Blueprints for a Community

On May 14, 2014, the Regents of the University of California voted in favor of a proposal by UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to develop a new research campus in Richmond, California. The UC system currently owns 195.8 acres of land in Richmond, and it would utilize that land to develop a 134.1 acre campus, approximately three-quarters the size of UC Berkeley’s 178-acre core campus. The project would be an ongoing expansion spanning almost 40 years, culminating in 2050. By Connie Kwong

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

When we think of construction and development, the first things that usually come to mind are blueprints, tools, the costs of the project, and how much revenue it will generate. However, we often forget that land development also creates benefits and or consequences that extend far beyond its immediate physical and economic effects. While the proposed Richmond Bay campus will certainly boost the already-stellar academic reputation of the UC system, the current plan does not involve a community benefits agreement between the UC and the city of Richmond, a predominantly low-income community of color with a 17.9 percent poverty rate. Without such an agreement, the UC’s expansion into Richmond will not create long-term benefits for the city if there is no promise of sustainable economic and community development for its residents.

Richmond, a disadvantaged community

Located across the bay from vibrant and affluent San Francisco, the city of Richmond, Calif. represents a much different picture of the Bay Area. The city has historically been a major industrial center, home to a Chevron oil refinery and Port Richmond. The Scientific American reports, “One in four Richmond residents lives in areas of high air pollution from nearby industry or busy roadways, according to a city estimate based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory and the California Air Resources Board. Violations of air-quality rules are more frequent in Richmond than in the rest of the region, according to city calculations.”

As a result, many Richmond residents suffer from heart disease, stroke, and asthma. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Richmond has a 10.6 unemployment rate. The city also suffers from numerous crime problems. But while intuition suggests that the new campus would bring thousands of new jobs to a city plagued with massive poverty, it is crucial to emphasize that job growth does not necessarily equate job security, nor does it necessarily mean that Richmond residents will be able to truly reap a good share of the benefits.

Cut out of the bargain?

In March 2014, AFSCME 3299 service workers were able to negotiate a historic contract with the UC that guaranteed raises, working and retirement health insurance premium freezes, and other benefits for UC service workers. Although Article 5 of the contract states, “The University of California will not contract out services solely on the basis that savings will result from lower contractor pay rates and benefits for services customarily performed by bargaining unit employees or that result in the layoff of bargaining unit employees,” the UC has not guaranteed the same protections for prospective RBC employees. In fact, a side letter under Appendix D of the contract specifically identifies service workers employed by UCSF Mission Bay Hospitals, UCSD Jacobs Medical Center, and UCLA Luskin Conference and Guest Center as additional beneficiaries of the contract.

However, prospective employees of the Richmond Bay campus are not included on this list. Although the AFSCME contract was negotiated in March 2014, plans for developing the  extension of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were already announced in January 2012, with Richmond being chosen as the site in September 2013. This is a problem because there is currently no guarantee that the University of California will change the terms of this contract to include those employees, which creates a dangerous loophole.

Because unlike service workers employed at other UC facilities like university campuses and medical centers, workers employed by the RBC would not be protected by the AFSCME 3299. They would not even be considered direct employees of the UC system, because this opens the door for the UC to contract out service labor for the campus.

A study published by the UC Berkeley Labor Center explains that “employers may also use subcontracting and temp agencies to pay workers less but avoid the possible negative effects on worker morale that such disparities within a workforce could create.” In fact, it is extremely common for contractors to deliberately employ exploitable workers who are often minorities and come from poor backgrounds. As a result, subcontracted workers are often treated badly, work in unsafe labor conditions, paid meager wages, do not receive health insurance, and have little to no promise of job security.

Duty to the people

The University of California is constantly hailed as the best public university system in the world. As a public institution funded by California taxpayers, it is morally accountable to the people of California. While the Richmond Bay Campus expansion would be an excellent addition to a world-class educational institution, the current plan lacks a solid long-term perspective. Without a community benefits agreement between the city of Richmond and the University of California that would require the AFSCME 3299 contract to include future RBC employees, it lacks an explicit mandate to actually ensure that the UC system continues serving the mission in Richmond that it has historically served to the rest of California: educating the brightest minds of our state, facilitating groundbreaking research, providing jobs to Californians, all of which help empower the Californian middle-class. In other words, the long-term development of the campus must also bring long-term economic, and more importantly, community growth for Richmond.

On October 9, 2014, ASUCD Senate Resolution #2, authored by Harley Litzelman, Director of the ASUCD Office of Advocacy and Student Representation, was introduced to the student senate of UC Davis. The resolution points out that AFSCME 3299 and numerous other Richmond community organizations have called upon the UC to enter into a community benefits agreement with the city of Richmond that would seek to invest in education, create affordable housing guarantees, union representation of qualified employees, local priority hiring policy, and environmental protection. If the resolution is passed, copies will be sent to UC Davis Chancellor Katehi, UC Berkeley, Governor Jerry Brown, UC President Janet Napolitano, and other administrators of the UC system. It also encourages other UC campus student governments to pass similar resolutions.

When I spoke with Litzelman, he stressed that the continued excellence of the UC system should not rely on the continued oppression of disadvantaged communities, and I could not agree more. While no community benefits agreement yet exists, that does not mean the situation is hopeless. Public support for a community benefits agreement is strong among Richmond residents. And it is a fact proven by time that community organizations find power in solidarity, which enables them to influence powerful institutions to act with accountability to the people.

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