LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOV. 15: Union academic workers and supporters march and picket at the UCLA campus amid a statewide strike by nearly 48,000 University of California unionized workers on Nov. 15, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. The strikers are calling for improved wages and benefits at the 10 UC public university campuses across California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

University of California graduate student workers have returned to teaching after reaching a new labor agreement with the university, ending a historic, 40-day strike that saw large demonstrations and massive disruptions to classes and finals at the end of last year’s fall quarter. 

Headlines across the nation heralded a victory, and United Auto Workers (UAW) union representatives emphasized the wage increases in the new labor agreement reached Dec. 23 included some of the highest ever won by academic workers. 

“The dramatic improvements to our salaries and working conditions are the result of tens of thousands of workers striking together in unity,” UCLA doctoral candidate and UAW 2865 president, Rafael Jaime, said in a statement. “These agreements redefine what is possible in terms of how universities support their workers, who are the backbone of their research and education enterprise. They include especially significant improvements for parents and marginalized workers, and will improve the quality of life for every single academic employee at the University of California.”

The agreement will provide workers across the 10-campus system with wage increases, child care support, and new protections against bullying and harassment, among other benefits. Two bargaining units of the UAW approved the proposed changes in separate votes. For the lowest-paid academic student employees, the new contract will raise salaries from about $23,000 to about $34,000 by October 2024, with additional boosts for workers in the Bay Area and Los Angeles where the cost of living is exceptionally high. By Oct. 1, 2024, graduate student researchers will make a minimum of $34,564.50.

Despite these increases, the salaries are still a far cry from the $54,000 that the workers picketed for, and they do not help the workers set to graduate in the summer of 2024. Contract opponents argued that the wage increases were also still not enough to cover the cost of housing in one of the country’s most expensive states. Many union members took to Twitter to voice their discontent with how the strike ended. 

UC Santa Barbara Ph.D. student Ryan Leach accused UAW 2865 of “using all of the union’s resources to push a ‘yes’ vote and suppress/slander the ‘no’ vote campaign,” which Leach noted was against the bylaws. According to Leach, UAW hired boutique public relations firm Brightline Communications—ostensibly with union funds—to push for a yes vote and worked to secure endorsements from paid union staff. 

The new deal also fails to provide support for disabled, BIPOC, and other marginalized graduate workers. Several students belonging to marginalized populations outlined their frustrations after the long picket process. “I’m exhausted,” one anonymous first-generation graduate worker at UCLA said. “We’re in this weird position where we’re making a little more money, but not enough to live sustainably, yet no longer qualify for state programs. So it’s a hollow victory.” 

Lili Flores Aguilar, a Ph.D. student at UCLA, agreed with this sentiment. 

“I do think that our most vulnerable student workers, such as those with disabilities and our BIPOC and international grad student constituents, were not advocated for enough by the bargaining team,” she said. “Unfortunately, our union is a bit conservative. Flores Aguilar wants to support successful future bargaining that leads to the removal of police on campus and embraces initiatives like COLA4ALL which seeks to peg wages to cost of living adjustments. 

“Such matters require much nuance and abolitionist sensibilities,” Flores Aguilar said.

The size of UC’s budget–and how much the university budget is dedicated to academic workers–continues to be a point of contention between students and administrators. In addition to housing costs, students are burdened by non-resident supplemental tuition fees, which can increase tuition up to $15,000 for non-California residents. 

“Non-resident supplemental tuition fees are a discriminatory mechanism,” UC Irvine political science Ph.D. student Abhimanyu Rajshekar-Falconer said in a statement for Voices from the Picket. “They suppress the equitable recruitment and retention of international students.”

UC Provost Michael Brown publicly rebutted a cost of living adjustment, arguing that non-California student employees would effectively receive a larger compensation package than California resident student employees despite “doing the same work.” However, the university has also not implemented any clear strategies to keep tuition costs stable. Despite students’ budget frustrations, the UC Board of Regents actually pushes for increased tuition costs. In 2021, the board nearly passed a plan allowing for indefinite, annual tuition increases, but ultimately yielded to an amendment by former Board of Regents student member Alexis Atsilvsgi Zaragoza. Zaragoza proposed to keep the tuition hike on the books for five years. 

Even with the temporary hiatus, it seems likely that the UC system will continue to raise costs due to dwindling support from the state, as budget support for the University of California system has waned considerably in the last several decades. In the early 1980s, nearly 87% of the UC budget came from state coffers. As of last year, only 42% of the UC budget comes from state funding, with the rest derived from student tuition and fees.

In the wake of these ever-rising costs and with no clear solution or support from the university, more marginalized graduate workers may be forced to drop out of these vaunted institutions–or take to the picket line once more. 

Brenton Zola is a first-generation writer, thinker, and polymath who uses the power of words to cultivate humanity. Informed by travel to dozens of nations to illuminate some of the world's greatest challenges,...