The largest-ever strike by campus workers is suspending many classes in California

This week, many classes at the University of California’s 10 campuses have been canceled or moved to Zoom, and studies have ground to a halt. About 48,000 teaching assistants, students and academic researchers and postdocs hit the picket line Monday, demanding higher wages and better benefits.

Given the size of the UC system, the scale of the strike is significant. The United Auto Workers, the union that represents UC employees, says it’s the largest walkout in history at any institution of higher learning. If it continues, the strike may also disrupt final exams.

Many academic staff spoke Chronicle that the disruption is necessary to pressure the university system to raise its salaries. They said their current wages fall well below the cost of living in California, one of the most expensive states.

Some teaching assistants do just over $23,000 per year, and 40 percent of graduates reported spending more than half of their income on rent, according to a union survey. Their other demands include sustainable transport subsidies, reimbursement of childcare fees and visa fees for international researchers, and improved accommodation for people with disabilities.

Some graduate students said the working conditions have made them consider leaving academia altogether. And professors said they’re worried they won’t be able to attract researchers to the UC system.

Unionization efforts among academic staff have intensified over the past decade, including many campaigns and strikes since the pandemic. At the University of Kansas, 1,500 workers announced Tuesday they plan to unionize, the first union at the institution. Adjunct professors at New York University and The New School may soon go on strike. Graduate students at Yale University will vote on unionization later this month. Workers are bargaining for better working conditions and wages, especially as inflation has increased their financial stress.

The quality of education we provide also suffers when we struggle to pay the rent.

All UC system campuses will remain open during the strike, a university spokeswoman wrote in a statement Chronicleand “we are prepared to mitigate the impact of the strike on our students by ensuring continuity of instruction and research as much as possible.” The system encourages faculty to provide additional support and resources to students during the strike, a spokeswoman said.

“Furthermore, campuses are being prepared for contingencies should the strike disrupt the end of the semester,” the statement added.

University system officials believe the best path to a settlement with the union is through a third-party mediator, a spokeswoman wrote in a statement. Chronicle on Monday afternoon, which they have proposed to the United Auto Workers.

“Plant the seeds of sustainable reform”

Some faculty said they have questions about how to maintain “continuity” and continue with their courses, as well as what right they have to honor pickets during the strike. Meanwhile, other instructors have canceled classes and suspended their research in solidarity with striking workers.

The University of California Council of Faculty Associations, the umbrella group for faculty leadership at each UC campus, recently released guide informing faculty of their right in California the law refrain from teaching and research in order not to cross the picket line.

“It’s not striking workers that aren’t hurting student learning,” said Charmaine Chua, associate professor of global studies at UC-Santa Barbara. “It’s the university’s refusal to pay staff enough to live here that hurts the ability of undergraduates to learn.”

Students said they hope the strike will help university officials understand how much they contribute to the university.

“We do the majority of teaching and research at the university,” said Yunyi Li, Ph.D. candidate in Cinema and Media Studies and a lecturer at UCLA. Li also holds a leadership role in UAW 2865, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers.

Li said this semester is his ninth time working as a teaching assistant. He decided to live 10 miles from the UCLA campus, where the rent was cheaper. However, she has had to work a second job and apply for awards and scholarships to pay the rent.

“The quality of education we can provide also suffers when we struggle to pay the rent,” Li said. “There were definitely times when, given the salary and working conditions, it made me want to leave academia.”

Bernard Remollino, a UCLA graduate student, researcher, and teaching assistant, lived out of his car in 2018-2019, trying to find safe parking spots every night while juggling his thesis and teaching commitments. Before moving into the car, Remollino said he had to pay back 80 percent of his scholarship to pay rent for graduate student housing offered by the university. Sometimes he had to decide whether to put the rent aside and eat dinner one night.

Remollino has now moved into the apartment he shares with his partner. But he’s making just enough to get by — and that’s with a second job as an assistant professor at a community college.

“We’re definitely not just doing it at this point,” Remollino said. “We are trying to plant the seeds of sustainable reform of the university system.”

Faculty voice support

Since the beginning of the strike, the research conducted mainly by master’s students has been put on hold. That includes important cancer trials at the University of California, San Francisco, faculty members said.

Noelle L’Etoile, an associate professor in UCSF’s Department of Cell and Tissue Biology, said she believes most faculty members support the union’s demands, especially pay raises. But L’Etoile worries about where the money will come from. Graduate workers in his lab are paid by grants from the National Institutes of Health — “a static amount of money,” L’Etoille said. He wants the university to find a way to help pay higher wages.

If poor working conditions are not fixed, professors will have difficulty hiring employees with advanced degrees, he said.

“Our jobs are struggling because we can’t recruit students and postdocs to do the jobs we need,” L’Etoile said. “Because they could go somewhere else.”

Margot Bezrutczyk, a union member who works as a postdoctoral fellow at the UC-run Lawrence Berkeley lab, worries about how the strike will affect the lab’s research in the short term. But, he says, low pay leads to high turnover.

“It really hurts the quality of research done in the lab,” Bezrutczyk said. “If people were paid a salary they were comfortable with, we could keep people longer, finish projects and get better papers.”

Tobias Higbie, professor of history and labor studies at UCLA and director of the Institute for Labor and Employment Studies, attended the Monday afternoon demonstration. Walking across the UCLA campus, he saw a picket line around the academic buildings.

“Many faculty members support the strike. They understand that higher education funding has deep structural problems,” Higbie said, “and that paying graduate assistants is a real problem and a long-term problem.

At the UCLA rally, graduate workers carried picket signs and marched around the campus’ central plaza. At UC-Santa Barbara, students and staff marched on campus for over an hour; at one point they came through the campus library where students cheered them on.

“This generation is throwing down the gauntlet for older people to reimagine what higher education could be,” Higbie said.

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