Painters’ Struggle for Wages is Part of Much Larger Problems
by Darwin Bondgraham


Students, workers, and allies rallied in front of Cheadle Hall on Wednesday, March 5 demanding that UCSB’s administration intervene in a now months long labor struggle waged by a group of painters who helped build the new San Clemente housing complex. The workers, employed by a subcontracting firm known as Ryan’s Painting, have not been paid for tens of thousands of dollars in labor. Among other demands, protesters are asking UCSB administration to force Ryan’s to pay up.

For months the administration has taken a hands off approach and refused to intervene on behalf of the painters. They have claimed that they have little power over a subcontracted firm, even though it is working on a UC project. A tentative solution appears to have been reached regarding the payment of the painters, but only after much protesting by workers and allied students.

The hands off policy preferred by the administration sounds to many students like laziness, but it’s important that we identify it for what it really is: a concerted strategy on the part of managers to easily exploit workers while insulating themselves from any so-called responsibility. That UCSB’s administration is taking this route is not too shocking, it’s part of a larger transformation of higher education over the past several decades towards corporatization. The sad truth is that when it comes to issues of wages and benefits for workers, the people who run UCSB think more like corporate executives than anything else. They identify more with their fellow managers who run the construction firms in question than with the workers who have been cheated.

In fact, university administrators are more than complicit in the mistreatment of workers. They are an active part of this exploitation. As executives within the university they have done a lot to resist wage increases and benefits to campus employees, they have actively discouraged union organizing amongst workers, they purposefully utilize systems like subcontracting in order to drive down wages and limit their involvement in the most exploitative practices of companies like Ryan’s, and finally, many of our university administrators actually hold executive positions in corporations far removed from UCSB that openly pursue anti-worker strategies, such as wage slashing and threats of closing down and moving factories out of the US.

Those of you who have taken global studies or sociology courses know very well that many of the largest transnational corporations today make no real physical product, or if they do, that it is only through final assembly. Instead, companies like Nike contract out all manufacturing work, which can then be subcontracted through intricate networks, so that the final product is far removed from the companies that market it. Modern day auto companies like General Motors buy nearly all their components from subcontractors in Mexico and Asia, and only assemble the car in the US.

Subcontracting is an old system. It grew out of a realization that not all workers are equal, that workers of different races, genders, and from different geographic regions or states can be paid at the fraction of a cost of other workers. Thus racism, patriarchy and imperialism are adept tools of economic exploitation.

Some of the first sub-contracting systems were set up by owners of New York’s 19th century garment industries and created the first sweatshops. Sweatshops have transformed into global networks of subcontracting, especially the most exploitative work, such as farm labor, garment production, construction, and cleaning. In the case of UCSB painters, the subcontracting system has worked well on the behalf of the Ryan’s, ProWest, the company with the prime contract from UCSB, and this school. By subcontracting to Ryan’s, ProWest insulated itself and UCSB from the exploitative treatment dished out to the painters. UCSB’s administrators and ProWest have been able to claim no part in the painter’s mistreatment, even while they benefit from it.

It’s hard to be surprised about UCSB’s exploitative labor practices once one knows about this institution’s sordid past and present. In January, 2008 the Partnership for Working Families released their report on UC’s labor practices, Failing California’s Communities. The report states among other things that UC pays its custodial staff 27% less than the market rate, and that wages for its average staff member lag 10% behind prevailing market rates. Workers at SB City College make more than those at UCSB.

Is this just a mistake? Is it just a matter of economics in which UCSB has no free funds to spend on increased wages and better benefits? Or is there something else going on here?
I offer one set of dots to connect: Chancellor Yang is not just head of UCSB, he also sits on the board of directors of the American Axel and Manufacturing Co., and owns 5300 shares of stock in this firm. Yang has been a director of AAM since 2004. Prior to this, Chancellor Yang was a board member of several other corporations including Allied Signal and Eaton, two major global manufacturing firms.

Yang’s current company AAM, Inc. is fighting its own workers right now to force wage and benefit cuts on them. The wage cuts would reduce the average assembly line employee’s by $14. AAM’s management argues that this is necessary, otherwise they will pack up their shops and move to Mexico or Asia, where workers will produce for less. Workers at AAM have been on strike now since February. One striker told a local news station that, we are picketing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They know we’re fighting for something important, we’re fighting for all working people. The strike has slowed down work at several of General Motors largest auto plants, including those that produce the Hummer and other SUVs.

It’s not likely that Chancellor Yang is directly involved in this attempt to drain AAM’s workers, but his position on the company’s board means he’s certainly aware, and if his fellow managers succeed it’ll mean that his shares in the company will be worth much, much more.

It’s not surprising that our university treats its workers poorly, or uses subcontracting systems to drive down labor costs and allow other firms to mistreat their employees. UCSB and the wider UC system is run by men like Chancellor Yang who have financial stakes and directorial positions in corporations doing the exact same thing to working folks in the market, in places as far removed from university environs as Michigan (in the case of AAM), and Mexico.

The key thing here is to recognize the connections. The painters who have been cheated of their wages by Ryan’s are very much in the same position as those workers in Michigan at AAM’s plants who are being attacked by management. In turn, those workers at AAM are in the same overall position as workers across UC campuses who expected to make this university function, but who are underpaid and unappreciated by the administration and Regents alike. This is corporatization at work. The university is increasingly being run like a business, using exploitative business models (like subcontracting), attempting to profit off of research, increasing student fees as though students were consumers. The interests pushing this agenda of corporatization are the owners and executives of large corporations, and they are to a great extent the same men and women who are in positions of decision making in the university: the chancellors and the Regents.

Efforts to run and structure the university like a business and to carry out all the exploitative practices they use beyond the university are not in the public’s interest, but university administrators, many of whom have strong financial links to corporate America and the military, are pushing them through as a whole agenda to make universities more like corporations, more subservient to the military. This is bad news for workers and students alike.