Merced County Times Newspaper
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Perez: Working-class people deserve seat at leadership table

Bertha Perez
Bertha Perez

Editor’s Note: Bertha Perez is running for the District 3 seat on the Merced City Council in the Nov. 3 election. She is facing candidate Allen Brooks. District 3 encompasses central Merced, bordered in the north by the Santa Fe railroad tracks, Kelly Avenue to the east, down south to Highway 99 and west to Cooper Avenue with a small pocket extending out to encompass the neighborhoods branching off of McSwain road. 

Bertha Perez is a hard-working grandmother and fourth-generation bilingual American who has experienced a newfound feeling of individual and group power through a local fight for worker’s rights.

The 53-year-old Merced resident was featured in a 2018 Los Angeles Times article by columnist Robin Abcarian. It was titled: “The education of Bertha Perez: How a UC Merced custodian’s disenchantment led to a political awakening.”

The column described Perez’ life journey, after raising three children, to a job at UC Merced cleaning buildings during graveyard shifts for $31,000 a year. At the time, she said it was common for two custodians to be tasked with cleaning a 101,000-square-foot building in a single night — about 30,000 more square feet than they are contractually obligated to clean.

The columnist noted: “Normally, you think of a university as a place where students experience a political awakening. It happens to custodians, too.”

Today, Perez continues to be employed by UC Merced. She tells the Times: “Shortly after starting this job, I began getting involved in my union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299. I was elected by my co-workers and union siblings to serve on the negotiation team that won a new contract worth over a $1 billion for 27,000 service workers in the UC system. …

“Doing my part to help out my fellow workers has been an important experience in my life, it’s when I realized that working class people like myself can achieve so much if we work together for the common good.”

Perez says her experience as a union leader inspired her to run for the District 3 seat on the Merced City Council.

“I learned how to bring people with different opinions and desires together,” she says. “I realized that regular working class people like myself need to take action and get involved if we want a city council that reflects the needs and desires of every resident. Fighting for the common good has been my calling as a union member, and now I want to fight for the common good of every resident in District 3.

The candidate’s platform is focused on housing, jobs and a “people’s budget.”

“We need to make sure jobs, like at the Merced Gateway Retail Center, are filled locally,” she points out. “It’s not enough for a developer to build something new. Every step of the process should have a public and local benefit. This project is meant to generate millions in revenue and create 2,700 jobs, it’s only right that we push to fill those jobs, from construction to retail, with local hiring. …

She continues: “We must also be prepared for the fallout of COVID-19. Cities and Counties will be facing very important budget issues in the years to come. We need someone with a life experience that matches the majority of Merced to keep an eye on how our tax dollars are spent. We will have to protect social and housing programs that keep kids out of trouble and on the right path. We must also protect city jobs from public works to healthcare.

Perez says Merced needs a housing plan to match the needs of residents.

“That means expanding affordable housing,” she says, “not redeveloping low-cost units into apartments that raise the cost of housing. Our goal should be to keep communities and neighborhoods together and in place, which means we will need a city council unafraid to push back and require more public good from developers.

Merced has generally just followed along with whatever the minimum state requirements are, according to Perez. “Part of why I am running is that oftentimes local politicians aren’t being responsive to the needs of residents. We must also grapple with the fact that Merced has long been a “good old boys” network at the top. We need leadership that’s not connected to the same group of people or real estate developers, leadership that knows what it’s like to have worked hard every day to keep the lights on, to keep food on the table, and to raise a family at the same time.”

There have been positive developments as well, the candidate says, most notably the move in recent years to focus on “housing first” programs to begin to alleviate homelessness.

“We should strengthen and grow such programs if we are serious about addressing the housing and homelessness crisis,” she says.

If elected, Perez plans to work with, and listen to, everyone in District 3.

“We have to actually develop our workforce, like through local hiring requirements and strengthening education/apprenticeship programs that will lead to fulfilling careers. We also have to be prepared to keep everyone in housing they can afford.”

The candidate says she continues every day to care for her grandchildren, cook for her family and clean rooms at UC Merced.

Says Perez, “A vote for me is a vote for hard-working Mercedians. I clock in, work hard, clock out, and care for my family just like you.”

Family ties

Bertha Perez has been married for 36 years. She has three children: Marcos III, 36; Steven, 35; and Erika, 26; along with six grandchildren and one on the way.

Her parents hail from Imperial Valley. Her father is a retired diesel mechanic, and her mother passed away when she was 15.

Perez graduated from Brawley Union High School in Brawley back in 1985. She learned about Merced through her husband.

“My husband went to work with his mother as a young child, following the fruit harvesting season, and living in camps in Planada,” she says. “We decided to try something new, and his past experiences here led us to settle in Merced 19 years ago.”

She has attended Merced College for nursing, and even taken some online courses recently, but she says the demands of running a household and providing for her family has meant more focus on work.

AFSCME 3299 and the Northern Valley Labor Federation has endorsed her City Council campaign.

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