Students picket outside of UC San Francisco on November 21 (Photo: Saul Kanowitz)
Originally published in People’s Dispatch on November 30, 2022
Over 48,000 student workers are on strike for fair wages, support for parents, job security, and more. On Tuesday, the United Auto Workers, which is organizing the students, announced that the bargaining teams for Academic Researchers and Postdocs had secured tentative agreements.
On November 14, 48,000 student workers hit the picket line at University of California (UC) campuses across the State, fighting for fair wages, support for parents, job security, and more. They have now entered their third week of strike, the largest of its kind in US history, in a struggle for better working conditions.
On Tuesday, November 29, UAW announced that the bargaining teams for Academic Researchers (AR) and Postdocs had secured tentative agreements with the UC.
The UC workers, organized into United Auto Workers (UAW), have been fighting for a $54,000/year minimum for all graduate workers and a $70,000/year minimum for Postdoctoral student workers, along with a 14% salary increase for Academic Researchers and adjustments depending on cost of living.
For Postdocs, the agreement includes a 20-23% increase in salary, by up to $12,000 by October 2023. The union has added that the current lowest paid Postdoc student would see a 57% increase in their salary over the course of five years.
The minimum annual pay for full-time workers will reportedly increase from $55,000 to $70,000, or higher. From 2024 to 2027, the agreement includes an annual pay increase of 7.2% for Postdocs on the scale and a 3% annual increase for those above scale.
Under the terms of the tentative agreement, parental and family leave, paid at 100%, has been increased from four to eight weeks. Childcare subsidies will also be provided starting at $2,500 per year and increase to $2,800 annually.
“My son just turned one a couple months ago,” said Chandler, a Postdoc at UC San Francisco. “So as you know, one of the things [the union is] bargaining for is for subsidies for childcare…childcare costs in the Bay Area average around $4,500 a month to send one child to daycare. We also only get maximum eight weeks of parental leave, and then we have to come back to work, and send our kids off. Can we afford that on a Postdoc salary? No, we can’t.”
For Academic Researchers, the agreement contains provisions for a 29% increase in salary “including both scale and merit increases,” over the duration of the contract. Researchers will also be able to avail eight weeks of fully paid parental and family leave.
The tentative agreements also contain provisions for better job security, including extending initial appointments for Postdocs from one to two years and longer appointments for Academic Researchers, and protections against abusive conduct and bullying, as well as protections for workers with disabilities.
While ARs and Postdocs will vote to ratify their respective agreements in the coming days, UAW has stressed that they will remain on strike in solidarity with the 36,000 graduate student workers who are still fighting for a fair contract.
Academic Researchers and Postdocs constitute about 12,000 out of the 48,000 union workers on strike across the UC system.
“Now the UC can no longer use AR and Postdoc bargaining as an excuse to delay making counter proposals to Academic Student Employees [including graders, teaching assistants, and tutors] and Student Researchers [at both graduate and undergraduate levels] on compensation and other topics. We expect that they will make serious proposals this week,” the union said in a statement.
The UAW stated on November 29 that Student Researchers had presented a compensation proposal to the UC system 12 days ago, but had not received a response.
“Every UC campus has a food pantry and homeless services,” said Marissa, a worker at UC–Berkeley. “Which is just the university saying, we understand that people aren’t making enough money to be able to feed themselves or afford rent, and they just survive off of the pantry and donated produce.” Her picket-line sign read “I can’t feed 2 kids on $24K.”
“Tying compensation directly to housing costs could have overwhelming financial impacts on the University,” wrote UC provost Michael Brown in a letter to UC leaders on November 16. The current endowment of the UC system is $18 billion.
The UAW argues that student workers are struggling to stay afloat as cost of living skyrockets, particularly rent. California has the country’s second highest average rent, according to the World Population Review, at $1,844 per month. The average asking price for a new unit is $3,000 per month in California. According to Realtor.com, the median rent in Los Angeles is $3,000 per month. Union-conducted surveys found that the majority of UC student workers are rent burdened.
“I came to the UC because they pride themselves on being a public institution that makes education accessible for all,” said Ria, a first generation college student at UC San Francisco. “But that hasn’t been the case. We make far below the cost of living adjustment here at the UC, and that occurs on every level. Not just as a graduate student, as myself, but even the Postdocs and teaching assistants as well. And we are the backbone of this university, and we deserve a fair wage, and we deserve to live in the city that we work in.”
“It shouldn’t take generational wealth to afford to go to graduate school,” she continued.
Tenure-track positions at US universities have shrunk over the past decades, especially for the humanities. Since 2012, the number of jobs available for English professors has fallen every year, by a total of 33%. This leaves many student workers in adjunct positions, with far less job security for far less pay.
But student workers are fighting against this tide of precarity. Graduate students across the country at some of the top universities in the nation have led strikes and unionization efforts, including Columbia and MIT graduate student workers in only the past two years. By organizing, workers have shifted the popular perception that the working class exists only in fields that don’t require a college degree and that more educated workers have no need to organize along class lines.
While only 10.3% of US workers are unionized, unions have become increasingly popular, with the highest favorability since 1965 at 70%. If UC workers succeed and win their demands, they will raise the bar for all student workers across the country.
Natalia Marques is a writer at Peoples Dispatch, an organizer, and a graphic designer based in NYC.