by Cass Zegura, former UAW Local 2865 member
On Monday, November 14, 2022 graduate and postdoctoral workers across the University of California system began their historic strike in response to the system’s bad-faith bargaining and pitiful offers during contract negotiations. At its peak, the strike was 48,000 workers strong across the UC’s ten campuses and three unions, UAW 2865 (academic student employees, like teaching assistants), UAW 5810 (academic researchers and postdocs), and SRU-UAW (student researchers). By banding together, these workers set into motion the largest strike of 2022 and the largest in higher education in the history of the United States, demonstrating the collective power of workers to struggle and win together.
What was at stake?
Like 92% of my fellow graduate workers and 62% of postdocs across California, I was rent burdened as a Master’s student at the University of California, Irvine, meaning I spent more than 30% of my income on rent. Many of my fellow workers have to pay much more than that, with 40% of graduate workers spending more than half of their salary on rent—and some as much as 70%. A 2019 survey of UC Berkeley students demonstrated the consequences of this financial precarity even before the COVID-19 pandemic: 48% of graduate students reported housing insecurity, 24% food insecurity, and 5% homelessness.
To make matters worse for many graduate workers, the money they use for rent often returns to the UC in the form of “subsidized” campus housing. This is supposedly an alternative to off-campus housing, which is astronomically expensive in California and often forces workers to commute from hours away. Yet the housing options that the UC provides are only marginally cheaper and require that graduate workers pay back significant portions of their salary to their employer. At UC San Francisco, for example, the average rent for campus housing is equal to a teaching assistant’s (TA’s) monthly starting salary. Where the UC system plays a dual role as both employer and landlord, setting both wages and living costs, it is able to adjust each to its financial benefit—and workers have few alternatives.
The living situation for graduate workers in California is untenable. In a state where a living wage for a single adult with no children is $43,000/year and $88,000/year for a single adult with one child (according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator), UC graduate workers make on average only $24,000/year. Postdocs average $60,000/year. UC workers can’t make ends meet.
It’s worse when considering inflation, which reached 9% nationally in 2022. With every dollar worth less now than it was a year before, even the state minimum wage of $32,000/year is insufficient. Alongside other issues like transportation and protections for international and disabled students, a living wage was the key demand that UC graduate worker and postdoc unions put forward in negotiations in early 2022 and have fought for since.
In joint bargaining, the initial proposals put forward by the unions for academic student employees (ASEs) and student researchers (SRs) included base wage increases to $54,000/year from $24,000/year, yearly wage increases, five-year housing guarantees with rent capped at 30% of base wages, free transit passes, full tuition remission, defunding campus police and reallocating resources to alternative safety programs, and summer funding guarantees. Academic researchers (ARs) and postdocs similarly fought for wage increases to at least $70,000/year, more paid leave for new parents and family care, more childcare benefits, and a streamlined arbitration process for resolving grievances.
Despite the fact that graduate workers, postdocs, and academic researchers are instrumental to the UC’s prestige and everyday operations, the UC met these demands with milquetoast concessions that do nothing to alleviate the dire economic and housing concerns of their workers. The university stalled negotiations for months at a time, even over the summer, no doubt hoping to extinguish union energy by prolonging the process.
The three unions responded with the biggest academic strike in the history of the United States.
Educators Fight Back
The last few years have seen a marked uptick in academic labor activity from instructors across education levels. The 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike, for example, paved the way for renewed educator action across the country. The lessons from that wildcat strike are relevant today, showing the need to build solidarity in working-class communities and the power of the rank-and-file to organize despite limitations imposed by labor laws and union bureaucrats. It won raises for workers across the public sector statewide and sparked the Red for Ed strikes across the country, showing the power of strong, militant labor actions.
At the same time, more and more graduate workers across the country have organized. Unionization efforts have increased since 2016 after the National Labor Relation Board reversed its 2004 decision that only graduate workers at public, not private, universities could unionize. Private universities staunchly opposed this ruling, arguing that treating graduate students like workers with rights would impinge upon their academic freedom. Many of their students fired back with organized action. In 2018, for example, a year and a half after voting to unionize, Columbia University graduate workers struck near the finals period to force the university to recognize them and negotiate a contract. They struck again in 2021 and won major contract gains in January 2022.
Graduate workers at Clark University in Worcester, MA unionized in early 2022 joining Teamsters Local 170. In October, they won their first contract after a powerful five-day strike. Crucially, the strikers successfully appealed for other union workers on campus to join the strike, like the campus electricians (IBEW Local 96), and various construction workers. Members of Laborers 243, Operating Engineers Local 4, and Ironworkers, all walked off the job to join the picket lines. Teamster 170 members in other industries like drivers at UPS refused to deliver to the campus and some joined the picket lines. The short strike forced the university to grant concessions after months of bad-faith bargaining, including a 90% pay increase and healthcare coverage for Ph.D. students. Unionized faculty are also taking action: this past November, 1,700 part-time faculty at The New School in NYC walked out demanding higher wages and improved benefits.
Years of Union Struggle at UC
UC academic workers have a long history of labor action and organizing that predates this most recent historic strike. UAW 2865 was founded in 2000 in order to facilitate organizing and bargaining throughout the UC system, bringing workers across the state together in collective struggle, rather than being siloed into individual campuses. UAW 5810 was established in 2008 as one of the first unions representing postdoc workers in the U.S. Their first contract in 2010 won immediate and substantial gains in salary, paid time off, sick leave, and healthcare benefits.
The newest UC grad union, SRU-UAW, formed in May 2021 to organize the remaining graduate workers, approximately 17,000, who were not union. The UC took half a year to recognize its existence. Despite the fact that student researchers are integral to funding public universities, as they bring in grant money for research and conducting work in labs, the UC said the work description “student research” was too vague to build a union around. A supermajority of SRs disagreed. After voting to authorize a strike, the UC finally acknowledged the union in December 2021.
That November, the UC faced another labor challenge from the UC-AFT lecturer union, which voted to hold a two-day strike in the midst of its own contract negotiations. Lecturers do not enjoy the job stability of tenured professors, while teaching some of the system’s largest courses for less pay than other faculty. Like graduate workers and postdocs, lecturers wanted better pay, job security, and cost-of-living adjustments. And like graduate workers and postdocs, they encountered unlawful bargaining tactics from the UC. However, the threat of a strike proved enough for the UC to concede to a tentative agreement.
These labor actions often follow years of ongoing struggle. The current strike was preceded by actions taken at individual campuses, such as the December 2019 wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), when academic student employees withheld final grades for the fall quarter to protest for cost-of-living adjustments. The work stoppage continued after winter break, when it spread to other UC campuses.
In February, in an appalling act of anti-labor callousness, UCSC fired 54 of the striking workers from their positions as teaching assistants, which exacerbated their financial struggles, jeopardized their tuition remission, and threatened some international students with deportation. Only after months of public pressure did the UC reinstate these workers. The union won some demands, including a $2,500 housing stipend, but not the cost-of-living adjustment workers initially struck for.
The COVID-19 pandemic put further strain on educators at all levels. In the fall of 2020, as politicians from both capitalist parties gunned to reopen the economy, educators working in person found themselves at the front lines of the pandemic. Educators risked their lives daily with little to no ability to set classroom policies to protect themselves and their students. As college campuses reopened, graduate workers and postdocs faced similar risks on top of grappling with rent increases and inflation. This economic strain highlighted the shortcomings of the existing contracts.
Contract negotiations for UAW 2865, UAW 5810, and SRU-UAW all coincided in 2022, setting the stage for university workers across the state to come together and push for better contracts and working conditions. While UAW 5810 postdocs began bargaining for a renewed contract in June 2021, thanks to the UC’s stalling, these negotiations dragged into 2022, when the 5810 ARs, 2865 ASEs, and SR-UAW began bargaining as well.
Back-and-forth with the university persisted for almost a year. While the UC paid their chancellors over $500,000 a year, they claimed the unions’ proposals were exorbitant and that their own offer—which effectively meant wage cuts due to inflation—was not merely sufficient, but generous.
The UC refused to bargain in good faith. Across the four bargaining teams, the academic workers’ unions filed over thirty charges of unlawful actions, including individual campuses circumnavigating the union by making deals with their workers directly, and intimidating workers raising awareness about the bargaining campaign. The UC eluded providing pertinent information to bargaining teams, including a complete list of employees in the SRU bargaining unit, course staffing levels, and financial and demographic data needed to develop contract proposals.
This frustration culminated in a strike authorization vote at the end of October across all bargaining units, bringing together 48,000 workers in a supermajority “YES” vote. On November 14, the strike began.
Tens of thousands of academic workers across California showed up on campus picket lines the first day, joined in solidarity by workers across the state, launching a strike that would last for 40 days. In addition to picketing, workers organized rallies, marches, and sit-ins. These actions occurred on campuses, at the office of the UC president, in front of chancellors’ ludicrously-priced mansions, and outside of meetings by the Board of Regents. The picket line was suspended on December 12 for winter break, but by withholding their work throughout finals period, graduate workers disrupted the end of term, forcing professors to modify or cancel exams and grade students themselves.
The strike enjoyed enormous support and solidarity from other unionized workers. The Teamsters sanctioned the strike early on and its truckers respected the picket line by refusing to make deliveries to UC campuses. The California Labor Federation similarly sanctioned the strike, showing official approval for unionized building and construction workers across the state to honor the picket line, bringing UC infrastructure projects to a halt. Undergraduates also supported the strike and some professors canceled classes in solidarity or stopped requiring attendance to help students respect the picket line.
Amidst this mass pressure, the UC continued its union-busting efforts. Numerous retaliatory actions against striking workers were documented across campuses. Universities and departments have, for example, threatened to dock striking workers’ grades in classes that ASEs and SRs must take as part of their employment. At some campuses, these courses are taken pass/fail but others give students a letter grade which could hurt graduate workers’ GPA, academic standing, and future prospects.
The UC also threatened some SRs with losing their lab appointments the following quarter, with specific professors and principal investigators (lab heads) warning that their employees would face consequences for striking. 17 striking workers were even arrested on December 5 during a sit-in at the UC Office of the President in Sacramento. These attacks show how willing university administrators are to use any tool at their disposal to defend their own exorbitant salaries and authority they wield to exploit education workers.
Split Between Union Leaders & Members
On November 29, UAW 5810 won a major victory by reaching tentative agreements for both postdocs and ARs. For postdocs, this includes a 20-23% wage increase by October 2023, childcare subsidies for the first time, and longer initial appointments. For ARs, this includes a 29% salary increase over the contract’s lifetime, more job security, and fully paid 8-week parental leave. All 12,000 members will see base pay increase to $70,000. The proposal was overwhelmingly ratified on December 9.
However, the 36,000 other graduate workers in the other two UAW unions continued striking. Their bargaining process was far more contentious, revealing splits amongst different union leaderships and between them and rank-and-file workers. On November 30, the UAW 2865 (on a 10-9 split) and SRU-UAW bargaining teams passed a new proposal to present to the university that dealt major blows to workers’ original demands, the most significant being a reduction to the proposed base wage increase. While the union originally asked for a minimum of $54,000 in annual compensation, union leadership’s later counterproposal dropped this to $42,000—and then raised it back up by a mere $1,000 when the rank-and-file complained.
Rank-and-File Campaign for More
The major concessions in the new offer introduced by the union leadership made some rank-and-file members concerned that bargaining teams would tentatively agree to the latest terrible proposal the UC offered at the beginning of December. Facing the possibility of a ratification vote for a tentative agreement with unacceptable concessions, rank-and-file members began campaigning for a “No” vote. Workers were frustrated by union leadership ignoring and limiting their input and were incensed by the union backtracking on major issues. The offers under discussion did not include dependent healthcare coverage, limited childcare reimbursement, and did not provide rent assistance.
A coalition of disabled graduate students raised additional concerns. The “Justice Coalition” rallied around two new articles in the ASE and SR contracts: an Access Needs Article and a Public Health Article which would strengthen the protections for disabled students. The Access Needs Article would provide disabled graduate students with the right to universal access without documentation—that is, the ability to work as an ASE or SR remotely, without having to go through the laborious, time-consuming, and often expensive process of proving one’s disability to the university. The Public Health Article would repeal the UC’s ban on instructors asking students to wear masks, allowing graduate workers with disabilities to better protect themselves from COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses, which often pose a greater risk to them.
Following the outcry of rank-and-file workers, the union leadership rejected the UC’s early December proposal. The UC negotiators began to fearmonger about filing for an impasse, warning they’d unilaterally impose a contract if the bargaining teams did not accept the current terms. Trying to stave off an impasse, the union voluntarily brought in a mediator to continue negotiations.
At the recommendation of the state governor’s office, the union leadership and the UC together chose Darrell Steinberg, mayor of Sacramento. Union officials described him disingenuously as “relatively pro-labor”, citing his role in “resolving” the Kaiser Permanente mental health workers strike of 2022.
In reality, Steinberg acted as a strike-breaker in the Kaiser Permanente nurses’ struggle: the workers went back to their jobs with no pay increases from the pre-strike offer and only two extra dedicated hours per week to perform administrative tasks. On the national level, Democrats play the same role. One has only to look at the Biden administration’s handling of a potential rail strike to see how the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, is aligned against the working class. Through Congress, Biden and the Democratic Party imposed a harmful contract that rail workers had democratically rejected, denied their right to strike, and refused to legislate paid sick leave in the contract.
Unions Divided by UC Bosses
After several days of mediation, the bargaining units of UAW 2856 and SRU-UAW both voted to tentatively agree to a new proposal on December 16. Mediation yielded some progress around wages, health benefits, childcare, and tuition reimbursement for students who are not state residents. Some in union leadership painted these gains as monumental and historic, pointing out, for example, that the proposed wage increases are the largest ever won by unionized workers in higher education.
However, these two bargaining committees were split on accepting the agreement and its massive concessions from the union’s original demands. The bargaining committees of UAW Local 2865 voted 11 yes, 8 no, and SRU-UAW voted 13 yes, 7 no. This number of no votes reflects that these proposals were a substantial step down from the demands workers originally walked out over.
For example, non-state resident tuition remission would only be available to students who have advanced to candidacy (moving from Master’s level classes to doctoral dissertation research), leaving international students in the lurch for the first three years of their program. Master’s students would be excluded from reimbursement entirely. Additionally, at $36,000 a year (the top end of the proposed ASE payscale), wage increases were still substantially below the UAW’s original proposal. There was still no guarantee for summer funding, which leaves graduate workers scrambling to pay the bills for three months of the year.
More concerning, there was nothing in the mediated contracts addressing rent costs—a major consideration since graduate workers are essentially bargaining with their landlords who are also their bosses. There is no cost-of-living adjustment in the tentative agreement. The UC refused to tie wages to probable future rent increases. Even weaker proposals, such as housing and relocation stipends or lowering rent for on-campus housing, were absent.
Rent burden has been the major rallying point for academic workers. It drove the wildcat UC Santa Cruz strike, it was the emphasis at rallies and protests preceding the strike, and it galvanized workers into 40 days of job action. This deliberate omission by the UC keeps graduate workers at the mercy of their professors, departments, and universities. Without rent relief measures in this contract, many will see the issue as effectively tabled for the next two and a half years, when graduate workers will once again have to fight tooth and nail for a good contract. In the meantime, rent will continue to climb as the Democrats that control Californian state politics do nothing to alleviate the housing crisis. Persistent rent and inflation increases will outstrip the modest wage improvements in the tentative agreement.
Strike Wraps Up
The December 23 ratification vote for SRU and UAW 2865 was more contentious than it was for postdocs and ARs, given the continued agitation among some of the rank-and-file to continue striking for a better contract. Local 2865 voted 11,386 to 7,097 to approve the contract (61%), and SRU voted 10,057 to 4,640 to approve (68%). The vote broke down differently across campuses. For example, the majority of ASEs at UC Merced, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz rejected the tentative agreement—and only 19% of UC Santa Cruz student researchers voted to ratify their tentative agreement.
If the strike had persisted into the start of the winter quarter or spring semester, it could have continued to massively disrupt normal university operations. Even if the UC filed an impasse, the scale, power, and strength of this strike could have forced more substantial concessions.
Strength in Unity
If the postdocs and academic researchers in UAW 5810 maintained their strike until all the other grad worker unions won their demands, everyone’s contracts could be much stronger. The importance of serious joint bargaining and striking has been demonstrated in several recent battles.
Teamsters and United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) at St. Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts crossed the Mass. Nurses Association (MNA) picket, contributing to the drawn-out year-long strike. UFCW ratified a new contract in Spring 2021 with several concessions from the hospital in order to prevent UFCW members from walking out alongside the nurses beyond a single-day joint picket. Now, the St. Vincent Teamsters may strike. The rail unions’ joint bargaining also showed its limits with “me too” clauses used to justify ratifying the tentative agreement and dropping out of bargaining, with the promise to be included in any further gains won by the remaining negotiating unions.
Workers need to continue to act together and resist the capitalist class’ efforts to divide us. The UC strike was powerful while the four bargaining units acted together. If more gains are to be won, it will only be through unions uniting within a workplace, as well as serious solidarity from the broader labor movement.
Image credit: UAW 5810