December 6, 2023

University of California academic workers strike over wages and benefits in largest walkout in U.S. higher education

Striking academics also accuse UC administrators of not bargaining in good faith with its union as they picketed throughout the state.

Liz Haven, a chemistry graduate student, said undergraduates don’t realize how little the workers make and have generally been supportive of the strike.

“I really hope that being out here we can really communicate to the community and to all of the undergrads what our working and living situation is like and that we deserve to be fairly compensated for our labor,” said Haven, who joined picketers at UC Berkeley’s Sather Gate.

UC officials said students should plan to attend their classes, though some could get canceled depending on how long the strike goes on and how many of the academic workers take part in it.

“Department chairs and faculty will work together to ensure the least amount of disruption to the delivery of instruction and grading, as well as research,” UC Berkeley officials said in an email to students at the university.

The disruption could be significant. Striking workers such as Brianna Tafolla Rivière, a researcher and teaching assistant who walked off the job at UC Davis, said the “economic hardship” she and her colleagues endure gives them little choice. “I think everyone’s prepared to be out here for as long as it takes,” she said.

Academic workers are struggling with some of the highest housing costs in the nation at most of the UC campuses and say they cannot get by on the wages paid by the prestigious University of California.

Galen Liang, a striking graduate student in UC Berkeley’s math department, said rent and utilities eat up nearly half his monthly paycheck of $2,700, leaving him struggling to pay medical bills and unable to afford a plane ticket to visit family in China. “We’ll stand here for one more day than the UC can afford to continue their illegal behavior,” he said.

UC said it has offered multiyear wage increases to the the four bargaining units represented by the United Auto Workers, with the initial year’s increase ranging from 4 percent to 26 percent.

Salaried teaching assistants would earn between $24,874 and $30,893 to work half-time, a 7 percent increase in the first year and receive 3 percent increases in the subsequent years of the contract, Michael Brown, UC’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said in a letter published Monday in the Los Angeles Times.

UC officials sought to navigate the situation in a written statement as the strike got underway.

“Academic Researchers, Postdoctoral Scholars, Graduate Student Researchers and Academic Student Employees are all valued members of the UCSC community and play important roles in supporting the university’s mission,” UC Santa Cruz said in a statement. “We support the right of these employees to strike, and the campus is also taking steps to sustain the continuity of its research and instructional operations in the event a strike cannot be avoided.”

The UC strike comes at the tail end of a year that has seen a historic surge of union movement in California and the nation. Workers at major companies like Amazon and Starbucks have walked off the job around the country, winning the support of elected Democrats, including President Joe Biden.

Alexander Nieves contributed to this report.