This past week, the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT, won a monumental preliminary contract with the University of California. After more than two years of negotiations, lecturers across campus finally gained better job security, working conditions and fair wages. However, seeing what their union had to go through to secure these things from the University of California reminded me of a similar struggle I witnessed when I was growing up.
In 2010, a labor struggle was in full motion at the UC Irvine campus. As a larger movement at the time, students, faculty and janitorial staff demanded that the University of California end exploitive labor practices, increase the amount of financial aid delegated to low-income and undocumented students and eliminate the systematic discrimination and exclusion of minority and underrepresented students. In specific regard to labor, however, UCI was engaging in inequitable labor practices directed at janitorial personnel.
At the time, most of the janitorial workers at UCI were hired, or outsourced, by a company called ABM Industries. The outsourcing of jobs to external companies paralleled the struggle of lecturers in UC-AFT. Similarly, these janitorial workers were not given job security, comprehensive health care or living wages because they were not hired directly by the university.
An added layer of the movement for insourcing janitorial workers was the disproportionate effect that it had on immigrants and Latinx communities, as they made up most of the janitorial staff. This was true for my dad, who, as an immigrant from Mexico, was directly affected by the outsourcing of labor.
My father had been working for UCI for about a decade and had no comprehensive health care or even a retirement plan. ABM Industries, and consequently UCI, could have laid off my dad and there would be no security net for him or my family. My dad was the primary breadwinner at the time, so the loss of his salary would have greatly compromised our financial stability. We had just barely enough to make it by, so this was a terrifying prospect.
It was really surprising to me at the time that the university did not want to improve the working conditions of its employees. Families like my own were only asking to be fairly compensated for their backbreaking labor. Now, being a sociology major at UC Berkeley, I realize that labor exploitation happens to the most vulnerable populations in this country.
For example, students from low-income cities such as Santa Ana — where I grew up — are not equipped with sufficient resources to attend college and obtain a college degree. Therefore, most of the time these students end up working low-paying jobs because higher-paying positions require a bachelor’s degree.
Specifically for undocumented immigrants, the idea of deportability systemically produces an environment in which the threat of being deported is weaponized. It is used to exploit their labor by rendering it a distinctly disposable commodity. In other words, the state uses deportation to coerce undocumented immigrants into taking any job (mostly low-paying) because they are denied labor protections.
These theories and arguments are not just imaginary — I saw this manifest not only with my own father and family but with many other families within my community as well. There were about a hundred employees at the time that were affected by the unfair and exploitative hiring practices of UCI.
UCI knew that by imposing a background check, people who did not have legal documentation would be flagged. The threat of deportation is what kept many members of my community silent — unable to advocate for their basic needs of safety, fair wages and a retirement plan.
Witnessing people like my father jeopardize their safety by engaging in social action to advocate for their basic needs left a strong impact on me and the way I engage with my community. I realized that one’s voice and physical resistance are some of the most powerful agents of change, particularly when there are others to support you.
These janitors, even in the face of adversity and the threat of deportation, protested. They were showing the University of California and the world that even if they were not “legally protected,” it did not justify exploitative labor practices.
Going to marches and protests for about two years alongside so many families that looked like mine was life-changing. It taught me the importance of solidarity. Throughout these protests and marches, a group of about 20 graduate and undergraduate students serving as allies were the ones taking the legal punches.
They did this because, as students, they understood and resonated with the demands of the janitorial staff. Student work and labor was also exploited by the University, and still is — think about the #COLA4ALL movement that was gaining traction across the UC campuses before the pandemic hit.
If you are ever in a place where you can stand up alongside a labor movement, I encourage you to show your support — see your own experiences reflected in those injustices. It’s only through solidarity that we can continue to champion equitable work conditions and basic needs for all workers at the University of California. As stated by the UC-AFT, “When we fight together, we win.”