As unions representing UC low-wage workers, many of our members faced housing vulnerability before the current global pandemic. Now with COVID-19, housing insecurity is an even scarier reality for many. The shelter-in-place and safer-at-home orders will not keep us safe if we cannot stay housed, and to put it simply, the UC is as unreliable an employer as they are a landlord. Outgoing UC President Janet Napolitano recently pledged that the UCs would not lay off any career employees due to COVID-19 through June 30, 2020. However, what happens after that is unclear.
Our statewide labor coalition includes a dozen unions representing over 80,000 UC employees. Our members hold a diversity of positions across the different campuses that include classroom instructors, graduate student teaching assistants, undergraduate tutors, janitors, groundskeepers, cafeteria and facilities workers, clerical and administrative, skilled trades, and information technology support (especially helpful in running the online classes). Collectively, our labor runs the UC, a world-class public university system.
As we look ahead as a labor coalition at the tremendous difficulties of returning to university life during a pandemic, the realities of California’s housing crisis and the unlikelihood of silver-bullet solutions, we are resolute in our efforts to organize for housing rights and stability. For our members who live in UC family housing facilities and whose partners have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, security of employment at the UC is essential in keeping these families safely housed and ensuring a continuity of health insurance.
For our members on temporary or year-to-year employment contracts, signing a lease is a difficult decision when you are not sure where your next job will be. Owning a home is far out of reach, and if you lose your home, trying to get rehoused is next to impossible. The ripple effects and subsequent waves of COVID-19 add even greater levels of uncertainty to our members’ lives.
For workers living off campus, skyrocketing rent and housing prices have already pushed them further and further away from their workplaces and put them in situations of housing and food insecurity. Layoffs or other reductions in pay would force impossible choices between maintaining adequate housing and adequate nutrition for our members and their families.
During this time of crisis, mutual aid is a form of organizing. One of our members helped create and distribute care packs to neighbors with masks, gloves, tenants rights pamphlets and Zoom call details for weekly tenants associations meetings. Several of our statewide unions have formed housing committees and are taking action by calling legislators to demand rent and mortgage cancellation throughout the crisis. We’re meeting regularly and sharing resources on eviction moratoriums and renters’ rights.
California’s public universities are essential to the health of our communities and to the economic recovery of our state. As part of the statewide housing rights movement, we recognize that the UC, as the largest public employer in the state, has enormous power to limit the harm of future layoffs and help ensure we remain housed. Mass layoffs in the middle of the most severe pandemic and economic recession of the last century would surely leave UC workers and their families unable to pay rent in some of the most unaffordable housing markets in the country. We have a responsibility to each other, especially now, and the UC President and UC Regents have a responsibility to the thousands of workers who ensure the university continues to run.
UC Union Coalition Housing is a subcommittee of University Council-American Federation of Teachers.