FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Liberal Berkeley Students Turn Conservative on Labor Issues
In most ways, the Berkeley Student Cooperative – America’s largest student housing cooperative – epitomizes liberal Berkeley values. The BSC boasts solar panels on its roofs, communal meals in shared houses, hot tubs, LGBTQ, African American, and vegetarian theme houses. Governing the organization and setting its annual $10 million budget is a Board of Directors composed of 28 students elected by fellow housemates.
However, when it comes to labor negotiations with its 20-person staff, student leaders of the BSC take the conservative road.
Citing the need to minimize variable costs, the BSC’s Board-appointed labor negotiation committee – consisting of the President, the VP of Internal Affairs, the Operations Manager, an alumnus, and two members at large – have been pushing for significant cuts to employee benefits. Their proposed contract would cut the BSC’s medical contribution for employees’ dependents in half, increase out-of-pocket medical costs by 1000%, and cut retirement contributions in half. Mid-career employees will see their medical costs rise by $500 per month and lose defined contribution retirement benefits worth $300 per month or more.
Employees face severe hardship under this proposed contract, with losses in total compensation of 20-40%. These measures are projected to save the organization on average $150,000 a year, allowing rents to be lowered by $10 a month. Room and board at the BSC presently ranges from $430 to $880 a month depending on the type of housing and whether food and utilities are included – less than half the price of university housing.
“The BSC’s position is completely unjustified,” said Kevin Cleek, a member of the Employee Association’s negotiating team. “The BSC has operated under the same contract for the past ten years, and has run surpluses averaging over $800,000 per year on $10,000,000 in revenues. The Board actually reduced student room and board rates last year, based on the BSC’s financial strength.” Funded almost entirely by rent paid by its 1300 members, the co-op pools money for shared expenses such as food, utilities, and earthquake retrofitting. Rents are set annually in March by the Board of Directors.
In addition to medical and retirement cuts, the plan proposes to increase the current 35-hour workweek to 40 hours without any increase in wages or salaries, and remove protection, job security, and benefits for part-time employees and three senior employees by removing them from the Employee Association. Vacation benefits are also targeted.
The 20 represented employees include many BSC alumni who signed on with the organization as permanent employees in order to provide continuity to the BSC’s mission of low-cost student housing. Current compensation rates start about 20% below comparable non-profits, and 40% below private industry, but most employees consider the good benefits and the ability to work with the members a reason to stay. Many employees stay for decades while student members turn over every two to four years. “I started in the cooperative movement as a student and I really believe in the mission of the BSC. Unfortunately, if they succeed in cutting benefits I’ll have to chose between supporting a cause I believe in and supporting my family,” says Mandy Shapiro, Bookkeeper and former student member.
Negotiations have been ongoing since October of last year, and the employees have been without a contract since December 31st. A federal mediator has been assigned to assist with the negotiations, but little progress has been made.
“It’s pretty ironic,” said Cleek. “The employees are here because we support the values of the BSC. The Board voted last year to support the Occupy movement. But now the Board is making decisions that will hurt the 99% within its own organization. I would like to see the Board live up to to its purported cooperative principles.”