On Monday 34-year-old Joe Spears stood among a group of UC Berkeley clerical workers protesting the school’s handling of labor negotiations.
An employee in Memorial Stadium’s equipment room and a lifelong Golden Bears fan, Spears has worked for the university since his graduation from Berkeley High School in 1990.
Despite the demonstration, he smiled warmly as he recounted signing on with the university’s staff with the hope of fulfilling a promise he made to his late father: “To be somebody.” But Spears said things have not worked out the way he had planned.
“I feel like a guy from the slave days,” he said.
UC Berkeley’s 1,800 clerical workers include telephone operators, secretaries and child care workers, who are pushing for a 15 percent pay raise. The university, strapped for cash amid state budget shortfalls, says it can only offer a 3.5 percent raise. The gap prompted a three-day workers strike which began Monday.
Union officials with the Coalition of University Employees, representing clerical workers, said that none of the school’s clerical workers makes more than $50,000 a year.
Spears makes less than half that. His monthly paycheck barely covers his financial obligations, let alone extras he would like to give his 7-year-old son. Spears lives with his mother.
“We just want to live and have some dignity and not struggle. I’m struggling,” he said.
Like Spears, other striking workers say their wages plus the high cost of living in the Bay Area have made financial security a nearly unattainable goal.
Joan Gatten is a 62-year-old office manager in the university’s Doe Library who has worked at the school for 15 years. Though she raised her children in Berkeley, rising rents forced her to move to Pt. Richmond in 1982 where she found more affordable housing. The drawback, she said, is living with a housemate from time to time.
“You really cannot live your own life, and as adults we should have the right to live alone,” she said.
Gatten said that her entire paycheck goes toward rent, food and other necessities – leaving little or nothing to set aside as retirement savings. She dreams of splitting her retirement between her Pt. Richmond apartment and the Sierra Nevada foothills. But that scenario is unlikely.
Catalina Estrada, who works in the university’s environmental resources department, also joined the picket lines Monday.
“Most [costs in the Bay Area] are going up, and we are still getting paid the same,” said Estrada. “I can’t imagine how anybody could afford it if they have children. I am single and I can barely make it.”
Besides working at the university, Estrada studies physical anthropology at Vista College. She said that making rent payments, paying for the BART ride between her shared El Cerrito apartment and to work in Berkeley and paying for college have made seeing and even talking to her family in southern California increasingly difficult.
“Unfortunately, there are times I can’t go visit my family in LA because I don’t have the money. I have other expenses I really needed to take care of.”
CUE representatives are scheduled to continue contract negotiations with university officials next month.