Nearly 50,000 academic workers at the University of California launched a historic strike on November 14 after contract negotiations with their employer failed. Postdoctoral scholars, researchers, trainees, fellows, graduate student instructors, readers, and tutors, who are from 10 UC campuses across the state and are unionized with United Auto Workers, walked out of their jobs.
Such workers are not traditionally associated with militant labor actions, as intellectual work has historically been well-compensated in the United States. But, as universities have increasingly adopted corporate models of operation, the same sort of delineation in pay seen in other industries has taken hold in academia, with administrative executives earning top dollar while rank-and-file workers have seen their wages shrink relative to inflation.
At the top of workers’ list of demands is better pay, one that is tied to the cost of living, and especially the cost of housing.
“What the UC is proposing in terms of… small percent increases in annual salary, essentially that results in a net loss” to workers, says Joyce Chan, a postdoctoral scholar in neurosciences at UC San Diego. Chan, who serves on the bargaining team for UAW 5810, is referring to the fact that California is one of the most expensive states to live in. She says, “our proposals are not only realistic, but we feel they are necessary.”
The university’s bargaining position can be boiled down to an expectation that its core academic workers simply have to accept a life of hardship. UC Provost Michael Brown, in a letter responding to the union’s demand, wrote, “Tying compensation directly to housing costs… could have overwhelming financial impacts on the University.”
But Chan counters that “30 to 80 percent of our income goes toward making rent alone.” Indeed, Brown did not dispute the fact that rent consumes too much of a graduate student’s paycheck. He only countered that it would be too hard for the university to do anything about it. In other words, if workers cannot afford to live, that’s their problem.
According to FairUCNow.org, a website set up by the UAW unions involved in the UC contract negotiations, academic workers “do the majority of teaching and research at UC, yet UC is refusing to offer us a fair share of the record-setting grant and state funding that our labor brings in.”
Chan points out that “our working conditions are our student’s learning conditions”—a logic familiar to one adopted by unionized school teachers in K-12 public schools. “If the UC meets our demands for fair compensation, we would be far more able to focus on the teaching, on the research, on everything that makes the University of California great,” she adds.
Brittany Drake, a PhD candidate at UCLA, tweeted in support of the strike, saying, “I do not doubt that many brilliant students research, careers, and health are being compromised due to the added financial stress, and hope that they will receive the support they deserve rather than admonishment.” She points out how, during her first two years in graduate school, she slept on friends’ couches, in her office, and even in her car. University administrators “admonished” her for spending nights in her office, but, she said, “No one asked if I was okay or needed help.”
Union members say the university can indeed afford to pay its academic workers more. “As California’s biggest [public] employer, the UC has a $46 billion annual budget,” says Chan, adding that “the [UAW] proposals for graduate workers would end up being less than 3 percent of the UC budget.” That academic workers cannot afford rent on their salaries is tantamount to them paying UC to work, instead of the other way around. In other words, it’s stolen labor.
“We have the right to demand better pay and better working conditions, and also to be able to demand things and to be heard,” says Chan. “We’re united and we’re ready to hold them accountable.”
In addition to sending a message to the university that workers demand better than what is being offered, the strike is also alerting the entire university community to the long-standing plight of graduate students and postdoctoral workers.
The sight of thousands of UAW members rallying and picketing at UC campuses has inspired solidarity from faculty members who rely on the labor of their researchers and teaching assistants. James Vernon, chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, addressed a UAW picket on UC Berkeley’s campus, saying, “The system is broken and you’re going to help fix it and we are here as faculty to support you in that effort.”
UC’s academic researchers and workers are responsible for ushering critical intellectual work—not only to California, but also to the U.S. and world. “Our students in the sciences, they go on to become doctors, they go on to become engineers, that contribute to infrastructure, and also medicine,” says Chan. “I think it can’t be understated how important the university’s research is in social mobility, in improving people’s futures, and also in the arts as well, in creating work that moves people.”
The UC strike is also part of a broader trend of labor actions nationwide. In the same week that the strike began, Starbucks workers in more than 100 stores that have voted to join a union held a one-day strike to protest their employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith. UPS drivers, who are gearing up for a potentially major strike of their own next year, have been informed by their union, the Teamsters, that they can show solidarity with UC striking workers by refusing to cross the picket to deliver packages.
“For a lot of the academic workers at the UC, we see this pattern of indignity and unfair wages, unfair contracts, as a sort of universal theme, not only in the States but also worldwide,” says Chan. She cites that UC workers have been inspired by the actions of Starbucks workers in the U.S., as well as other companies and workers throughout the world.
“Not every teaching moment happens in a classroom,” says Chan. “Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute