Friday, September 22, 2023

Thousands of University of California teaching assistants, academic workers go on strike



In the largest work stoppage of the year, thousands of academic workers at the University of California system went on strike Monday over the university system’s bargaining practices with their union, which is trying to secure higher wages.

Some 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, researchers and graders on the front lines of teaching and research at California’s prestigious public university system are seeking a minimum annual salary of $54,000 and increased child-care benefits, saying they do not earn enough to live in the state. They also accuse the university of not bargaining in good faith with their union, the United Auto Workers.

“At every turn, the university has sought to act unlawfully at the bargaining table, which is preventing us from reaching an agreement,” said Neal Sweeney, the president of UAW Local 5810, which represents more than 11,000 UC postdocs and academic researchers.

The University of California strike is also the largest academic strike in higher education in U.S. history, according to the UAW.

The bargaining units that represent UC academic workers said university leadership has illegally made changes to pay and transit benefits without consulting the union. They also alleged that the university has refused to provide necessary information about who is in the bargaining unit and has otherwise obstructed the bargaining process. Negotiations have been underway for more than a year.

University officials denied allegations that their negotiators have broken the law during bargaining. They said they had made good-faith efforts to bargain as shown by a number of tentative agreements the parties have already reached.

Ryan King, a spokesperson for the UC system, said school administrators have listened to the unions’ priorities, provided fair responses and shown “a genuine willingness to compromise.”

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

The strike threatens to disrupt classes, research and grading ahead of final exams at the UC system’s 10 campuses. Students would have to rely solely on professors for grades, teaching and other one-on-one instruction.

University administrators and the union continued to meet over the weekend through Sunday evening, with some progress toward a deal, but union officials said they remained far apart on the core issue of wages.

In the days leading up to the strike, some tenured UC professors said they had the right to cancel classes during the work stoppage and spoke out in solidarity with academic workers.

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The strike arrives amid a wave of increased labor activity in the United States, buoyed by pandemic working conditions and a record-hot labor market that has afforded workers more leverage to negotiate for improvements in pay and schedules. Workers have scored historic union victories at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple this year. Minnesota recently faced the largest private-sector strike in the nursing industry in U.S. history.

The United Auto Workers is asking UC leadership for a minimum salary of $54,000 for all graduate students and a minimum salary of $70,000 for all postdocs, as well as annual cost-of-living adjustments in contract negotiations. Many graduate students earn in the low $20,000 a year, and postdocs earn a minimum of $55,631. The union has also requested $2,000 a month in child-care reimbursements, expanded paid parental leave and public transit passes for its members.

“We’re trying to make transformational changes to our working conditions that will in turn impact the quality of research and education,” said Sweeney, the union leader. “The issues we face are similar to other workers in this country. We’re inspired by other struggles at Starbucks and Amazon, and we hope our struggle will be inspiring to others as well.”

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The university system has offered pay increases ranging from 4 percent to 7 percent in the first year of the contract, with smaller subsequent raises. Workers have rejected those offers, saying they are too low. For example, many teaching assistants would earn less than $30,000 a year with the university’s proposal.

University negotiators have also offered child-care stipends of between $2,500 and $4,050 a year and some transit subsidies. Some workers receive $3,300 in child-care subsidies a year. Workers have said the proposed annual stipend would barely cover a month of child care. Still, the union said, bigger pay increases are paramount to winning a contract that improves the quality of life for their members.

University leadership maintains that “providing fair and competitive pay to all employees is a UC priority and essential to ensuring the excellence of our workforce and the quality of our service to students and the public,” UC administrators said in a press release.

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The increased militancy around cost-of-living demands at the UC system follows a wave of unauthorized “wildcat” strikes that broke out at UC Santa Cruz and spread across a number of UC campuses in 2021. Workers demanded cost-of-living stipends to account for the soaring price of housing in the state. Following the strikes, UC Santa Cruz agreed to increase housing stipends for teaching assistants.

The union said the vast majority of UC graduate students spend more than a third of their income on rent. For example, teaching assistants at UCLA earn an average of $24,000 a year, the union said. The median annual rent in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metro area is more than $36,000 a year, according to

UC teaching assistants described commuting hours away for affordable housing, donating blood plasma to make ends meet and paying more than half their income in rent.

Jacob Kemner, a doctorate student in environmental studies at UC Riverside, makes roughly $28,000 a year and donates blood plasma twice a week for roughly $200 in extra income.

“I’m making ends meet by selling plasma,” Kemner said. “I am less able to be effective in my job as a result of this because I spend six to 10 hours going to and from the plasma donation center. If I wasn’t spending time on that, I could be lesson planning and grading.”

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Aya Konisha, a teaching assistant and second-year PhD student in the sociology department at UCLA, said she cannot afford to live near campus and has to commute an hour on public transit to get to school.

“My salary is definitely not enough to make ends meet,” said Konisha, whose rent takes up half her monthly income of $2,400. “I make all of my food at home. I don’t make any expensive purchases at all and I often skip meals when I have to teach. UCLA is supposed to be the number one public university in the United States … but it’s extremely inequitable.”

The United Auto Workers has filed 28 unfair labor practices against the UC system this year for failure to bargain in good faith. The state of California is investigating the charges, and it has issued two complaints against the UC system.

UC officials denied these allegations, and they said that despite these claims, the system “remains committed to continuing its good-faith efforts to reach agreements with UAW as quickly as possible.”

In August 2021, UAW, which has made inroads in higher education, gained 17,000 student researchers, in the largest union victory of that year.

Earlier this month, UAW announced that 97 percent of more than 36,000 workers who voted across the UC system had authorized an unfair labor practice strike.

Ahead of the strike, 36 California lawmakers sent letters to UC President Michael Drake, urging him to avert the strike by “ceasing to commit unfair labor practices.”

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