48,000 University of California academic workers go on strike

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Dive Brief:

  • Some 48,000 academic workers at the University of California System began to strike Monday, demanding better wages and benefits after failing for more than a year to negotiate a deal.
  • These unionized employees — among them teaching assistants, postdoctoral scholars and graduate student researchers — are calling for a minimum annual salary of $54,000 for all grad workers. Postdocs should receive a minimum $70,000 a year salary, they say.
  • Unions supporting the workers are calling the UC strike the largest ever at a U.S. academic institution and say it threatens to significantly disrupt operations across the 10-campus system.

Dive Insight:

Bargaining units representing the UC workers allege the system, one of the biggest and most prestigious in the country, illegally made unilateral changes to working conditions and benefits.

They also accuse UC officials of circumventing formal negotiations by announcing and instituting new policies outside of those talks. Workers this year filed formal complaints about these actions with California’s Public Employment Relations Board.

The system continues to negotiate in good faith, spokesperson Ryan King said in an emailed statement. 

“These employees make valuable contributions to the University’s teaching and research mission in both part-time and full-time roles, and we believe our offers of fair pay, quality health and family-friendly benefits, among other proposals, are fair, reasonable, and responsive to the union’s concerns,” King said.

The two sides have been bargaining since spring 2021, according to the union.

The strike will likely stress the campuses as the term winds down and ahead of final examinations in mid-December. 

Graduate workers often shoulder a bulk of the responsibility for grading, and they contribute heavily to teaching and research loads.

In addition to higher minimum salaries, the workers are seeking cost-of-living adjustments and experience-based raises.They also want expanded paid parental and family leave, free child care for graduate workers at UC child care programs, and healthcare coverage for those workers’ dependents.

The high cost of campus housing is partially to blame for workers’ financial stress, they say. No UC campus significantly discounts housing, which can burn a big chunk of their monthly pay.

The unions estimate, for instance, that grad workers at the University of California, Berkeley, pay average monthly housing costs of $1,423, compared to the average rent of $1,358 in UC housing.

“UC’s low wages force workers to pick between two bad options: pay an egregious amount of money in rent each month and live near campus, or spend hours commuting from a cheaper apartment that still eats up an unsustainable amount of money,” the workers’ coalition, Fair UC Now, said on its website.

The unions authorizing the strike have urged faculty members to support the picket line and discuss the reasons behind the strike with their undergraduate students.

This graduate workers’ strike follows a smaller, wildcat one that broke out at UC Santa Cruz three years ago without the unions’ backing. That strike led to the firing of dozens of grad employees.

Other graduate unions at colleges have recently struck deals with their institutions after striking this year, including at Columbia University.

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