Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Extortion in California?
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The University of California's dollar-happy executives are at it again. Despite UC's serious financial troubles, those who run the university's teaching hospitals recently got bonuses of up to $82,000 each on top of their handsome six-figure salaries.

They're devoted to education, of course. But money is money, and they got more of it because the university feared they might otherwise sell their allegedly superior services to higher-paying institutions elsewhere.

In less polite circles, the word for that might be extortion. Whatever it is, it worked. With virtually no public notice, the 65 top executives at UC's five hospitals were granted bonuses averaging $36,000 last fall - almost $2.5 million in all. Eleven executives got more than $50,000 each.

The executives were already making yearly salaries of up to $434,000, but they apparently expected even more as an incentive to actually do what they were hired to do.

It's true, though, that some executives were bypassed. Like David Kessler, dean of UC;s hospital campus in San Francisco. Dean Kessler is having to get by on pay of merely $540,000 plus the thousands in spare change he manages to pick up by consulting, serving on private corporation boards and delivering the occasional speech to corporate audiences.

Kessler and the university's other administrators eagerly embrace the values of corporate America, which gives the greatest rewards and greatest credit to those at the top, and does so at the expense of lower-level employees whose pay and benefits they invariably try to limit. Although they are operating a non-profit institution of higher learning, they act as if UC was a profit-seeking corporation and, like corporate executives, they will serve only if the price is right.

While their compensation has grown steadily and steeply, there's been scarcely any change in the minimal pay and benefits of those outside the executive ranks who do so much of the university's work. UC could not operate without them, the thousands of clerical workers, librarians, student interns, teaching assistants and the employees -- many of them minorities and immigrants -- who clean the hospitals, classrooms and laboratories, dormitories and cafeterias, who prepare and serve food and provide other essential services.

The workers' pay typically runs between $30,000 to $40,000 a year - or less - and in most cases hasn't been raised in at least two years. Unions representing the workers have long pressed their demands for better treatment, but have almost invariably been rebuffed in negotiations with UC representatives.

An arbitrator called in by both UC and the clerical workers' union found recently that the university's refusal to raise the workers' pay last year was based on excuses that were false or unjustified.

A study by UC graduate students and author Barbara Ehrenreich found that workers at the university's Berkeley campus were "struggling to make ends meet on wages that fall well below a living wage." They also found that UC executives were disrespectful and indifferent to the workers, not even encouraging them to seek promotions to better-paying jobs by expanding their education and skills.

That's pretty much the situation at all UC campuses, most certainly including the five teaching hospitals whose executives got those big bonuses. The most the workers are expecting this year are pay raises of only 2 to 3 percent - if that.

To put it mildly, as Democratic State Assemblywoman Loni Hancock of Berkeley says, the university's administrators are "undervaluing their lowest-paid workers."

But not, of course, their higher-paid workers. Thousands of UC employees are barely making a living, tuition and other student fees continue to escalate, university staffing and services are being cut, eligible students are being turned away. But those six-figure salaries just keep growing. Like the song says, "Them what has, gets." It's the corporate way.

Copyright 2005 Dick Meister