By Antonio Ruiz | East Bay Times My Word

This is the time of year when hundreds of bills find their way to the governor’s desk.

Behind each is a story: the real life experiences of individuals who would be impacted by these laws. SB 959 (Sen. Ricardo Lara), which is on the governor’s desk, is my story.

More than 22 years ago, I began working at UC Berkeley as a parking attendant. But instead of working for UC Berkeley — which employs many people who do the same job — I was employed by private companies under contract with Cal.

This distinction made a huge difference. My pay was significantly lower. I didn’t have access to affordable health insurance for my wife and three children. And I faced a range of other problems. When one of the companies went bankrupt, I didn’t get paid for about six months. When a new company came in, they made us work off the clock, depriving us of thousands in wages.

So I did what any father would do. I got a second job as a custodian at a nearby hotel. Between the two, I was working 16 hours a day. In doing so, I missed so many of the things that other parents might take for granted like family celebrations, the chance to see my kids grow up, help them with their homework, take them to the park or go for ice cream.

The strain of all the separation ultimately cost me my marriage.

By last summer, my pay as a UC contractor was $11.50 an hour with no benefits — 53 percent less than a directly employed UC worker doing the same job. And it was clear that I wasn’t alone.

I met employees of other UC contractors. Like me, they had been working on campus, full time, for years.

Each of these workers had a story like mine. Some were even homeless. All of us were scared that speaking out would cost us our poverty-wage jobs.

But we found strength in each other.

At first, UC tried to silence us with symbolic gestures. It enacted a new campus-wide minimum wage designed to make our second-class status at the university permanent. We would still be meeting UC’s permanent staffing needs as low-wage “contractors.” There would be no health insurance, retirement benefits or pay equity with directly employed UC workers who do the same jobs.

We decided to fight back, organizing a historic speakers boycott that resulted in UC finally bringing 100 of us in-house as directly employed UC workers. Our work didn’t change. But now we all make at least $16.30 an hour, plus benefits. I was able to quit my second job, and now I can see my kids.

But by UC’s own admission, there are thousands like us across the UC system. And the number is growing.

SB 959 doesn’t require UC to bring its contractors in house — though UC has confessed that doing so would likely be cheaper than paying the 40 percent markup for contractor overhead and profit. Instead, it would preserve the staffing flexibility that UC says it needs, while requiring the private companies who profit from our labor to provide total compensation that is similar to that of directly employed UC workers. It also forbids companies that violate state labor laws from winning contracts at UC.

Undoubtedly, there are those who will claim that a public university that routinely shells out million-dollar salaries to its growing army of executives and six-figure golden parachutes for disgraced former chancellors cannot afford basic dignity for its most vulnerable workers.

Such logic defies common sense and basic morality. Worse, it is an insult to the thousands of working families who can’t make ends meet.

Antonio Ruiz is a resident of Richmond.

[Source]: East Bay Times