Chants of “fair wages now!” could be heard all throughout UCLA’s campus on Nov. 14, backed by a chorus of drums and vuvuzelas. Those same chants echoed throughout every campus in the University of California (UC) system as nearly 48,000 academic workers commenced the university’s largest academic strike to protest “unlawful conduct” and unfair labor practices. At all 10 UC campuses, academic workers are demanding an overhaul of pay and benefits that have seen graduate educators and postdocs struggling for years.
“I definitely struggle to make ends meet. I currently pay half of my monthly income just on rent,” said Aya Konishi, a second-year sociology Ph.D. student and a head steward of UAW 2865 chapter at UCLA.
Like her colleagues at other UC schools, Konishi is represented by United Auto Workers. Historically linked to automobile and agricultural factory workers in the industrial heartland, the UAW has seen significant growth in membership at academic institutions over the last several years. Academic workers have leveraged the union’s expertise while the diversified membership keeps the organization strong in size and funding.
At the heart of the UC strike is the reality that many college researchers and educators like Konishi can barely afford rent despite generating millions of dollars for the university. Teaching assistants generally instruct many undergraduate students and conduct the bulk of the research. “I personally have 75 students every quarter,” Konishi said. “We [teaching assistants] generally grade their homework, grade exams, hold office hours, and facilitate a huge chunk of their learning. All in all, we do much of the labor and research that makes UC work.”
For that labor, UC academic workers only earn an average of $24,000. According to recent data from realtor.com, the median rent price in the Los Angeles and San Francisco-Oakland metro areas was over $36,000 per year—food, transportation and other essentials notwithstanding.
UC provost and executive vice president for academic affairs Michael Brown wrote a letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times Nov. 11 in response to the looming strike, stating that affordable housing is a problem for all Californians, including UC faculty and staff. Brown states that rent at UC-owned properties are generally 20-25% below market rates.
However, rate sheets from UC Berkeley and UCLA indicate that a studio for graduate students rents for about $1,400-1,600 a month—roughly 80% of the monthly graduate student worker pay of $2,000. Additionally, there is fierce competition for the limited inventory of graduate apartments, with waitlists in the hundreds for students clamoring for spots.
These financial realities put significant strain on academic workers, only exacerbated by housing shortages in expensive university neighborhoods. For Karine Fleurima, an MFA student of Haitian descent at UCLA, housing took two months to find after her program had already started.
“I was a puddle of mush. Once the limited [graduate housing] spots are taken, there’s just not much they can do for you,” Fleurima said. “Their emergency services were pretty awful, so I ended up sleeping in my car for a night. So yeah, I think housing is a huge blind spot. Because of that, I haven’t been able to concentrate on my creativity in any sort of capacity.”
In a recent statement, UC stated it has bargained with the UAW “in good faith and listened carefully to UAW priorities with an open mind and a genuine willingness to compromise.” UC is offering a salary scale increase of 7% (roughly $1,800) for the first year and 3% in each subsequent year for academic student employees, who are primarily graduate students. The university has repeatedly called this proposal “generous.”
Academic workers disagree. This figure is not even close to the minimum $54,000 that UAW is demanding.
As union leaders at UCLA spoke to an energized crowd during the morning hours of the strike protest on Monday, they stated how the UC bargaining committee had allegedly told them that, “cost of living is not a relevant factor when considering compensation.” This drew sirens of “boos” and vuvuzelas. When asked how they felt about the pay that UC is offering, many graduate students and postdocs at the protest used the same word: “abysmal.”
UAW is also looking to abolish non-resident supplemental tuition. Currently, international scholars and those who are not residents of California pay a non-resident supplemental tuition of up to $15,000 per year at UC. American students can petition the school for residency status after one year (though not all get approved), but no such status exists for international students.
“This puts an unfair burden on international students,” Konishi said. “These students are forced to adopt a very quick timeline for their degrees, which also means more difficulty obtaining on- campus jobs. When we’re at the bargaining table, we want it to be as equitable as possible for everyone.”
Amid the strike protest, Dr. Racquel Bernard invited students to speak into a microphone and state the hardships they had endured as the crowd hummed and a jazz band underscored their words. Students spoke of missing rent payments due to late paychecks, biking dozens of miles from more affordable areas, and needing full-time jobs on top of their academic employment. Bernard herself spoke of being homeless with a newborn child.
Because of these hardships, academic workers are striking for the long haul. There are approximately 280,000 students within all of the UC schools, and workers are looking to use these numbers in their favor. Through the strike, they aim to shut down as many university operations as possible—just weeks before final exams. The university seems to understand the ramifications, with top administrators having sent out emails for undergraduate students to expect “significant disruptions.”
Ultimately, academic workers hope to reach an agreement and continue to support their students.
“I care a lot about my students, and I want to be able to give back to them without worrying about my basic needs,” Konishi said.