Political luminaries are refusing to cross a picket line at UC Berkeley graduation ceremonies this week.
State Assemblymember Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) was a no-show at the campuswide convocation Wednesday, where he was scheduled to give the keynote address.
Howard Dean won’t attend the commencement he signed up to front Saturday for the Boalt Hall School of Law, according to UC Berkeley spokesperson Marie Felde. She said State Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) is also planning to back out on her scheduled appearance at a UC Berkeley graduation ceremony.
Richard Stapler, a spokesperson for Nunez, said Thursday, “He of course was planning to attend, but he does not cross picket lines.”
That announcement at Wednesday’s commencement inspired graduating students to cheer. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau stepped in for the assemblymember to give an impromptu speech.
Nunez, Dean and Figueroa are refusing to break the picket line staged by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299 (AFSCME), the union representing about 400 UC Berkeley custodians who have been battling university administration over compensation since November. Workers still have about two years left on a three-year contract.
AFSCME is demanding that the university offer competitive rates, said union organizer Debra Grabelle. According to a study conducted in November, a five-year veteran custodian at UC Berkeley earns about $12 an hour, compared with $18.30 an hour for a similar employee at the Peralta Community College District, she said.
“The university is dedicated to offering competitive wages at all levels of the university,” countered UC Spokesperson Noel Van Nyhuis, pointing out that wage comparisons aren’t necessarily fair because they fail to account for total compensation perks like health care and retirement benefits.
UC Berkeley spokesperson Felde said Assemblymember Nunez promised to appropriate additional funds for all the UC’s lowest-paid employees, but union leaders rejected that offer.
Grabelle would not confirm or deny that. Instead, she said, “We’re OK with the money coming from the state, but we can’t stop our campaign until the workers see the money.”
Maricouz Manzanita, a single mother with three children, has worked as a custodian for UC Berkeley for seven years. She takes home $1,600 a month, just enough to cover rent. The rest comes from child support or she racks up credit card bills.
“It’s a lot of stress for us and our families,” she said. “I can’t even take my kids to the movies.”
Manzanita hopes the politicians’ refusal to cross the picket line will mount pressure on the UC to increase service worker pay.
“That was wonderful” what Nunez did, she said. “That means he respects us, he cares about what’s going on.””