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A degree of change for UC workers

By Jai Li Feb. 15, 2023

On Nov. 14, 2022, 48,000 UC graduate student researchers and faculty members collectively walked off their jobs and took to the streets, shouting and hoisting picket signs in a battle for increased wages, child-care subsidies, enhanced healthcare coverage and lower tuition for international students. The strike lasted until Dec. 23, 2022, becoming the biggest labor strike of the year and the largest higher-education strike in U.S. history. Represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union, the striking students and faculty


Inseo Kim Art

ratified two contracts for two-and-a-half years, formally ending the strike and significantly improving wages and working conditions.


Despite their historical ties to the automotive industry, UAW now consists of about 25% academic workers. Those participating in the strike were organized into three different UAW unions: SRU-UAW represented student researchers; UAW 2865 represented graduate tutors, teaching assistants and readers; and UAW 5810 represented postdoctoral and academic researchers.


According to UAW, the contracts will increase wages by 20% to 80% across the board, standardizing pay across campuses and raising starting salaries to nearly $35,000 from the previous base of $24,000 by Oct. 1, 2024. Strikers say that the wage hikes will significantly offset rising costs of housing and healthcare. The contracts also enhance benefits for employees with children, add new protections against harassment and discrimination and provide new paid leaves. It is unclear how the UC system will afford these wage increases, however, as the UC Office of the President estimates that the raises will increase costs by more than $570 million while the contracts are in effect.


Reactions to the deal were mixed and the results left many workers disappointed. Some were unhappy that the union gave up on demands to tie wage gains to housing costs: Surveys by UAW found that 92% of graduate workers and 61% of postdoctoral scholars are rent-burdened, meaning that they spend over 30% of their salary on rent alone.


UAW negotiators originally requested a five-year housing guarantee for graduate students and housing stipends until the UC built affordable homes for them, but this was quickly struck down. Other demonstrators criticized the UC for only agreeing to subsidize $1,400 for child care per quarter, falling short of union leaders’ goals of $6,000 per quarter. Around 65% of the three UAW unions’ members backed the final agreements; however, 21 of the 40 UAW leaders voted against the contracts and led a campaign imploring others to do the same, pointing out that they should leverage their power by continuing the strike.


“In the department I teach in, there have been persistent funding deficits, making it difficult for students to enroll in courses and creating a high workload for teaching assistants. I participated in the strike to emphasize the pressing nature of these issues. My department was granted a negotiation process for increasing staffing sizes for classes, and while I wish there was a concrete staff increase guarantee, negotiation rights are a great first step” UC Berkeley Senior Allison Li said.

However, the workers’ victory will come with a significant pitfall: The UC is demanding that strikers repay the money they earned while on strike, citing state and federal guidelines that forbid universities from paying employees who don’t work. UAW countered with an unfair labor practice charge against the UC on Jan. 26, claiming that the university system is violating state labor laws by docking pay without first consulting workers on how much money they plan to reclaim.


“Though I sympathize with the workers’ cause, it does not make sense for them to be paid for the time they were on strike because they earn their paycheck from the work they do. Moreover, the strike negatively impacted the student body,” Junior Kavya Desai said.


The strike stymied classes, lectures and grading just before midterms and final exams—the UC heavily relies on graduate workers to teach and conduct research. Several professors canceled classes and final exams in solidarity with the strikers, and over 200 faculty members pledged to withhold final grades until the strike ended. Several students skipped classes altogether and joined the picket line in support of the strikers.


“Although the UC strikes had an adverse effect on classes, it was necessary in order to achieve livable wages. Without such drastic action, it is unlikely that the graduate students would have attracted the attention and leverage needed to achieve their new contracts,” Sophomore Ameya Kiwalkar said.

The UC strike has caught the national eye due to its massive scale and effect on one of the most prestigious university systems in the US. Fueling the growing wildfire of unionization in universities across the nation, the strike’s ripples are being felt at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of New Jersey, where stipends for graduate research students are increasing at unprecedented levels.

 

About the Contributors

Jay Li

Writer


Jay Li is a sophomore at Leland and a writer for The Charger Account. In his free time, he enjoys reading and sleeping.













Inseo Kim

Artist


Inseo Kim is a junior who is currently working as an artist and a page editor for Feature World. In her free time, Inseo enjoys doodling and crocheting. She also has a mildly impressive collection of stickers that continues to grow but is rarely used.

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