Beginning Nov. 14, approximately 48,000 academic workers commenced a strike against the University of California (UC) system at all 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Through a 36,558 vote count, 98% of workers overwhelmingly agreed upon a strike due to a lack of progress in contract negotiations. This strike involved workers in San Diego, Berkeley, Davis, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Riverside, Los Angeles, Merced and Irvine.
Together, four separate groups expressed their frustration with the UC’s progress and response to the demands proposed by the academic workers. With signs reading “UAW On Strike Unfair Labor Practice,” workers marched through UC campuses and even rallied together for a sit-in at UC president Michael Drake’s office.
With seven different categories of proposals, these workers emphasized their desire to be fairly compensated and represented relevant to the amount of work they put into their jobs.
“[We] grade assignments for hours and hours,” UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Gold Okafor told NPR. “We also do all the research as well, designing the studies, collecting the data, analyzing the data… So we work full time, if not more than full time. However, we only get 50%.”
What was being referred to as the “largest strike in the history of higher education in the US” attracted both legislative and media attention. Letters from California’s representatives in the House, a tweet from US Senator Bernie Sanders and countless letters from state legislative officials spread awareness regarding the details of the strike. Media coverage displayed the progression of negotiations and the different methods of protest by the United Auto Workers (UAW).
There were four different bargaining teams of workers each negotiating for a new contract. UAW 5810 represented postdocs and academic researchers, UAW 2865 represented the academic student employees and SRU-UAW represented the student researchers. Academic student employees included teaching assistants (TAs), graduate instructors, tutors and readers within the UC system.
Seven categories define the majority of demands made by the UAW to the UCs.
Firstly, fair compensation presented a concern for these workers. With rising living costs, the UAW argued that these working conditions push workers out of these jobs. Since both the costs of UC housing and the private sector have been increasing, the UAW believed that the rent burden should not be on the workers. In turn, the UAW asked for annual cost-of-living adjustments and increases based on experiences.
Secondly, UAW stated that transit benefits should be expanded for its workers. In negotiations, free public transit passes with transportation allowances as an alternative and a discount on e-bikes were proposed. With transportation being responsible for 41% of emissions in California, UAW wanted workers to reduce the miles driven alone.
Furthermore, the UAW advocated for support for parents and families. To balance the necessity of caring for a child, the UAW proposed additional family benefits which include healthcare, paid parental or family leave and childcare reimbursements. With these changes, the UAW hopes that parent-workers will be able to retain their jobs.
Moreover, the UAW defended its goal of furthering the rights of international scholars. If longer appointments are created, international scholars can have longer visas. The UAW also wished to end supplemental tuition for nonresidents and the reimbursement of visa fees to retain international scholars within the UAW. International scholars have to pay additional tuition and visa fees, which the UAW argued “penalizes low-income immigrants and closes off talent to UC.”
Additionally, the UAW wanted to encourage job security through longer appointment lengths and other securities. According to the UAW, increased job security ensures stability and continuous production of grants, papers and awards. Researchers can focus on their work instead of worrying about funding.
While UC is contractually obligated to meet disability accommodations, the agreements yielded results that will require UC to develop accommodations for workers and identify future practices to improve accessibility needs. This built upon the 2018-2022 UAW contract’s initial standards for disability accommodations.
Lastly, the UAW confirmed that protections against bullying were added to all four contracts. Through clear plans to address abusive behavior within the workplace, UAW workers will be protected and have methods to continue work while issues are being addressed.
Throughout the negotiation process, the UAW alleged that UC took many unlawful actions; the UAW filed complaints against the UC in the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). Over 30 charges have been filed against the UC regarding intimidation, stipends and surveillance of bargaining units.
Regarding compensation, the university argued that if they accepted the UAW’s wage proposals, workers would have contracts comparable to top U.S. private universities, not other public universities. The UCs also explained how they already offer paid leave, tuition for employees, low housing rents and child care reimbursements.
To address the concern that UC’s pay is not a living wage, UC explained that student employment is based on a part-time work schedule. UC already believed their wage proposals are highly competitive and offer students additional aid for housing costs. While acknowledging the increasing living costs, UC also presented its Student Housing Initiative and plans to build 26,000 more beds by 2025.
Although the UAW proposed waiving tuition for international scholars, UC explained their commitment to California residents to have lower tuition, and removing that tuition would give non-resident students more pay for the same work.
Early on, UC confirmed that they have reached agreements on respectful work environments and workplace accessibility. However, instead of 100% coverage of regional public transit, UC proposed 100% coverage for transit discounts and subsidies.
While emphasizing its commitment to flexibility and respect, UC denied the UAW’s allegations and the complaints the UAW has filed in the PERB. UC clarified that no wrongdoing had been found and matters are still being reviewed by PERB.
Progression of the Strike
Throughout the strike, students dealt with classes, exams and assignments moving online or canceled. Some faculty even withheld grades.
“I had two classes that have TAs that do a lot of the work; one of my English classes was canceled and moved to Zoom lectures,” UCI literary journalism student Anica Sherry said. “Some professors still assign all the [coursework] they would have, but grading is delayed because that is what professors rely on TA labor for.”
On the campuses, chalk messages and slogans emphasizing the core values of the strike greeted students. Some messages, written in other languages, showed support for waiving fees for international scholars.
“The on-campus vibe was disappointing, having to be on campus and see the strikes. All the [demands] on the sign and how much they aren’t paid on a livable wage,” UCI public health student Abidemi Abioro said. “It’s really disappointing to see a school so prestigious is still struggling with treating their workers with basic respect.”
On Dec. 9, academic researchers and postdocs ratified a new contract with the UCs. Key highlights of the new contract included a raise, childcare, transit and longer-term appointments which were all key parts of the original demands.
With these workers returning to their jobs, the remaining two bargaining teams, which included academic student employees and student researchers, postponed their strike in favor of neutral mediation. Darrell Steinberg, mayor of Sacramento, acted as the mediator to continue negotiations between the UCs and the UAW.
After a tentative agreement was reached between the two remaining negotiation teams and UC on Dec. 16, some workers advocated for a “No” vote in hopes of a new deal. However, on Dec. 23, academic student employees and student researchers ratified their new contracts with UC. These agreements addressed some of the core concerns of the UAW including compensation, work environment and transit.
Although UC academic workers will return to work on UC campuses in January, the events of this strike demonstrate the growing unionization of workers on academic campuses across the country and increased efforts toward ensuring workers’ benefits.
Zander Sherry contributed to this story.