Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Statement on Benefits Decentralization Plan

From the email:
The Berkeley Unit of UAW 2865 has recently learned of a draft, campus-wide Benefits Decentralization plan, which has been presented by the Budget Office as follows:

With this change, the Campus Budget Office will no longer process monthly transactions reimbursing campus departments for the actual cost of academic and staff benefits, including graduate student fee remission expense. Instead, departments will receive an allocation of central funding for this expense. The campus will, simultaneously with the decentralization of expense, establish permanent base budgets for units fully offsetting the initial cost and, assuming incremental funds are available, expects to provide annual budget adjustments to departments in response to changes in benefits costs. [emphasis added]

Among the main reasons for this change, the Budget Office mentions funding reductions from UCOP, and a desire to increase budgetary flexibility at the department level. While certain important details of the Benefits Decentralization plan remain undisclosed, based on the draft proposal circulated by the Budget Office, we feel a need to express strenuous opposition to this plan, and to make plain our intention to block this proposed reform.

In their draft proposal, the Budget Office indicates that, “assuming incremental funds are available,” they plan to give departments the money necessary to pay for any increases in graduate student and staff benefits. And yet, the very reasons they provide for pursuing this policy suggest that they have no such intention.
First, the Budget Office notes that this proposal comes in response to funding reductions from UCOP, suggesting that they expect the decentralization of benefits to reduce or slow the growth of overall, campus-level costs. We can expect that, as health insurance costs and other fees for graduate students continue to rise, the pool of money disbursed to each department will not keep up with these rising costs. Each department will then have to decide for itself how to reduce the number of staff and GSI positions in order to meet their budgetary shortfalls. For graduate student instructors, this will likely translate into fewer available GSI-ships and an intensification of workloads, as 25% appointments are converted into 50% appointments and as 50% appointments are redefined to involve more sections and/or more students. Graduate students unable to secure GSI-ships in this more competitive environment could be forced to take out more debt, and are more likely to find themselves pushed prematurely into a devastated job market.

Because these potential transformations promise to have a negative effect on GSI working conditions, we object to the University's attempt to enact this reform outside the context of collective bargaining. Given that this proposal was not agreed upon in our 2010 contract negotiation, we call on the University to abandon the Benefits Decentralization plan and thus demonstrate that they negotiate in good faith.

In addition to reducing labor costs, the Budget Office suggests that this proposal will increase budgetary flexibility at the department level. Given this claim, we are concerned that, under this proposal, any funds disbursed to departments might not be pegged to particular benefits, but instead might fall to the departments as an undifferentiated pool of money. Were this to occur, a structural antagonism would emerge within each department between staff members and graduate students: any increase in GSI-ships would likely be offset by staff layoffs and speed-ups. We stand opposed to all reforms, such as the Benefits Decentralization plan, that divide sectors of the social university by establishing zero-sum relationships between workers and students – groups that have, in recent years, forged a sense of shared struggle against budget cuts and university privatization.

We further call on members of the faculty to make clear where they stand on this proposal, which would force department chairs to choose between enforcing speed-ups, denying support to graduate students, and laying off already overburdened staff members.

Finally, we must comment on the Budget Office's cynical use of the rhetoric of decentralization and flexibility in their draft proposal. Just as campus Administrators have presented Operational Excellence – a process that, if implemented, will result in hundreds of layoffs – as an effort at increasing staff autonomy and self-management, the Budget Office has suggested that limiting the overall compensation of graduate students and staff members will give departments greater budgetary freedom. But what sort of freedom are they offering? The freedom of staff members and graduate students to work longer hours for the same pay? The freedom to spend time and resources petitioning private institutions for funding? The freedom of faculty chairs to choose which staff members to lay off, or where to cut corners? The freedom of debt and wageless life?

As members of UAW 2865 we refuse such empty freedoms, and call on all sectors of the social university to speak out and take action against Benefits Decentralization, Operational Excellence, and all other instances of university privatization, beginning March 2.

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