UC students stand with Richmond

May 6, 2015

Joshua Wilner reports from the University of California Berkeley as students send a message to the administration about its planned "Berkeley Global Campus."

STUDENTS OCCUPIED the administration building at the University of California (UC) Berkeley April 30 to confront Chancellor Nicholas Dirks about the administration's refusal to sign a legally binding community benefits agreement for the proposed "Berkeley Global Campus" in Richmond, California.

The educational and research complex that UC plans to build--in partnership with private industry--represents the largest expansion in more than 100 years, and UC students are standing in solidarity with Richmond workers and community members who are concerned about what this expansion will mean.

Following the occupation by about 20 students--during which six students were arrested for trespassing when they refused to leave when police issued a dispersal order--about 75 students gathered at Sather Gate and marched through campus to the chancellor's residence--to issue a mock eviction notice meant to represent the displacement of low-income residents because of the construction.

Students held signs showing the chancellor's salary (more than $500,000 per year) and the average income of a Richmond resident (about $26,000 per year). Speakers included Richmond community members, organizers from AFSCME and members of the Respect Richmond Coalition, the student group that organized the demonstration to discuss the need for a legally binding program to ensure the uplift of the entire community.

UC Berkeley students interrupt an administration meeting to demand an agreement for Richmond
UC Berkeley students interrupt an administration meeting to demand an agreement for Richmond

This protest represents an important step in student awareness of the effects of the privatization of higher education and UC's real estate policies on low-income communities. Students in the crowd talked about the need to stop gentrification and pay living wages to workers, and "We don't want to be responsible for the destruction of their community" was the phrase of the day.

HERALDED AS the first "global campus" in the U.S., the new construction promises a "living laboratory in partnership with public universities from around the world, as well as with private industry," according to the UC Berkeley News Center.

With higher education in the U.S. already fully under the thumb of the corporate sector, building a campus for one of the nation's top universities with the explicit intention of strengthening corporate ties shows how far from "public education" we have really come.

Worse, the construction of the new campus expands the privatization of UC Berkeley real estate by the Lalanne Group, a San Francisco real estate firm whose president, Bob Lalanne, was appointed by Dirks as "vice chancellor for real estate" at the university. Lalanne stands to profit considerably from this position, thanks to the cooperation of the university and the private sector.

Landscaping and other facilities jobs at the Berkeley campus have already been transferred to the real estate department. By contracting out the real estate, construction bids and later the jobs of many people who work at the university, UC Berkeley is avoiding some of the responsibility for the wages of workers employed by those companies. This is only one of a long list of effects the new campus will have on the Richmond community.

Richmond is a majority--83 percent--community of color, and its residents have been excluded from the wealth generated by the tech boom in the Bay Area. Richmond suffers from underfunded schools, high crime rates and huge community health deterioration because of the oil refinery in the city.

According to the "Anchor Richmond" report published by the Haas Institute for Fair and Inclusive Society, of the 47 percent of Richmond residents who rent their homes, 48 percent are low-income renters who are already overburdened by housing costs--paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. Some 40 home foreclosures occur every month, and more than half of Richmond's homeowners have "underwater" mortgages.

The report states, "These residents have no disposable income and are vulnerable to displacement in the event that their housing costs increase at a greater rate than their income." If real wages don't increase for the residents of Richmond, they will easily be pushed out by the wealth imported by the new campus.

Instead of sharing the benefits of having a new university, they will simply be replaced by the wealthy and relocated to other depressed areas. In short, the plan looks exactly like the gentrification of San Francisco and Oakland.

Students and workers have been putting pressure on the university administration to do something about the effects of the campus on the local community. As a result of their efforts, Chancellor Dirks and Lawrence Berkeley lab director Paul Alivisatos issued a statement on April 22, promising transparency in construction contracts, stronger community ties and support and job opportunities from the new campus.

The vague assertions hardly address the needs of people in such extreme circumstances, and moreover do not give specific amounts of resources to be given to any particular program. Most importantly, it isn't legally binding.

In keeping with their reputation as one of the worst employers for labor relations in the state, UC refused to sign a legally binding agreement that would have committed it to: invest in an anti-displacement fund to subsidize the development of affordable housing; invest in training programs to improve opportunities for local disadvantaged workers; institute a living-wage policy (the school doesn't have to adhere to city minimum wage, which is much higher than the state minimum wage); ensure that new jobs created at the Berkeley Global Campus are UC Berkeley jobs, and thus covered by union contracts; and establish a youth opportunity and education Fund for K-12 and community college students.

With the construction of the campus set to begin sometime in the fall, the need for a legally binding agreement is increasingly important. An escalation of student efforts in solidarity with the Richmond community and unions is necessary, and hopefully the demonstration on April 30 is the start of exactly that.

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