Saturday marks day six of what labor leaders are calling the largest strike in the history of U.S. higher education. Nearly 48,000 University of California academic workers — including graduate students, post-docs and researchers across the university's 10 campuses — walked off the job Nov. 14 to demand better pay and benefits and an end to what they describe as unfair negotiating tactics by the UC. The strike has disrupted instruction across the university system, just weeks ahead of final exams.
University leaders say they have bargained in good faith and that they have made generous offers. On Wednesday afternoon, one UC senior leader also warned that certain union demands were financially unfeasible for the university to consider.
Why are academic workers striking?
The majority of UC graduate students spend more than a third of their income on rent, according to a union survey, with an average income of around $24,000 a year — hardly enough to make ends meet in cities like Berkeley, Los Angeles or San Diego.
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, which they say would reflect the cost-of-living increase in the state. 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.
Neal Sweeney, a postdoctoral scholar in molecular biology at UC Santa Cruz, is the president of UAW 5810, the union that represents postdocs and academic researchers. But up until taking his union position, said Sweeney, he and his family were struggling to get by while he was working between 50 and 60 hours each week.
"The salary was so low that every month I really had to think about if I would make it through that month," Sweeney told KQED Forum. "Just getting coffee — I had to think about every single expense. I had two small children. My partner was a full-time student. We lived in campus family housing, and we went to the campus food bank every month due to make sure we had food."
Meanwhile, he notes, "My research was bringing in millions of dollars in funding for the university."
Among teaching assistants and other academic student employees — who are represented by a different local, UAW 2865 — it's not uncommon to hear stories of graduate students resorting to three or more jobs, or even experiencing homelessness, said Sweeney, pointing to a UCLA teaching assistant, Bernard Rumley, who lived out of his car for the 2018-19 academic year. A doctoral student at UC Riverside, Jacob Kemner, supplements his $28,000 annual salary with twice-weekly blood plasma donations for an extra $200.
Demonstrators are also protesting what they've called unfair bargaining tactics by the university over the course of negotiations, which began in the spring of 2021. UAW has filed at least 25 unfair labor practice claims against the university with California's Public Employment Relations Board, and the board has issued complaints in six cases, according to The Los Angeles Times. The university has denied these allegations.
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."
Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations for UC's Office of the President, echoed that on KQED Forum.
"We are in negotiations and we will proceed as we have for the last year in good faith. [But] we talk about housing and tying wages to rental rates, that is very dangerous," she said. "That could have an overwhelming financial impact on the university ... as you know, the UC does not control rental rates for non-UC housing, and the UC can't predict nor responsibly budget for such subsidies."
"Tying wages to rental rates could have the unintended consequence of subsidizing private landlords and companies and further exacerbating rental costs for other Californians," she said. "So we're mindful of all these factors as we have continued to propose fair wage increases for these employees."
Silas also emphasized that many teaching assistants are working part-time, at 20 hours per week.
In his letter, Brown 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's offer of multiyear pay raises includes up to 10% increases within the first year of employment.
But those raises fall far short of the 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 Sweeney.
How have undergraduate students been affected?
UC officials have told students they should plan to continue attending their classes, but warned that some could be canceled depending on how many people participate 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.
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 on Monday, the first day of the strike.
"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."
At UC Davis, some undergraduates appeared to have mixed feelings about the strike, according to EdSource, but many were supportive.
Solan Castro, a first-year undergraduate studying public health and molecular cell biology, joined the picket line on Wednesday instead of attending class. He said that even with finals coming up, he’s not worried about how the strike might affect his grades. “A lot of professors have opened up more office hours, also in solidarity with the graduate student instructors,” he said, noting that he believes graduate student teaching assistants are often key to undergraduates’ success.
Is this part of a wider trend?
The UC academic workers' strike comes on the heels of a surge of high-profile 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.
But according to John Logan, director of the Labor and Employment Studies department at San Francisco State University, it's part of a groundswell of organizing in education as well. "I think it's important to understand that this is part of a national trend that's been happening for a number of decades now," Logan told KQED Forum, noting that unionization began at Berkeley in the 1980s, but the union only began bargaining in 2000.
Under the Obama administration, the National Labor Relations Board in 2016 allowed private university graduate students to organize as well, leading to unions in recent years at Harvard, M.I.T., Columbia, New York University, Brown University, Georgetown, the University of Chicago and Boston University, he said.
"So we're now talking about upwards of 100,000 unionized graduate students, employees throughout the country. And the issues, quite frankly, are similar," said Logan. "I think they're more severe in California because of the astronomical living costs and particularly the housing costs ... and so [there's a] huge gulf that exists between what the university is offering in terms of pay and other benefits and what the graduate students say is necessary for absolute basic quality of life and livable wage."
"If over 90% of graduate student employees are paying more than 30% of their income on housing costs, it's simply not sustainable," he said.
What happens next?
Negotiations are expected to continue between the UC and the union over the coming week. SFSU's Logan said he expects the university to ultimately revise their offer in the student workers' favor.
"I think there's going to be tremendous pressure from a whole variety of quarters on university administration to get serious and to resume bargaining in good faith and to come to an agreement that's acceptable to both parties," he said. "They're very far apart at the moment, but they cannot operate without the labor of these people, and I don't think they can win this dispute. I think the graduate student workers will get a significant part of what they're asking for."
KQED's Emma Silvers and Matthew Green contributed to this report.
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