Striking Academic Researchers and Postdocs Reach 'Historic' Tentative Agreement With UC

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a sign that reads 'UAW On Strike, Unfair Labor Practices' is held during a strike in front of UC Berkeley's campanile tower
Academic workers strike at UC Berkeley on Nov. 16, 2022. Nearly 48,000 unionized academic workers across the University of California's 10 campuses who perform much of the teaching and research at the state's premier higher-education system walked off the job on Nov. 14, calling for better pay and benefits. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Update, 10 a.m. Tuesday: University of California academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars agreed on a tentative contract with the university system, 15 days into a massive, statewide strike, union leaders announced Tuesday morning.

The proposed five-year deal, reached after midnight, addresses workers' key demands, including significant cost-of-living wage increases — of up to $12,000 by next year — as well as paid family leave and stronger job security, according to a union press release.

Neal Sweeney, president of United Auto Workers Local 5810, which represents the two bargaining units involved, called the concessions "historic," saying they would amount to "the largest salary increase of a postdoctoral scholars' union contract that I've seen."

"These two contracts and the contracts that will come hopefully in a short number of days [for the other bargaining units] really set the standard," Sweeney said. "I think it's the start of a reconsideration of how university researchers are treated across the country."

The roughly 12,000 workers who would be covered under the agreement make up just about a quarter of the nearly 48,000 academic workers striking statewide. Those still in negotiations with UC include some 19,000 part-time graduate student instructors and teaching assistants and about 17,000 student researchers.

Sweeney said the postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers his union represents plan to remain on the picket line until the agreement is ratified — possibly by next week — and are pledging to continue striking in solidarity with the remaining 36,000 academic workers still seeking a deal.

"We're calling on the university to seriously come to the table, make serious proposals to academic student employees and student researchers who are still bargaining, and to make sure that they can reach fair agreements to recognize the contributions that our colleagues make," Sweeney said.

In a statement, UC officials called the workers "vital to UC's research activities," and said the terms of the agreement "uphold our tradition of supporting these employees with compensation and benefits packages that are among the best in the country."

For most postdoctoral scholars, the tentative agreement includes:

  • A 20%–23% salary increase (of up to $12,000) by October 2023, with the lowest-paid postdoctoral workers slated to receive a 57% bump over five years.
  • Annual increases of 3% to 7.2% for most postdoctoral workers.
  • Eight weeks of paid parental and family leave (up from the current four weeks), paid at 100%.
  • New child care subsidies starting at $2,500 annually and increasing to $2,800.
  • Longer appointments to improve job security, and stronger protections against bullying and to support workers with disabilities.
  • Transportation benefits, including a commitment for free transit passes within three years and an e-bike discount of at least 15%.

For academic researchers, the agreement includes similar enhanced job-protection and family-leave benefits, as well as an average 29% salary increase over the five-year contract.

Original story, 6 p.m. Monday:
The strike by University of California academic workers is now entering its third week, continuing what organizers have called the largest higher-education labor action in U.S. history.

With final exams and the end-of-semester grading period looming, nearly 48,000 graduate students, post-docs and researchers from across the system's 10 campuses have continued to participate in the work stoppage, which began Nov. 14. Union organizers say little progress has been made in meeting their key demands, which include significant wage increases tied to the cost of housing; transportation and child care subsidies; and guaranteed accommodations for workers with disabilities.

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"It's been 11 days now since the university bargained with us at all over the most important thing right now, which is compensation and generally the economic portions of our contract. So the university is just choosing to stall us out at the moment, and we find that unconscionable," said Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student research assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a bargaining team member for Student Researchers United, one of the four academic worker bargaining units represented by the United Auto Workers.

"It shows that they're willing to put just about everything that this university stands for at risk," he added. "The research that we do [and] the teaching that we provide are very important to the functioning of the university and, I think, to the whole state."

In an emailed statement, a representative for the university system said that there had been a pause in negotiations after Nov. 23 for the Thanksgiving break, and that talks were scheduled to resume this week. Ryan King, associate director of media relations at UC's Office of the President, emphasized that there have been more than 50 bargaining sessions with union leaders since last spring that have yielded 95 tentative agreements "on issues ranging from workplace accessibility, to respectful work environments, to nondiscrimination in employment."

However, "the union’s proposal to tie wages and pay increases to housing rents would have a large-scale and unpredictable financial impact on the University," King said in the email. He added that "the rents assessed to graduate and undergraduate students for University housing are already 20-25 percent below market rates, with some campuses providing even deeper discounts."

UAW has accused UC of unfair bargaining practices, alleging that UC has improperly withheld information about wages and stipends on some campuses — in one case for two years. Another allegation stems from UC San Francisco, where the union says the university unilaterally changed wages without bargaining. The state's Public Employment Relations Board reported that it has issued seven complaints against the university since the strike began on Nov. 14. UC officials have repeatedly denied the allegations.

UC officials have also called for a private third-party mediator to join negotiations, a move the union has so far rejected.

"Theoretically we're not opposed to anything that could help us get a deal done, but at this stage ... [when] the university is refusing to sit down and talk to us, we think that the path forward right now is open, face-to-face negotiations," said Chowdhury, noting that his team has been ready to bargain "at all times of day."

a labor strike at UCLA, with people marching and holding signs
Union academic workers and supporters march and picket at the UCLA campus amid a statewide strike by nearly 48,000 University of California unionized workers on Nov. 15, 2022. Strikers are calling for improved wages and benefits at the 10 UC public university campuses across California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As the strike drags on, a growing number of professors across the UC system have voiced support for the workers: As of Monday, around 300 faculty members have signed a solidarity pledge promising to honor the workers' picket lines by, among other actions, "withdrawing our instructional labor, including teaching classes (with or without TA’s; virtual or in-person), advising, and grading, for as long as the strike endures."

The list of signatories includes notable names such as renowned activist Angela Davis, who teaches at UC Santa Cruz, and philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, of UC Berkeley, as well as UCSF doctor and musician Rupa Marya.

Chowdhury said the striking workers have received "overwhelmingly positive" support from undergraduate students as well.

"I think undergrads know how critical we are to the mission of the university," he said. "I think they understand that the working conditions we face result in worse learning conditions for them. I've heard of classes where students have to wait three-plus hours to get some one-on-one time with a teaching assistant, to get their homework done, because the university just does not fully fund staff [or] pay enough workers enough to actually be doing those jobs."

With final exams just weeks away, the absence of academic workers will be felt even more severely, Chowdhury added.

"We love our students. We want to make sure that we have the best universities for all of us, not just for ourselves," he said. "But I think the longer the university drags this out, the more serious the impact is going to become."

Chowdhury said the ball is in the university's court. "The university could come and bargain fairly with us and settle their contracts at any time," he said. "So I'm hoping they come to their senses and do that. But if not, we're prepared to be out here for as long as it takes."

In his emailed statement, Ryan King said UC has "appropriate measures in place to ensure instructional continuity and are encouraging faculty departments and academic units to provide additional support and resources for student learning."

Campuses, he added, "will be prepared for contingencies in the event a strike impacts the conclusion of the academic term."

KQED's Matthew Green contributed additional reporting to this story.

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