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Artificial Crisis at UCI: Austerity or Humanity? How Disposability Politics Guides the University’s Treatment of Students and Workers

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with links to resources for Student-Worker Week of Action, USASUCI and the BSU at UCI.

The University of California currently rests on the periphery of a massive decision: to make massive cuts to our students and workers, or to use a tiny portion of their endowment and capital reserves to prevent all austerity measures and maintain the integrity of education at UC. According to research done by AFSCME 3299, which is UC’s largest employee union, the UC has upwards of $10 billion it can use in the short term to cover all COVID-19 related costs and to maintain a safe environment for its students and workers. However, our experience as students at UCI has shown that administration cares far more for profit and for order than it does for the students and workers who create our campus community. We must come together as students and workers to ensure that we have access to a safe and quality education.

AFSCME 3299 is a union representing 27,000 service and patient care workers across each UC campus and hospital. They are the frontline workers keeping us safe while being denied Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and they are the workers who have fought for racial and gender equality by winning the right to insource 10,000 privatized UC workers. However, these heroes, as the UC fondly calls them, will be among the first to face massive layoffs. Already, eight workers of color have been set for termination at UC Hastings due to “budget cuts” and the UC has already threatened a $500,000 cut to undocumented student resource centers. These initial cuts are a sign of what is to come: massive layoffs, tuition increases, increased class sizes and cuts to student resources. AFSCME 3299 understands that the university fabricates images of artificial scarcity in order to justify these austerity measures which is why the union has dug into the reality of just how much liquid cash this $40 billion enterprise has on hand. 

According to AFSCME 3299’s research presentation, the UC has over $5 billion in excess capital liquidity reserves, an additional $5.2 billion in unrestricted endowment funds and has already liquidated $2 billion in excess capital reserves. This means that the UC has over $10 billion readily available to support the campus community before even accessing any loans. AFSCME 3299 uses this information to say that while it fights for increased state funding for students and workers, the UC must make use of their endowment and reserves to avoid any and all austerity measures at UC.

At the beginning of spring quarter, students faced severe injustice when UCI, with its ample supply of funds, failed to provide hazard pay for student workers at the FRESH Basic Needs Hub in the midst of the current global pandemic. The largely BIPOC staff at the FRESH Hub were forced to advocate for hazard pay for themselves. At minimum, students were allowed to work remotely while still receiving regular hours. 

An anonymous testimonial revealed that in lieu of hazard pay, some students who qualified, received two additional payments of $250 based on the periods worked during the pandemic — this is nowhere near hazard pay nor the amount students demanded. These additional payments were fronted by the FRESH Hub because Student Life & Leadership denied the students’ request for hazard pay. According to Student Life & Leadership, their mission is to “support the intellectual, personal, social and professional development of all students.” Yet, when it comes to BIPOC students, Student Life & Leadership demonstrates its lack of care for their wellbeing by sacrificing student development in the name of cutting costs. 

To add insult to injury, UCI then had the audacity to leverage the FRESH Hub as the reason to why there would be no reduction in student fees during the COVID-19 pandemic despite classes being online. UCI clearly has enough funding to provide hazard pay for these students but chooses not to. Instead they choose to exploit these students’ lives as a means of spreading their own propaganda “of commitment to student success.” 

How can UCI claim to be committed to student success when they do not care whether they live or not? UCI has a clear and disturbing pattern of treating BIPOC students as disposable while at the same time tokenizing these students as a means to spreading the UC’s agenda. The FRESH Hub incident is just one example of the UC’s move toward austerity, and unsurprisingly, these measures have been taken at the cost of BIPOC students wellbeing.

The flagrant injustice that took place at the FRESH Basic Needs Hub is not an isolated incident; UCI continually cuts costs while willfully jeopardizing students’ lives on a regular basis. Just this February, UCI police officer Trish Harding violently tackled and arrested a Black UCI alumna Shikera Chamndany while she was retrieving her transcripts from Aldrich Hall. Chancellor Howard Gillman has failed to accept accountability for UCIPD’s egregious actions, and by doing so, UCI has once again proven itself to be an anti-Black institution and a perpetrator of racially motivated violence. 

Since the UC is clearly concerned about funding, and according to UCI’s “Important Messag[e]” in March, does not have the funds to remove student fees during this remote learning period, shifting funds away from UCI campus police toward students and workers would not only allow UCI to avoid austerity measures but would also make developments toward rectifying the shortcomings of the institution as a whole. 

Furthermore, in its attempts to guise itself as a pro-Black institution, UCI’s Office of Inclusive Excellence held a forum in June honoring the deaths of “‘Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.’” It is ironic then, that the Office of Inclusive Excellence now feels in the aftermath of such murders, it is important to engage “in strategies to surmount current anti-Blackness” while having the audacity to claim to follow in the footsteps of the great James Baldwin. This is not to dismiss the mourning and outrage surrounding these murders and the murders of countless other Black folk at the hands of the state and those who uphold it, nor is it to dismiss the forum as a whole including its organizers and panelists. More so, it is to highlight UCI’s pattern of performative transformative justice. 

Where was this energy when a former UCI student faced a similar act of violence against her? An incident which was clearly racially motivated and demonstrated police brutality, leaving Chamndany to bear the cost of legal fees and trauma. Echoing the demands of UCI’s BSU and USAS students, funds utilized for UCIPD and other paramilitary forces on campus should be shifted away from policing toward a decolonized education devoid of white supremacy. UCI cannot claim its commitment to “equity, diversity, and inclusion” while upholding the sinister legacy of slavery and committing acts of “racial terror that Black folks suffer from beyond the university.” Dismantling UCIPD and its paramilitary forces would allow UCI to make developments toward practicing what they preach — one which “practice[s] inclusion” and have more than enough funding to run the university. In fact, there would be no need for austerity measures without money wasted on the police.

Ultimately, the university fabricates the image of being poor in order to manufacture the consent necessary to lay off workers, increase tuition, increase class sizes and to cut resource centers. We know that they have more than enough cash on hand to avoid all of these austerity measures but we also know that the community is not their priority. Therefore, it is our duty to push the UC to meet the demands of the Union Coalition which include child care, pay continuation, deprivatized student housing and student debt forgiveness as well as to push for our own needs for reduced tuition, improved class sizes, access to counseling and expanded resource centers. The first test of our strength comes when layoff protections for the workers that maintain our access to a safe and equitable education end on July 1. Now is not the time to minimize our demands but the moment we define the UC experience for the next several years.

Join students across the UC system for a Student-Worker Week of Action July 6 – July 10. To find out more and how you can get involved, follow @usasuci and @uci_bsu on Instagram. 

Justine Ligaya Du is a Contributing Writer. She can be reached at jldu1@uci.edu