On November 14, 48,000 unionized graduate workers at the University of California system’s ten schools went on strike, kicking off what could be the largest higher education strike in U.S. history. This figure includes postdocs, teaching assistants, tutors, and student and academic researchers from the United Auto Workers’ four bargaining units (UAW).
After more than a year of bargaining, which began in the spring of 2021, the union chose to strike over wages and working conditions, alleging that the university had not bargained in good faith and had engaged in unfair labor practices. Their demands include increased childcare stipends and reimbursement for transportation costs. According to Inside Higher Education, non-tenured lecturers, who are barred from striking in solidarity, have stated that they will not take over work for striking workers; and 53,000 UPS workers have given their union permission to stop deliveries to UC campuses during the strike.
“Our primary demand is to get living wages, to have living situations that match the cost of living, that match the vital work that we do to not only sustain but to make the University of California the prestigious institution that it is,” Desmond Fonseca, a UC graduate student researcher, told a local ABC affiliate.
Bernard Remollino, a researcher and teaching assistant, told the Guardian, “The academic year 2018 to 2019, I spent the majority of it living out of my car because the rent situation in Los Angeles was untenable both in graduate student housing and in private market apartments in LA… It’s physically exhausting to scrimp and save and then feel like your efforts were in vain. There had to be more to the job than that.”
The UC strike lasted into Tuesday, disrupting classes just weeks before finals. The University of California system responded to the strike by stating that it is “committed to reaching agreements as soon as possible,” and that it has requested a third-party mediator for the bargaining process, while continuing to “negotiate in good faith.” The union responded that “round-the-clock bargaining” should be prioritized.
The strike, which organizers claim is the largest of the year and in U.S. higher education history, coincides with a tumultuous period in labor history, with layoffs sweeping the tech and media industries and ongoing union struggles at massive corporations such as Starbucks, Home Depot, and Amazon’s warehouses. On the other side of the country, beginning Wednesday, part-time faculty at the New School, who, according to their union, teach 87% of the university’s classes, will go on strike.
The graduate workers’ demands include a minimum annual salary of $54,000 for all grad workers and $70,000 for all postdocs; a 14 percent salary increase for academic researchers; and “annual cost of living adjustments and experience-based increases,” citing California’s high cost of living. “Inequitable working conditions and compensation that does not match the cost of living are driving scholars out of academia,” according to the Fair UC Now website. “We 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.”
“We’re fighting so that those of us who do the majority of teaching and research don’t have to live with severe rent burdens and debt, while highly paid administrators live in publicly funded mansions,” Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, told the Guardian.