Friday, the University of California and academic workers announced they had reached a tentative labor agreement. This could mean the end of a high-profile strike that has been going on for more than a month and has caused problems at the prestigious, 10-campus public university system.
About 36,000 unionized workers, such as teaching assistants, researchers, and tutors, many of whom are graduate students, will get a big raise because of the deal. The lowest-paid academic student employees, whose salaries start at about $23,000 per academic year, would get pay raises of more than 55% over the next two and a half years, with more raises on campuses in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where housing is costly. They would also get a lot more money for health care and child care.
Officials from both the union and the university were optimistic about the deal. However, it still needs to be approved by the members of United Auto Workers, the union that represents academic employees.
Rafael Jaime, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the president of a bargaining unit that represents about 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and other classroom workers, called the agreement “a big deal” and said it would help a lot with the high cost of living near U.C. campuses.
In an interview, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was “relieved” by the deal, but he also noted that the labor disputes were “a preview of things to come” as the economy worsens. He said that the extra costs of the new contracts would probably be paid for by a state budget deal made this year that guarantees U.C. funding will go up every year for at least five years.
Organizing workers and forming unions
Starbucks: The union representing Starbucks workers called for a strike at dozens of stores. This is the latest step in the union’s fight to get a labor contract.
Winter of Discontent: As Britain deals with inflation and a recession, there has been a lot of labor unrest. Nurses, railway workers, and other workers all over the country are leading job actions.
Education: After reaching an agreement, part-time faculty at the New School ended their strike. This work stoppage came after a similar one at the University of California system.
Electric Vehicles: In a big step forward for the industry, workers at an E.V. battery plant in Ohio voted to join the United Automobile Workers union, citing pay and safety concerns as the main reasons.
Mr. Newsom said, “I’m happy.” “I don’t think tuition will go up, and I hope it won’t.”
Concerns were growing that fall grades might be late because of the university’s dispute with the employees, who, in many ways, are the backbone of day-to-day undergraduate education. As finals and winter break got closer, many programs had already changed their grading schedules. However, officials pointed out that for some students, a long delay could put their federal financial aid at risk.
BREAKING – We have tentative agreements that include raises of up to 80% for the lowest paid workers. The strike still continues until the agreements are ratified.https://t.co/wAFy6mpTgq
— UC Student-Workers Union UAW 2865 (@uaw2865) December 17, 2022
The University of California system has almost 300,000 students and is the primary source of research for a state that is important to the most innovative parts of the country. The strike showed how much the schools depend on graduate students, researchers, and postdoctoral fellows, who lead discussion units, hold office hours, grade tests, and work in research labs. The strike was one of the biggest in the country at a time when American workplaces were changing a lot, and the U.A.W. said it was the biggest at a university in U.S. history.
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In a statement, Michael V. Drake, the president of the University of California, said that the tentative deal was “a good step forward” because it would bring back workers who are essential to the school and its students. “These agreements will make our graduate student employees some of the best supported in public higher education,” he said.
Late last month, the university reached separate five-year agreements with two other bargaining units representing about 12,000 academic researchers and postdoctoral employees. These are usually more experienced workers whose pay was covered by research grants and federal funding. But that deal didn’t help three-quarters of the workers on strike.
Postdoctoral students and academic researchers at the University of California said they will return to work on Monday after ratifying a new contract. But workers who help teach undergraduates and assign grades remain on strike. https://t.co/ORzWIGt09T
— The New York Times (@nytimes) December 10, 2022
This week, Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento and a lawyer with degrees from two U.C. campuses, negotiated the deal with union and university officials at Sacramento City Hall. He said that the union “fought hard to make sure that graduate students at every campus community make a living wage” and that President Drake had made “a model for universities all over the country.”
This year, workers have used their bargaining power in a tight job market to increase union activity across the country. This includes large retail companies like Starbucks and Amazon and private college campuses. This month, a standoff between rail companies and unionized workers threatened holiday freight deliveries until Congress and President Biden used constitutional powers that hadn’t been used in decades to force a labor agreement.
Organized labor membership has been going down for decades, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that a union represents only about 10% of American workers. But this year, polls show that support for organized labor is at its highest level since the mid-1960s, with about 70% of Americans agreeing.
Labor leaders said that the strike at the University of California was a turning point for a whole generation and a sign of more resistance in an economy that depends more and more on intellectual work.
In an interview this month, Lorena Gonzalez, the head of the California Labor Federation, said, “This shows a new sense of excitement and power, especially among younger workers who haven’t been thought of as union members in the past.” She said that “people who are going into professional fields and will use this experience in science, technology, or academia” were involved.
“We saw some of that with internships a few years ago,” said Ms. Gonzalez, a former Democratic state lawmaker who wrote bills that would have let state legislative staff join a union. “The idea that ‘you’re lucky to be here’ is falling out of favor. Work is work. You can’t praise unfair pay just by saying this has always been the case.”
The U.C. workers said their pay was nowhere near what they needed to get by in California, especially with inflation and a housing shortage that hasn’t gone away. Most of them were graduate students, and they said the university’s business model had gone from exploitative to impossible to keep up.
The university system gets money from various places, such as state funding, tuition, federal research funding, and cash from medical centers. Its leaders had said that they couldn’t meet the union’s demands, which at first called for almost doubling many base salaries.
Workers walked off the job on November 14 after long-running talks broke down. They put pressure on the university by holding rallies and sit-ins on campus. Hundreds of faculty members promised not to cross picket lines, and Democratic state leaders put public pressure on the university to agree. However, as the work stoppage went on for four weeks, people became less sympathetic.
Workers on strike took over the chancellor’s office at U.C. Berkeley, blocked parking at U.C. Santa Barbara, held rallies outside the offices and homes of university donors and regents in Orange County and San Diego, and marched in front of the State Capitol in Sacramento. At the U.C. Office of the President in Sacramento and the David Geffen Company headquarters, Richard Sherman, a U.C. regent, ran, and protesters sitting down were arrested.
This week, after a rally outside the U.C.L.A. Luskin Center with the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, protesters marched into a meeting where the Board of Regents was deciding if U.C.L.A.’s sports teams should be allowed to join the Big Ten Conference. They chanted, “Shut it down!” for hours, delaying the decision.
Stay tuned to our website NogMagazine.com for more updates.
Jessa Martin is the author of Nogmagazine, A professional in writing by day, and novelist by night, she received her bachelor of arts in film from Howard University and her master of arts in media studies from the New School. A Brooklyn native, she is a lover of naps, cookie dough, and beaches, currently residing in the borough she loves, most likely multitasking.