This week AFSCME 3299 is on strike against the University of California. You bet I’m glad I don’t work there anymore!

For one thing, it frees me up to say things I wouldn’t have said while employed by UC Berkeley. Not just to management, but to the unions. Hey 3299, meet me at Camera 3!

[Swivels chair left, clears throat.]

Hi there. Before anything else, let me present my bona fides. I’m strongly pro-union. My grandfather was an organizer for the garment workers. When I started at UC Berkeley in 1994, I gladly became a dues-paying member of CUE. When I was promoted to administrative specialist, I joined UPTE, even though it couldn’t bargain on behalf of admins. For much of this stretch I was also a member of the National Writers Union. So please take the following as advice from a friend.

The key to successful persuasion is knowing your audience. I often sense that unions seeking to persuade UC leadership have no idea who they’re talking to. They seem to think the university’s leaders are like Mr. Burns and his sycophants on The Simpsons.

I had a chance to observe UC leadership up close for several years, and here’s what I learned: they’re scholars, not robber barons.

This matters. The mission of a corporation is to make a profit. Robber barons accomplish that by maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. Because wages and benefits are costs, there will always be downward pressure on them in the private sector.

The mission of the University of California is education, research, and public service. Academics understand that achieving these goals requires highly competent staff, and they would gladly pay higher salaries because that makes it easier to attract the best candidate for each job.

But when it comes to wage increases, they’re constrained by the budget. Demanding more money when there isn’t any puts them in a foul mood.

It might be more persuasive to argue for a different distribution of salary increases.

When UC grants raises, they almost always come as a percentage of salary. It may seem fair to give every employee a three percent raise, but it exacerbates economic inequality. Say one employee makes $50,000 and another makes $100,000. The difference between them is $50,000. After they both get a three percent raise, the first employee is making $51,500 and the second is making $103,000 — the difference between them grows to $51,500. Continue that for several years and . . . well, it doesn’t take a math prodigy to see how that drives economic inequality.

What if we define fairness differently? What if we say “fair” means every full-time employee, regardless of current salary, gets, say, a $2,000 raise? Percentage-wise, that’s a higher increase for lower-wage employees, and it keeps the wage gap even.

No doubt the numbers would have to be tweaked to account for UC’s payroll complexities, but after years of a definition of fairness that favors higher-wage workers, it seems fair — and consistent with institutional values — to define fairness in a way that favors lower-wage workers for a change.

Would leadership be persuaded? I don’t know. I never talked to them about this — it wasn’t my area. But I’m guessing they would listen to such a proposal more closely than they would the chants of striking workers.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.