U.C. Workers Strike on All 10 Campuses

Date: November 19, 2022
Type: AFA Article

By Soumya Karlamangla, New York Times

In what organizers are calling the largest strike in the history of U.S. higher education, tens of thousands of academic workers across the University of California system walked off the job on Monday to call for higher wages and better benefits.

The walkouts involve nearly 48,000 teaching assistants, researchers and other employees across the system’s 10 campuses. The labor action could become a turning point for graduate student workers nationwide, upon which America’s universities have long relied for grading exams and staffing labs for relatively little pay. And it tracks that California serves as the setting for this moment.

California is a largely pro-labor state, and the cost of living here is exceptionally high, making it particularly difficult for graduate students to make ends meet. The University of California system in particular often draws international attention, with U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. regularly ranking as among the nation’s best public universities.

“U.C.L.A. is always touting itself as one of the best public institutions in the world, and we’re really the backbone of the institution,” Jamie Mondello, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in psychology, told me. “But many of us don’t have a livable wage.”

Mondello, 27, picketed on Monday with hundreds of other workers stationed outside several buildings on U.C.L.A.’s sprawling campus. The students and employees involved in the walkout are represented by the United Automobile Workers. While Mondello and I spoke, protesters nearby chanted: “U.C., U.C., you can’t hide! We can see your greedy side!”

Enrique Olivares Pesante, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in English who was protesting in front of the school’s film building, said he made $2,500 per month before taxes, and paid more than half of that in rent for his graduate housing. Most teaching assistants make far less, he said, adding, “It came to this because it was untenable.”

Olivares Pesante said that he felt “a little bit sad” to not be teaching on Monday, but that his undergraduate students had been sympathetic. “This is going to go on as long as it takes for the university to give us our demands,” he said. As of Monday night, it appeared the strike would continue on Tuesday.

In recent years, efforts to increase pay and improve working conditions for graduate students have increasingly gained traction. The U.C. strike demonstrates the growing activism of graduate students in the face of uncertain career prospects and shaky economic conditions, said Paula Voos, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

Even outside of academia, as public support for organized labor has reached a 50-year high, unions have used their bargaining power this year to make inroads at high-profile companies such as Amazon and Starbucks.

However, Voos said, the oversupply of graduate students, especially in the humanities, puts universities in a position of strength in labor negotiations. “The students are vulnerable because they need recommendations from professors, they’re afraid for their future, the academic labor market is not very good right now,” she said.

Conversely, the bleak prospects in academia may be contributing to graduate students’ determination to secure better working conditions now, Voos said. “Sacrificing now for tomorrow may not be such a great idea,” she said.

At U.C. Berkeley on Monday, Jack Schrott, a graduate student in the physics department, said he hoped successful negotiations would lead to improved conditions for academic workers across the country.

“The U.C. is an enormous producer of academic research and sets an example for the types of wages that academic workers earn,” Schrott, 26, said. “It won’t be possible for us to support research at our universities if this industry doesn’t elevate the wages of its workers.”

In a statement, the university system said that it recognized the workers’ “important and highly valued contributions” to its teaching and research mission and that it had provided “fair responses” on issues including pay, housing and a “respectful work environment.”

On Monday afternoon, the university system said it had proposed that a neutral, third-party mediator be brought into the negotiations, adding that under its current proposals, wages for U.C. academic employees “would be among the top of the pay scale” for public research universities, and “more comparable to private universities” such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California.

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