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How the University of California Strike Could Reshape Higher Education


As a strike of 48,000 academic workers at the University of California—the largest labor action of the year—stretches into a third week, other universities are watching closely. The outcome in California, experts say, could shape a new model for higher education across the country.

The strike, which began Nov. 14, has led to canceled classes and closed labs as final exams loom at the end of the semester, but union leaders say they’re still at odds with university management. Across the system’s ten campuses, postdoctoral scholars, teaching assistants, and graduate student researchers have walked out. They’re represented by the United Auto Workers union, which says the university has engaged in “unfair labor practices” by implementing changes related to compensation during bargaining and failing to provide information related to bargaining topics—a claim the university disputes.

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And while workers argue that a school with an $18 billion endowment can afford to pay them better, the university says its salary offers are better than those at other public universities and are meant only to cover part-time work.

“We are overworked and severely underpaid. We earn poverty wages,” says Rafael Jaime, a 33-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles and the president of United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents 19,000 student workers participating in the strike. “What we’re really seeing is a crisis in academia.”

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A Larger Problem

The strike is shining a spotlight on a longstanding problem within higher education: Today, tenured, full-time faculty members make up a smaller percentage of university employees than they did 50 years ago, in part due to the financial pressures facing universities amid funding cuts. The proportion of other university employees, who receive less job security and lower pay, “has grown tremendously,” says Tim Cain, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, who studies campus activism and unionization.

“There’s such stratification between the tenured full professor and a graduate student employee or a postdoc or a tutor,” says Cain. “They’re doing a great deal of the work, and the work that they’re doing in the classroom is often very similar to the work of others who are getting paid substantially more.”

But while that dynamic isn’t new, experts say the University of California strike stands out among previous labor movements in academia.

“To have this many workers on strike is really something new in higher education,” says Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers, who is also president of the union for graduate workers and faculty at her university. “The willingness of these workers to bring their campuses to a standstill is demonstrating that the current model of higher education can’t continue, and that the current system really rests on extremely underpaid labor.”

The strike has garnered support from many University of California faculty members and lawmakers, and some undergraduate students and faculty have held rallies in support of the strike. James Vernon—a history professor who chairs the faculty association at the University of California, Berkeley—has canceled his classes in support of the strike.

“The system is broken, graduate school should be affordable for everyone, and only this labor movement can fix it,” he said in a tweet, urging faculty members to cancel classes “and support our graduate students so one day they can do your job.”

Congresswoman Katie Porter, a California Democrat, was part of a group of lawmakers who wrote a letter to the university’s president on Nov. 21 in support of the striking workers. “Their talent, innovation, and labor are an integral part of the University’s function and ability to secure funding,” they wrote, urging university leaders to “immediately resolve” the strike.

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What Workers Want

The striking workers argue that their current pay makes it challenging to afford housing near their universities, in a state with one of the highest costs of living in the country. Jaime, the Ph.D. candidate, says he makes $27,000 per year as a teaching fellow and pays $1,200 in monthly rent for an apartment he shares with two roommates. (Median rent in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is about $3,000, according to Realtor.com.) “We are the ones who do the majority of teaching and research,” he says. “But nevertheless, the university doesn’t pay us enough to live where we work.”

They are calling for a minimum salary of $54,000 for all graduate workers and $70,000 for postdoctoral researchers, with annual cost-of-living increases. They’re also calling on the university to waive the more expensive out-of-state tuition rate for international students—a move the university argues would place students from California “at a significant financial disadvantage” as a state-funded school.

University leaders have emphasized that graduate student workers are employed part-time, for no more than 20 hours per week, while they pursue their degrees. The university proposed a new salary minimum of $24,874 for teaching fellows and teaching assistants, $28,275 for graduate student researchers, and $60,000 for postdoctoral scholars.

“Though we have reached many tentative agreements with the union, we remain apart on key issues related to tying wages and pay increases to housing costs and tuition remission for nonresident international students,” Ryan King, a University of California spokesperson, said in a statement.

In a letter to university leaders on Nov. 15, University of California provost Michael Brown said tying worker compensation to housing costs could have “overwhelming financial impacts” on the university.

“UC believes its offers are generous, responsive to union priorities, and recognize the many valuable contributions of these employees,” the university said in a statement about the strike. They argue that the university’s wage proposals would place University of California academic workers “at the top of the pay scale across major public universities and on par with top private universities.” (Graduate student workers at the University at Buffalo, for example, are calling on their university to raise their minimum stipend to $22,000—less than the minimum now being proposed by the University of California.)

Whichever side prevails, the outcome could set a new standard for other universities to follow. If the workers’ demands are met, it could embolden graduate students at other universities to take similar action; days after the University of California strike began, part-time faculty members at the New School in New York City walked out to protest low pay. But if the effort isn’t successful, it could deter workers at other universities from trying to strike.

“Everybody in higher education is watching,” Givan says.

Jaime, the Ph.D. candidate, says he would ultimately like to see academia become a more accessible profession for people from diverse backgrounds, noting that it’s difficult for low-income students to pursue careers in higher education under the current system.

“We want dignified working conditions, dignified living wages, so that academia can be more equitable and accessible to workers from all walks of life,” Jaime says. “This is really a fight for the future of public education.”


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