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48,000 UC Academic Workers Continue Massive Statewide Strike, Demanding Living Wage

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A large crowd of people stand outside on a college campus holding signs that say 'UAW on Strike Unfair Labor Practice.'
Hundreds of staff members at UC Berkeley demonstrate on Monday morning, the first day of a massive strike among some 48,000 academic workers across all 10 University of California campuses. (Jean Zamora/UC Berkeley)

Update, 4 p.m. Wednesday: On the third day of a massive open-ended strike among tens of thousands of University of California academic employees, a UC senior leader warned that certain union demands were financially unfeasible for the university to consider.

In a letter to the system’s 10 chancellors (PDF), released Wednesday, UC Provost Michael T. Brown said, “I respect their choice” to strike, and acknowledged the “significant challenge” that California’s soaring housing costs create for students and employees.

But he said that the union demand to tie compensation to housing costs “could have overwhelming financial impacts on the University.”

“One review of the Union’s proposal predicts an annual unfunded obligation of at least several hundred million dollars, with inflationary pressure and no cap,” he said.

Brown also pushed back against the demand to waive out-of-state tuition for international scholars.

“If we were to provide remission of out-of state supplemental tuition, non-California student employees would in effect receive a larger compensation package than California resident student employees for doing the same work,” he said.

Brown noted that the university is offering academic workers multiyear pay raises — including up to 10% increases within the first year.

But that is far short of the 100% increases the union is pushing for. Organizers argue their demands are essential for academic workers to earn a living wage, and would total no more than 3% of UC’s entire $44 billion budget.

“It’s the money that we need to be able to address the cost of living and housing in California,” said Neal Sweeney, president of United Auto Workers Local 5810, which represents postdoctoral instructors.

Academic workers have long been underpaid and undervalued, he added, noting that “our work brings in about $5 billion in research grants each year.”

On Wednesday, the California Labor Federation, which sanctioned the strike, called on guest speakers and elected officials to cancel scheduled events at UC campuses until a fair agreement is reached. But organizers stopped short of asking students to boycott classes.

Original post, 1 p.m. Monday: Nearly 48,000 University of California academic workers across the 10-campus system walked off the job Monday, demanding better pay and benefits in what organizers are calling the largest strike in the history of U.S. higher education.

The strike by researchers, postdoctoral scholars, tutors, teaching assistants and graders – including scores of workers at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – threatens to disrupt instruction across the university system, just weeks ahead of final exams.

At campuses across the state, picket lines went up at 8 a.m., with workers — represented by various local chapters of the United Auto Workers — insisting they need significant pay raises to afford to live in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Berkeley, where housing and other living costs have soared.

“Extremely low compensation — many workers make less than $24,000 a year — is leaving workers severely rent-burdened and struggling to remain in academia,” Rafael Jaime, president of United Auto Workers 2865, which represents some 19,000 academic workers involved in the strike, said earlier this month. “UC’s failure to support a diverse workforce undermines the quality of research and education across the system.”

Contract talks produced “good progress” on Monday, but UC negotiators subsequently informed the union that they wouldn’t resume bargaining until Wednesday, according to Jaime.

“Workers are really frustrated by the slow process so far,” he said while demonstrating at UCLA, where he’s a teaching assistant. “They’re willing to be out here for as long as it takes.”

Demonstrators are demanding a minimum annual salary of $54,000 for graduate workers and $70,000 for postdoctoral workers, and a 14% pay bump for academic researchers. The union is also pushing UC to offer child-care subsidies, better health care for dependents, public-transit passes, better accessibility for workers with disabilities and lower tuition costs for international scholars.

Pê Feijó, a graduate student instructor in UC Berkeley’s Rhetoric Department, was among the throng of academic workers who walked off the job Monday morning. Feijó said about 75% of the $26,000 a year they earn goes toward rent.

“It’s not just and not fair. It’s completely absurd,” Feijó said. “The amount of stress and pressure that we are under is ridiculous.”

Feijo also has to pay thousands of dollars each year in nonresident fees, an extra burden that union negotiators are seeking to reduce.

A woman with a baby strapped to her chest holds a sign that says: 'Our working conditions = their learning conditions"
Anaya Hall, a graduate student instructor at UC Berkeley, brought her baby Mazie to the picket line on the west side of campus Monday. (Jean Zamora/UC Berkeley)

“We are not just here in a symbolic demonstration,” Feijó said. “We are really intended on disrupting this university until the administration is forced to recognize how much they depend on us and our labor.”

The strike comes amid a surge of labor actions and union organizing this year, both in California and across the country, as demand for workers in multiple industries has spiked. In recent months, the Bay Area has been a hotbed of labor activism, particularly among nurses and other health care workers.

In a statement, UC officials said they had entered the talks with a “genuine willingness to compromise,” adding that “many tentative agreements” on issues such as health and safety had been reached.

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“UC’s primary goal in these negotiations is multiyear agreements that recognize these employees’ important and highly valued contributions to UC’s teaching and research mission with fair pay, quality health and family-friendly benefits, and a supportive and respectful work environment,” the statement said.

UC also said it had offered multiyear wage increases, ranging from 4% to 26%, depending on the bargaining unit.

But Neal Sweeney, president of UAW 5810, which represents more than 11,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, said negotiations had dragged on for more than a year, and accused UC officials of failing to bargain in good faith.

“UC has left us no choice but to escalate our campaigns,” he said, earlier this month. “Rather than coming to fair agreements, the university has engaged in a wide variety of unlawful tactics. The UAW locals at UC have been forced to file more than 20 unfair labor practices to address their refusal to provide the information we need to bargain unilateral changes to our working conditions and more.”

Last week, a group of 33 state lawmakers sent a letter in support of the academic workers, urging UC President Michael Drake “to avert strikes by ceasing to commit unfair labor practices.”

“The UC is one of the top public university systems and research institutions in the world, in no small part because of its ability to attract the most talented scholars from a wide array of backgrounds,” the letter reads. “But the UC system cannot live up to its mission and reputation if its own employees do not feel respected.”

UC officials told students they should plan to continue attending their classes, but warned that some could be canceled depending on how many people participated in the strike.

“Department chairs and faculty will work together to ensure the least amount of disruption to the delivery of instruction and grading, as well as research,” UC Berkeley wrote in an email to its students.

People holding signs demonstrate on a sidewalk, near a UCSF bus.
Workers demonstrate at the UCSF Mission Bay campus on Nov. 15, 2022, the second day of an open-ended strike among nearly 48,000 academic employees across all 10 University of California campuses. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Demonstrators were out in force Monday at UC’s 10 campuses across the state, which are attended by some 300,000 students. On some campuses, students joined in solidarity.

Lex Von Klark, a 22-year-old political science student at UCLA, was among several hundred people on campus holding signs and participating in the picket line.

“I am out here primarily because these people are my teachers, and their working conditions are my learning conditions,” he said. “Basically, if my teachers are getting paid less than a living wage and have to work multiple jobs, it makes it hard for me to get a high-end education.”

Even at UC Merced, the system’s newest campus, which is located in one of California’s most affordable regions, academic workers on the picket line said inflation and the rising costs of rent make it tough to get by on their low salaries.

“It used to be very cheap to rent apartments here, and now it’s not that way anymore,” said Albert Dibenedetto, a graduate student in the school’s physics department, who makes just over $30,000 as teaching assistant.

Back at UC Berkeley, Mariagrazia De Luca, a doctoral student in the Italian Studies program, makes only slightly more than that, despite living in one of the most expensive parts of the state. Her $34,000 salary, she said, is not nearly enough to cover her rent and the rising child care expenses she has to pay for her only child.

“I would love to have a second one, but I’m a little bit scared and concerned about the financial burden, so we stick with one,” she said.

This story includes reporting from The Associated Press, KQED’s Julia McEvoy and KVPR’s Esther Quintanilla.



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