Students and UC Santa Cruz service workers gathered in protest on Monday, as former U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and newly appointed University of California president Janet Napolitano began her first day on the job.
The protesters denounced Napolitano’s background as former head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and called on her to address what they described as inadequate wages and benefits received by the UC’s roughly 8,300 service workers.
“We wanted to educate people and get [Napolitano’s] name out there,” said student and member of the Student-Worker Coalition Angeline Vu, who helped organize the protest. “We’re not totally antagonistic towards her, but we want to put these issues in front of her and then see how she responds.”
A dozen or so student protesters first gathered in Quarry Plaza to air their misgivings about Napolitano with the aid of a megaphone.
They noted that Napolitano’s 2009 to 2013 tenure at DHS marked a period in which the agency deported the highest number of illegal immigrants ever recorded in U.S. history. That fact, protestors said, has made many undocumented students wary of what the future will hold for them.
Vu and others also spoke about recent cuts made to the incomes and benefits of UC service workers and contrasted their salaries with those of high-ranking UC officials such as Napolitano.
The protesters then marched to the College Nine and Ten dining hall, holding banners, chanting slogans and banging on pots and pans as they marched. Graduate student Jeb Purucker, who took part in the protest but played no role in organizing it, said as he walked that he was still reeling from Napolitano’s appointment.
“The patent absurdity of hiring the nation’s top cop to head its top university — it’s just two very different job descriptions,” Purucker said. “This is sending a clear message to the University’s constituents, and it’s not a good one.”
Once at the dining hall the student protesters were met by roughly 20 UC service workers. Nicolas Gutierrez, a custodian and member of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 3299, which represents UC’s service workers, denounced the most recent contract the UC implemented with AFSCME 3299 on Sept. 24.
The contract increases required pension contributions and healthcare premiums and does not allow for future wage increases. Gutierrez said the contract also creates a “two-tiered” pension system, which distributes benefits unevenly between service workers based on different criteria, such as the date they were hired. Gutierrez described the system as a way to divide service workers against one another.
Gutierrez said that although the contract took effect before Napolitano came into office, she will have considerable influence on the UC’s future bargaining posture as AFSCME 3299 attempts to renegotiate the contract in the months ahead.
He then took the megaphone and delivered a speech inside the dining hall.
“We gotta get together,” Gutierrez said. “We gotta fight this because what affects the workers affects the students, and vice versa. You can sacrifice a little now and we can win this, but if you do nothing the Regents will make you sacrifice a lot.”
Gutierrez said that as it stands now, he’d barely be getting by once he retires, and contrasted his situation with that of UC administrators.
“How can you have these UC executives making four times what the president of the United States makes?” Gutierrez said, referring to Napolitano. “It just doesn’t make any sense. They’re public employees just like us.
Angeline Vu, one of the principal organizers of the protest, said Gutierrez’s plight served to illustrate the types of challenges Napolitano will face as UC president.
“She has the power to change the workers’ wages,” Vu said. “She has the power to give them a fair contract.”