By Kathryn Lybarger | Special for CALmatters
One in three California workers has a low-wage job, defined as less than $14.35 an hour, the UC Berkeley Labor Center recently reported.
Over the last 40 years, these workers have not seen real wages rise at all. Not so for higher-wage workers. Their paychecks have increased significantly.
What cannot be lost is that more workers, disproportionately women, and people of color, are being pushed out of the middle class and into stagnant wage work, as their jobs are outsourced to lower paying employers.
When this happens, a career custodial, food service or healthcare job that once paid $20 an hour with benefits becomes one that pays $14 an hour and offers few benefits, making it hard if not impossible to pay the rent.
In many ways, this new reality drives low unemployment and higher inequality.
Look no further than California’s 3rd largest employer, the University of California.
Outsourcing companies at UC have been accused of paying full-time workers under multiple names to skirt overtime rules. Some “contract” workers have been at UC for as long as 20 years. A state audit found that UC outsourcing to replace its lower wage career workforce. The university tried to quell public outrage by instituting a system-wide minimum wage, but its own internal audits have revealed that the policy is not being enforced.
In the spring, AFSCME 3299 issued a white paper outlining the effects. Black workers have been disappearing from UC’s directly employed workforce, and reappearing with outsourcing companies under contract with UC to pay their workers as much as 53 percent less.
To its credit, the California Legislature approved bills in 2015, 2016 and 2017 to guarantee UC’s outsourced contractors give “equal pay” to workers who do the same jobs. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed each measure after intense opposition from top university administrators.
Now, for the second time this year, UC has imposed contract terms on frontline workers—this time, its patient care workers. While the legality of UC’s move is questionable, the effect is not.
UC’s imposed terms will raise health premiums, flatten wages, and guarantee more outsourcing, which will deepen the racial and gender inequities within UC’s frontline workforce.
That’s why UC workers are fighting back, voting to authorize a strike for the second time this year.
These primarily black and brown workers will not be withholding their labor to demand slush funds, giant salaries or gold-plated pensions. When we strike—the walk-out began Tuesday and will continue through Thursday—it will be about principles that are far more fundamental. Among them, whether skin color means California’s premier public university will pay you less, outsource your job, or limit your access to career ladders of public service.
It shouldn’t require protracted labor disputes to hold an institution that professes principles like “social mobility” to account. But the UC system is ground zero for confronting our state’s inequality problem.
Housing, food, healthcare, and other costs are soaring. Real wages are stagnant. And for UC system’s lowest paid employees, most of whom are people of color, a raise means nothing if your job gets outsourced the next day to a private contractor that pays much less.
If UC’s continued attacks on its lowest wage frontline workers go unchallenged, that’s precisely what will happen.
Kathryn Lybarger is president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
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