As unions representing low-wage workers at the University of California, many of our members faced housing vulnerability before the global pandemic. Now, with COVID-19, housing insecurity is an even scarier reality. The shelter-in-place and safer-at-home orders will not keep us safe if we cannot stay housed. And to put it simply, the UC is as unreliable an employer as they are a landlord. Outgoing UC President Janet Napolitano recently pledged that the UC would not lay off any career employees due to COVID-19 through June 30, 2020. What happens after remains unclear.

Our statewide labor coalition includes a dozen unions representing over 77,000 UC employees. Our members hold a diversity of positions throughout different levels of the university that include classroom instructors, graduate student teaching assistants, undergraduate tutors, janitors, groundskeepers, cafeteria and facilities workers, clerical and administrative workers, skilled trades and information technology support (especially helpful in running the online classes). Collectively, our labor runs the UC, a world-class public university system. 

As a labor coalition looking ahead to the tremendous difficulties of returning to university life during a pandemic, the realities of California’s housing crisis and the unlikelihood of silver-bullet solutions, we are resolute in our efforts to organize for housing rights and stability. 

For our members who live in University of California family housing facilities, and whose partners have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, security of employment at the UC is essential in keeping their families safely housed and in ensuring continuous health insurance.

To put it simply, the UC is as unreliable an employer as they are a landlord.

For our members on temporary or year-to-year employment contracts, signing a lease is difficult not knowing where their next job will be. Owning a home is far out of reach. And, if you lose your home, trying to get rehoused is next to impossible. The ripple effects and subsequent waves of COVID-19 add even greater levels of uncertainty to our members’ lives.

For workers living off campus, skyrocketing rent and housing prices have already pushed them further and further away from their workplaces and put them in situations of housing and food insecurity. Layoffs or reductions in pay would force impossible choices between maintaining adequate housing or maintaining adequate nutrition for our members and their families.

During this time of crisis, mutual aid is a form of organizing. One of our members helped create and distribute care packs to neighbors with masks, gloves, tenants rights pamphlets and Zoom call details for weekly tenants associations meetings. Several of our statewide unions have formed housing committees and are taking action by calling legislators to demand rent and mortgage cancellation throughout the crisis. We are meeting regularly and sharing resources on eviction moratoriums and renters’ rights.

California’s public universities are essential to the health of our communities and to the economic recovery of our state. As part of the statewide housing rights movement, we recognize that the University of California, as the largest public employer in the state, has enormous power to limit the harm of future layoffs and help ensure we remain housed. 

Mass layoffs in the middle of the most severe pandemic and economic recession of the last century would surely leave UC workers and their families unable to pay rent in some of the most unaffordable housing markets in the country. We have a responsibility to each other, especially now, and the president of the UC and UC Regents have a responsibility to the thousands of workers who ensure the university continues to run.

The following organizations have worked to draft this letter to the editor: AFSCME 3299, Committee of Interns and Residents, California Nurses Association, Teamsters Local 2010, UAW 2865, UAW 5810, UC-AFT, and UPTE-CWA 9119.