Academic workers at the University of California on strike for four weeks now
On December 5, a group of 17 University of California (UC) academic workers held a sit-in at the UC president’s office in Sacramento. After a few hours, they were arrested by police officers and cited for trespassing. These workers were part of an ongoing strike against the university that began four weeks ago, the eventual outcome of which will impact the higher education model in the US.
Nearly 50,000 UC employees, including postdocs, academic researchers, and graduate students, walked off the job on November 14, 2022. This action followed a year of negotiations between the UC administration and United Auto Workers, the union representing the workers. All ten of the UC campuses are involved in the dispute.
According to the Guardian, “It is by far the largest and most important strike in the history of American higher education, with the potential to transform both the status and income of those who work in an ‘industry’ that now employs more workers than the federal government.”1
This labor dispute comes at a critical time for higher education in the US. Due to funding cuts and financial pressures faced by universities, the percentage of tenured, full-time faculty members has decreased significantly in recent years, and the proportion of other university employees, who receive less job security and lower pay, has greatly increased. These lower-paid employees do much of the same work as do the higher-paid faculty.
Currently, graduate students take on numerous tasks in universities, such as advising and teaching students, proctoring and grading exams, conducting research, and staffing labs. Thus, the work stoppage has caused classes to be disrupted or canceled and research to be slowed. Some faculty have moved to online instruction to avoid crossing picket lines.
UC academic workers are demanding increased wages to offset increased housing costs and inflation. As California has one of the highest costs of living in the US, the current wages paid to these employees make it difficult for them to afford appropriate accommodations. The union is demanding a minimum salary of $54,000 for graduate students, double the current minimum, and $70,000 for postdoc researchers, along with annual cost-of-living increases.
Striking workers are also looking for increased funding for childcare support and increased leave for parents and caregivers. In addition, they are asking the university to waive the more expensive out-of-state tuition for international students. The university contends that this would place in-state students at a disadvantage.
Underlying circumstances and current outcomes
Although the employees are asking for other changes, the main contention is with the inability of the workers to afford housing, which has been a long-term concern. According to a NY Times article, “in a union survey, 92 percent of graduate student workers said housing consumed more than a third of their income. For 40 percent of them, it was more than half.”2 The workers believe salaries should be high enough that housing doesn’t cost more than 30 percent of their monthly pay. The UC administration noted that they already provide subsidized housing for graduate workers at 25 percent below market rates.
There has been some progress in settling the dispute, although large differences remain. UC administrators have been dealing with the employee groups separately and have made a contract offer to the approximately 12,000 postdocs and academic researchers that includes a modest pay increase along with increased childcare support. However, their offer to the graduate students, the largest portion of the striking workers, was much smaller.
Postdocs and researchers are generally paid by the federal government in the form of grants, whereas graduate teaching assistants, the lowest-paid group, are funded by the university system. State support for the UC system has been declining in recent years, as has state-supported funding for all higher education in the US.
The final outcome in California could impact the higher education model across the US. Workers at other institutions are paying close attention to the situation. If the demands of the UC workers are met, graduate students at other universities may take similar action. However, an unsuccessful outcome may deter workers at other institutions from striking.
1. Lichtenstein, N. The California academic strike is the most important in US higher education history. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/05/california-academic-strike-most-important-us-higher-education-history
2. Hubler, S. University of California academic employees strike for higher pay. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/14/us/university-of-california-strike-pay.html
You're looking to give wings to your academic career and publication journey. We like that!
Why don't we give you complete access! Create a free account and get unlimited access to all resources & a vibrant researcher community.