Lawmaker’s favor for labor hamstrings UC

Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens
Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens

Last month, after a battle royal for more state funding, the University of California announced an unexpected gift for workers – a $15 minimum wage.

UC President Janet Napolitano had testified for months that the university’s budget was stretched to bursting. Now, suddenly, the university had $14 million to spend on raises.

If the money seemed to come out of left field, its origins were standard – political pressure. Organized labor long had complained that the university, among other state institutions, uses too many outsourced low-wage workers.

So Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens – a friend of labor and critic of Napolitano – carried a bill for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the university’s largest union, to effectively push the UC to officially hire large numbers of so-called “contract” employees.

Senate Bill 376 would ban the university from outsourcing full-time jobs to companies that don’t match UC pay and benefits for comparable employment. The union estimates the proposal would increase UC’s labor costs by about $9.1 million, and improve health care and other benefits for about 650 full-time custodians, groundskeepers, caterers and other workers.

UC officials say the impact is far broader and the price tag on SB 376 is more like $36 million – no small expense for a university that turns away thousands of qualified students. Hence the effort to head it off with the minimum wage.

Napolitano’s gambit should have been enough for the moment. We’re all for improving the lot of low-wage workers. Some contract employers exploit people to the point that they end up on Medi-Cal and food stamps, so that taxpayers keep money in one pocket but spend it out of another. The state ought not be in the business of prolonging poverty.

But Californians also want the UC to hold down tuition and increase in-state enrollment, and there is only so much money to go around. Given the many marching orders state lawmakers have given Napolitano, the UC minimum wage seems like a good first step and a win-win. Fifteen bucks an hour may not be enough, but it isn’t nothing. And no one seems to have good numbers on the impact. So why is SB 376 still hanging on? The unions already have a partial victory.

The bill is pending in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, and still being championed by Lara, a Gov. Jerry Brown ally and Senate Appropriations chairman who has been just a little too gleeful in his impulse to continue punishing Napolitano. State lawmakers may be offended by her persistence and her tactics. And we’re not impressed by her inability to pare back on UC’s rising number of $200,000-plus administrative employees.

But continuing the rancor of the budget season is pointless, and this bill singles out and hamstrings the University of California. If lawmakers want to address the issue of contract employment, they should do so comprehensively.