48,000 UC graduate student workers go on strike

About 48,000 unionized academic workers across the University of California’s 10 campuses — who perform the majority of teaching and research at the state’s premier higher education system — walked off the job Monday morning, calling for better pay and benefits.

The systemwide strike includes teaching assistants, postdoctoral scholars, graduate student researchers, tutors and fellows, as well as workers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and it has already caused multiple disruptions to scheduled classes, just weeks before final exams.

The strike marks the largest work stoppage of the year so far, and union leaders say it will also be the biggest at any academic institution in history. UCLA workers joined the picket line at 8 a.m., demonstrating with signs, T-shirts and chants at multiple locations across campus, as did groups at UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced.

UC Irvine strikers began demonstrating on campus at 8:30 a.m., while walkouts at some other campuses were set for 9 a.m., including UC Davis and UC San Francisco. The 48,000 workers, represented by four UAW bargaining units, have demanded base salaries of $54,000, a wage increase that would more than double their average current pay of about $24,000 annually.

UC has offered a salary scale increase of 7% in the first year and 3% in each subsequent year, but workers have said that’s not sufficient.

“We are overworked and underpaid, and we are fed up,” said Jamie Mondello, a 27-year-old psychology graduate student worker at UCLA and member of UAW Local 2865 and Student Researchers United. “Our proposals bring everyone into a livable wage. We’re, as a whole, just asking to be treated with dignity. We really keep the UC running.”

Mondello said she makes about $37,000 a year as a fellow and is planning to add a teaching assistantship next quarter to help supplement her income. She was out on the picket line at UCLA’ on Monday morning, along with hundreds of other academic workers, many holding signs that read, “UAW on strike. Unfair labor practice.”

“Forty-eight thousand strong,” they chanted. “We can fight all day long.”

A man joins picketers holding signs.

Trevor Scheopner, a grad student researcher, center, joins a demonstration at UCLA as nearly 48,000 University of California academic workers strike Monday. Scheopner says that more than two-thirds of his income goes toward his rent and with the cost of living in Los Angeles and rapid inflation, it’s getting tougher.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Lavanya Nott, 30, a third-year graduate student in the geography department and a student researcher, said she makes $24,000 a year from her job and about $2,000 a year from her second job as an on-campus grader for teaching assistants who don’t speak English as their first language.

“It’s almost impossible to live in L.A. or most cities in California,” she said. “Many of us have second or third jobs.”

Nott called her income “poverty-level wages” and said 92% of graduate students are rent-burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their income on rent. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment provided by UC housing with her partner paying $1,500 a month combined. While she doesn’t have a child, she said she knows parents are really struggling because the child care subsidies that UC provides aren’t enough for people to send their kids to child care on UC campuses.

“We’re always thinking about how little money we have and how constrained we are financially, and I think it would give us some peace of mind and freedom to focus on our work and have some dignity,” Nott said. “We just want to be brought out of poverty.”

International students, the strikers said, have to pay non-residential tuition fees, which puts them on a “treadmill” to complete their degrees in five years, because the university won’t cover their fees beyond five years.

Silhouettes on the sidewalk of demonstrators picketing.

Demonstrators picket at UCLA as nearly 48,000 University of California academic workers strike on Monday.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

“Postdocs, researchers, graduate student teaching assistants basically run the university in many ways,” Nott said. “We teach the majority of the classes. We grade more papers than any faculty member there is. We do cutting-edge research that brings in a huge amount of funding to the UC system. The demands that we’re asking for only make up 3% of the UC’s annual budget. It’s a really minuscule ask in terms of what UC can afford.”

Rafael Jaime, president of UAW Local 2865, which represents 19,000 of the 48,000 workers, was out early Monday at UC San Diego with fellow union members on strike, where he said the energy was high.

“We’re going to be out here as long as it takes,” Jaime said. He said the union continues to negotiate “around the clock,” and, while some progress has been made on stronger protections against workplace bullying and abuse, he said the two sides remain “still far apart on many of the issues that will make UC a more equitable university.”

In addition to pay increases, workers are seeking childcare subsidies, enhanced healthcare benefits for dependents, public transit passes, lower tuition costs for international scholars and better accessibility for workers with disabilities.

Demonstrators picket at UCLA with signs.

Demonstrators picket at UCLA on Monday.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t immediately clear how many classes, labs or scheduled academic activities were interrupted Monday, but students at UCLA reported many classes canceled.

Ebony Morris, 21, a fourth-year undergraduate art student, said the discussion group meeting for one of her classes was canceled until the strike is over.

“TAs make a class,” she said. “It’s a smaller way to get everything you’re supposed to get in class.”

Morris said the grading of assignments and tests will also most likely be affected by the strike.

“We truly are here because we want to make academia better. No one wants a strike, and we have been forced to be in this position just to get fair working conditions and a fair contract.”

— Jamie Mondello, a psychology graduate student worker at UCLA

“I think UCLA should pay the people who work here,” she said. “If they need to strike, they need to strike. I feel like it’s a human right to be able to pay for your life.”

Breanna Reyes, 20, and Vanessa Salgado, 20, are both third-year undergraduate students and Spanish majors.

Reyes said one of her classes was canceled indefinitely and another was moved online until the strike is over. Salgado said a couple of her classes and discussion groups were canceled.

“Obviously, there’s disruptions in grading and classes, but I think the point is to cause disruption and to make staff aware of the problems that are going on, so I don’t really mind,” Salgado said.

Reyes said some of the students were thinking about joining the strike in solidarity.

“In big lectures, we don’t get that individual attention and we don’t get to ask as many questions,” Reyes said. “In our discussion groups, we get to express ourselves more, ask questions about homework, get feedback on it and it improves our overall grade, so I think missing out on that will hinder the experience from our first quarter.”

Mondello, the UCLA psychology graduate student, said she appreciates that a lot of undergraduates understand the strike isn’t an effort to punish them and faculty, but is necessary for academic workers.

“We truly are here because we want to make academia better,” Mondello said. “No one wants a strike, and we have been forced to be in this position just to get fair working conditions and a fair contract.”

She said it’s especially concerning because union leaders have accused the university on multiple occasions of engaging in unlawful bargaining tactics, such as circumventing the bargaining table and intimidation tactics, and filed 23 unfair labor practice claims with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board. In three cases, the board has issued complaints, which means the board found sufficient evidence that an unfair practice may have been committed. Only one of the three complaints has been resolved in a settlement conference.

UC has denied any unlawful behavior and said differences should be worked out at the bargaining table, not on the picket lines. “UC remains committed to continuing its good faith efforts to reach agreements with UAW as quickly as possible,” the university said in a statement.

A group of 33 state lawmakers sent a letter in support of the graduate student workers urging UC President Michael Drake to bargain in good faith.

“The UC is one of the top public university systems and research institutions in the world, in no small part because of its ability to attract the most talented scholars from a wide array of backgrounds,” the letter reads. “But the UC system cannot live up to its mission and reputation if its own employees do not feel respected.”

Last November, the university system narrowly avoided a strike planned by about 6,500 lecturers after reaching a last-minute agreement that improved their job security and included raises.

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

Source link