult to make ends meet.

UC graduate workers went on strike for six weeks in November 2022, securing pay and benefit increases. Undergraduate students and frontline workers alike have centered the rallies today. AFSCME 329, the chapter of the national labor union that represents more than 30,000 workers UC-wide, led the call for higher wages.

Sam Rusk, a UCLA sophomore studying English, works at a cafe on campus and said the university doesn’t pay students for all the hours worked.

“We have students who work 18-hour shifts, and we don’t get overtime pay. We don’t get any sort of benefits whatsoever,” Rusk said. “It feels really horrible when these are people who bring the university its value and they’re being so exploited.”

Rusk said some UCLA students work multiple jobs and drive “long distances” just to get to campus.

“A lot of people are falling behind in school. They can’t experience regular college because they have to work so much to afford to stay here and we’re the students — who the UC should be prioritizing,” Rusk said.

Price hikes have outpaced student services on campus, Rusk asserted, calling out UCLA for “not caring about students.”

“We’ve seen all of our services being cut. We’ve seen hundreds of workers being laid off, we’re seeing a decline in the value of our education while tuition is raised, like exponentially,” Rusk said. “This is supposed to be a public university. Who is the school working for?”

Student workers have joined the hundreds of UC employees fighting for better wages and affordable housing.

“We’re here because the rent is too damn high and wages have not kept pace with inflation,” said Kathryn Lybarger, president of Local 3299, which represents 21,000 UC patient care and service workers.

In 2017, Lybarger said, about half the people her union represented could afford to live near the UC campuses and medical centers. Now, about 70% of workers cannot afford to live close to UCLA.

As frontline workers cry out for a living wage, some UC leaders’ paychecks have surpassed seven figures. UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, for example, received a $500,000 pay raise in April, according to the Los Angeles Times, stretching his annual salary to $1.14 million.

“When you can choose to raise one man’s salary by a half million dollars and extend to all the Chancellor’s the subsidized housing special that you give to all the executives, you can certainly make the decision today — right away — to raise the minimum wage for every worker at UC to $25,” Lybarger said.

“The difference that will make will be huge for thousands of people’s families.”

The University of California responded to the outrage, pointing out that leaders in 2020 negotiated 5 percent annual wage increases for AFSCME-covered employees.

“We are committed to providing competitive and fair compensation to all our employees,” UC leaders said in a statement. “The pay increases guaranteed in our labor contracts with AFSCME recognize the critical support role our AFSCME-covered staff contributes to operations across our campuses, health enterprise, labs, and centers of expertise.”

Still, workers said the UC system has not appreciated their work and previewed what would happen to the 10 campuses without them.

“This campus will look like crap and it’ll be really unsafe,” Lybarger said. “Honestly, the work that we do is fundamental, making sure that students get fed, that they’re safe [and making sure] that the conditions that you all work, study and live in are clean.”

Other employees like Maria Martinez, an administrative clinical care partner, has devoted 21 years to UCLA. As a single mom, Martinez used to work two jobs to support her four children. Now, she’s struggling to survive on her own.

“After 20 years I no longer have to support my family, [but] I still can’t quit this job to make as much for myself. It’s a shame,” Martinez said. “I can’t afford to live in a crappy neighborhood by myself. The university needs to make more responsible choices not only with our pension money but with the way they pay workers.”

On average, a gallon of gas costs L.A. County residents $4.93. That’s well above the national average of $3.62, according to AAA. On top of inflation, high gas prices have hurt many UC workers who have been forced to move farther away from UC campuses.

“It’s driving us further and further away. I drive 40 minutes to get to work on a good day of good traffic and people commute from further than that,” Martinez said. “I can’t afford to live closer to work.

Struggling workers like Martinez still feel optimistic about the future.

“It’s amazing. Sometimes I think people don’t care, but when you see so many people come together and actually show up it gives me hope,” Martinez said.