University of California Comes to a Standstill as Academic Workers Strike

Yves here. It’s been a long-standing disgrace that college and university tuitions have exploded, rising far faster than inflation, and have gone almost entirely into adminisphere bloat and gold-plated facilities. Aside from top professors (who typically make more consulting than working at their day jobs), academic pay, particularly for adjuncts, has languished, leaving these workers in strained circumstances. So hooray for a strike that seems to be having an impact.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Nearly 50,000 academic workers at the University of California launched a historic strike on November 14 after contract negotiations with their employer failed. Postdoctoral scholars, researchers, trainees, fellows, graduate student instructors, readers, and tutors, who are from 10 UC campuses across the state and are unionized with United Auto Workers, walked out of their jobs.

Such workers are not traditionally associated with militant labor actions as intellectual work has historically been well-compensated in the United States. But, as universities have increasingly adopted corporate models of operation, the same sort of delineation in pay seen in other industries has taken hold in academia, with administrative executives earning top dollar while rank-and-file workers have seen their wages shrink relative to inflation. At the top of workers’ list of demands is better pay, one that is tied to the cost of living, and especially the cost of housing.

“What the UC is proposing in terms of… small percent increases in annual salary, essentially that results in a net loss” to workers, says Joyce Chan, a postdoctoral scholar in neurosciences at UC San Diego. Chan, who serves on the bargaining team for UAW 5810, is referring to the fact that California is one of the most expensive statesto live in. She says, “our proposals are not only realistic, but we feel they are necessary.”

The university’s bargaining position can be boiled down to an expectation that its core academic workers simply have to accept a life of hardship. UC Provost Michael Brown, in a letter responding to the union’s demand, wrote, “Tying compensation directly to housing costs… could have overwhelming financial impacts on the University.”

But Chan counters that “30 to 80 percent of our income goes toward making rent alone.” Indeed, Brown did not dispute the fact that rent consumes too much of a graduate student’s paycheck. He only countered that it would be too hard for the university to do anything about it. In other words, if workers cannot afford to live, that’s their problem.

According to FairUCNow.org, a website set up by the UAW unions involved in the UC contract negotiations, academic workers “do the majority of teaching and research at UC, yet UC is refusing to offer us a fair share of the record-setting grant and state funding that our labor brings in.”

Chan points out that “our working conditions are our student’s learning conditions”—a logic familiar to one adopted by unionized school teachers in K-12 public schools. “If the UC meets our demands for fair compensation, we would be far more able to focus on the teaching, on the research, on everything that makes the University of California great,” she adds.

Brittany Drake, a PhD candidate at UCLA, tweeted in support of the strike, saying, “I do not doubt that many brilliant students research, careers, and health are being compromised due to the added financial stress, and hope that they will receive the support they deserve rather than admonishment.” She points out how, during her first two years in graduate school, she slept on friends’ couches, in her office, and even in her car. University administrators “admonished” her for spending nights in her office, but, she said, “No one asked if I was okay or needed help.”

Union members say the university can indeed afford to pay its academic workers more. “As California’s biggest [public] employer, the UC has a $46 billion annual budget,” says Chan, adding that “the [UAW] proposals for graduate workers would end up being less than 3 percent of the UC budget.” That academic workers cannot afford rent on their salaries is tantamount to them paying UC to work, instead of the other way around. In other words, it’s stolen labor.

“We have the right to demand better pay and better working conditions, and also to be able to demand things and to be heard,” says Chan. “We’re united and we’re ready to hold them accountable.”

In addition to sending a message to the university that workers demand better than what is being offered, the strike is also alerting the entire university community to the long-standing plight of graduate students and postdoctoral workers. The sight of thousands of UAW members rallying and picketing at UC campuses has inspired solidarity from faculty members who rely on the labor of their researchers and teaching assistants. James Vernon, chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, addressed a UAW picket on UC Berkeley’s campus, saying, “The system is broken and you’re going to help fix it and we are here as faculty to support you in that effort.”

UC’s academic researchers and workers are responsible for ushering critical intellectual work—not only to California, but also to the U.S. and world. “Our students in the sciences, they go on to become doctors, they go on to become engineers, that contribute to infrastructure, and also medicine,” says Chan. “I think it can’t be understated how important the university’s research is in social mobility, in improving people’s futures, and also in the arts as well, in creating work that moves people.”

The UC strike is also part of a broader trend of labor actions nationwide. In the same week that the strike began, Starbucks workers in more than 100 stores that have voted to join a union held a one-day strike to protest their employer’s refusal to bargain in good faith. UPS drivers, who are gearing up for a potentially major strike of their own next year, have been informed by their union, the Teamsters, that they can show solidarity with UC striking workers by refusing to cross the picket to deliver packages.

“For a lot of the academic workers at the UC, we see this pattern of indignity and unfair wages, unfair contracts, as a sort of universal theme, not only in the States but also worldwide,” says Chan. She cites that UC workers have been inspired by the actions of Starbucks workers in the U.S., as well as other companies and workers throughout the world.

“Not every teaching moment happens in a classroom,” says Chan. “Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself.”

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20 comments

  1. voislav

    People may not realize this, but funding for graduate students and postdocs mostly comes from research grants not from university funds. Professors apply for grants and incorporate the cost of student and postdoc salaries in the proposed budget. University just sets the recommended pay rates, which professors can choose to exceed (and often do, at least in sciences). So this is money that comes from NIH, NSF, etc. and not from university funds and increased pay rates would not affect university budgets at all.

    The only portion where pay comes out of university funds is to pay for teaching. Typically, grad students are required to do certain amount of teaching, usually 5 or 10 hours a week. This is cheap labour for the university, but it’s only a minor budget item on the university budgets. Typical salary split is 40% teaching 60% research, so less that half of the salary bill is paid by the university.

    I was involved in two strikes as a grad student in Canada and even back then the argument from the administration was similar to that for unpaid internships, you should count yourself lucky that you are getting payed at all since we are giving you all this valuable experience. There was a marked difference in attitude when negotiating professor’s contracts vs. lowly grad students. So a lot of the administration’s attitude comes from damn kids not knowing their place.

    Reply
      1. voislav

        In social sciences the big issue was the teaching hours. In natural sciences there is a high demand for teaching student labs, typical ration of teacher/student in the labs is 1:10 and there are many lab hours. So natural sciences students would typically get full allotment of teaching hours (10 per week), some would even go over.

        But in social sciences the demand for teaching is much lower, so their students were typically getting 1/4 of teaching hours (so 2.5 per week), some were getting none. So, while their research salary was still payed out of their grants, their teaching salary was low because of lack of hours. So while hourly wage looked good as $40 an hour, this was a teaching salary of $3000 per year as most teaching was done in fall/winter terms. So even with research salary of $12-15,000 per year, this was well below the poverty line.

        In both of the student strikes that I was involved in this was a major point of contention, getting university to guarantee a minimum income, regardless of the teaching hours offered. This was already an informal practice in the science departments, we’ve had a guaranteed salary of $25,000 per year (most people were making $30,000 or so) and any shortfall due to lack of funding or teaching would have been made up by the department. But other departments in the university would hang their students out to dry, expecting them to still do full-time research while scrambling to make enough money with part-time jobs.

        A lot of gaslighting from the professors too, a lot of “I’ve done it this way, so should you” without any awareness of the change in the cost of living and wages. Science profs tended to be better mostly because science grads are in much higher demand, so we had other options, but humanities profs were just appalling.

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    1. anon in so cal

      Grad students who are approved for a Teaching Assistant position, TA-ship–the most common employment category (the so-called “core academic workers”) are the category that does the teaching, grading, etc. These individuals (and I was one at UC) have to attend lecture (3 hours / week), teach three discussion sections per week, grade papers and record grades, hold regular office hours, etc.

      The funding for TAs is university and departmental funding and typically includes a tuition waiver. Receiving a TA-ship is not guaranteed (there are grad students who do not qualify). This takes place as part of the graduate admission process when the applicant learns whether or not they have been awarded a departmental TA-ship. Professors are assigned TAs by the department, according to their class enrollment.

      Profs who get grants can, of course, hire research assistants (RAs) and/or Post Docs, and a lot of that funding comes from research grants. RAs typically do not perform teaching/grading.

      Reply
    2. Kouros

      You forget the 25-30% overhead that the University demands from all the grants. Researchers and Principal Investigators act as independent consultants that provide a cut to the university for every research grant they get.

      Reply
  2. KLG

    Yes, the money for graduate student and postdoctoral stipends usually comes from grants, but US universities can specify the required pay for graduate students doing research on these projects. This varies by location. A student of mine was accepted into a PhD program at Vanderbilt and a large state university, also in the South but in an area with a much lower cost of living than Nashville. The Vanderbilt stipend was substantially larger, and thus more competitive, and this figured into grant budgets. I would also add that when a student or postdoc is awarded an independent fellowship from an outside source (NIH, AHA, ACS), the university stops collecting or contributing payroll taxes and the student must pay quarterly estimated income taxes. Those years are usually lost to Social Security. So, the question is whether we as a society value the essential work done by graduate students and postdocs. I’m not holding my breath. And adjunct faculty should not even exist except at the far margin in which a practitioner might teach an elective course in his or her specialty, but that is another story altogether.

    Reply
    1. voislav

      Actually, many university have teaching faculty members, I have a couple of friends who are “lecturers”, a teaching position equivalent to a professor, with the same salary grades and benefits. It’s great because they are hired for their teaching skills not their research.

      Teaching is an afterthought in science programs and professors are hired based on how much research money they can attract. The students are then stuck with poor teachers who don’t care about teaching and some that resent having to teach. The best university can do is move these teachers to marginal courses with fewer students to minimize the damage, because they are required to teach per their contract unless given a special dispensation.

      This is why there has been such a rise in adjunct faculty, not only have the number of full-time faculty not increased to match the increased enrollment, more and more of the research faculty is getting reduced teaching load written into their contracts because they don’t care to teach and university only cares about the research money they bring in.

      Reply
      1. anon in so cal

        In the UC system, something called “course load” means that every professor is required to teach a certain number of courses per year. Even “distinguished professors” with 500 publications and international acclaim must enter the classroom. The course load requirement cannot be satisfied by solely teaching grad courses but rather requires teaching a certain number of undergrad courses. Of these undergrad courses, a certain number have to be lower division.

        Reply
  3. The Rev Kev

    So I thought that I would check out what the salary of the President of the University of California – Michael V. Drake – is at present when I found myself dropped down a rabbit hole. The guy has been in office since August of 2020 and it is obvious that the present problems have been building up for many years. But the person that preceded him in office was no less than Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security. So is the office of President of the University of California just a goody to be given to people who have no background in public education? At least Michael V. Drake has a background as a scholar and in uni admin-

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Napolitano#University_of_California

    Reply
    1. Acacia

      Yep, and the rabbit hole of salaries goes pretty deep:

      https://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/university-of-california/

      Try a search for Judith Butler. Or for what a coach, provost, or dean typically get paid. Bear in mind this is a state school.

      I participated in a strike at UC over 20 years ago. UAW supported us, and truckers blew air horns as they passed the picket lines. We had to talk with our students and try to explain the strike. Few faculty supported us. There was no union and UC refused to even recognize the grad students as workers. At one point, morale was so bad that the UAW sent a mariachi band to try and liven things up. The strike eventually collapsed, but the problems haven’t gone away. I can’t imagine trying to live in California on the pay of a GSI in 2022.

      Hope the current strike can sustain enough momentum to compel UC to meet some of the demands.

      Reply
      1. UCguy

        Thanks for laying the groundwork for this 20 years ago!

        I’m a grad at UC Santa Cruz, and I can tell you the mood is very different this time. There’s a ton of energy behind the strike, even in science departments that have been traditionally skeptical. Most of the undergrads seem to be supportive, besides a few on Reddit angry that buses are disrupted. I can only speak for my department, but even the faculty are very supportive (behind closed doors, they’re reluctant to publicly support it or make statements). It’s never stated but I get the sense that they’re also sick of all the useless administrative bloat, and would love to see the admin knocked down a peg and more money and resources funneled into useful work

        Reply
  4. Omicron

    It would have been interesting to see, just for comparison’s sake, what the current annual salary is for a beginning TA in the humanities, as I was more than (gulp) 60 years ago. I’ve been retired for 20 years now, and have no idea of this number. As a beginning TA in 1960, one course a week, I was paid $1,800 a year, $18,000 in today’s money. I got a tuition rebate as well (for two courses a semester); hard to calculate that in real financial value, but it was an Ivy League school. On that compensation I could, with one roommate, have an apartment near the university and survive. I was fortunate in having a talent (rewrite man) in demand by newspapers at that time, and so could get temp work with a couple of phone calls if the money ran out.

    Of course the career prospects were much brighter at that time (the baby boomers were looming and the huge expansion of higher ed was still ahead of us). I would never seek a career as an English professor today. My daughter did; she is much more academically accomplished than I ever was and it took her *five* *years* of being a “freeway flyer,” as adjuncts are called in California, to get a tenure-track job, in which she flourished. IMNSHO our university system is in an advanced state of decay. I wish the UC grad students luck. They deserve much better.

    Reply
  5. DanB

    I am a retired academic, and I thank Goodness for this status. There past several years I’ve taught part-time at a community college and a small private liberal arts college here in Massachusetts. As of last January I no longer teach at either institution.

    The community college got a new president several years ago and she set out to “strategically manage” the college by introducing “six sigma” standards- which of course mean sweeping administrative dismissals- to improve the quality of the college coupled with all manner of efforts to improve teaching so as to raise the retention level of students. The college now recruits anyone they can find who possesses a GED and the rate of withdrawal remain high.

    The college is 65% adjuncts and 30% full-time; overall faculty morale was so low under the newer president that she got a vote of no confidence. She survived because that vote was not binding. Full time faculty pay is low and adjunct salary is lower than low as the corporatization of the institution goes forth.

    At the private college, the faculty and staff received no pay raises -at all- in 2020 because the college argued the pandemic was sure to devastate the endowment and operations budget. It turns out the endowment rose by over $30 million and the operating budget for 2020 was $2 million in the black. These facts were obscured by the administration and in 2021 they offered pay raises below the inflation rate and no make-up compensation for the 2020 pay freeze. This prompted a call for genteel protests by faculty and staff; the faculty is nonunion and SEIU respires the staff. Meager pay increases were thereafter offered but the morale of the faculty and staff has been shaken. They thought the college -which is a Catholic institution- was run like a family. The salaries of full-time faculty, adjuncts, and staff are quite low compared to other institutions of higher learning in Massachusetts.

    Reply
    1. Karl

      …overall faculty morale was so low under the newer president that she got a vote of no confidence. She survived because that vote was not binding.

      She probably got kudos from the Board for minding the bottom line. Keeping raises below the rate of inflation–wow! that’s leadership!

      Of course, that’s a big f**k you to those performing the core mission of the place–teaching. No wonder morale is bad.

      Reply
  6. Anthony G Stegman

    The annual list of public employee pensions in California is top heavy with UC administrators. These pensions often exceed $400K annually. For the UC to claim that they cannot afford to pay their workforce fairly is disingenuous to say the least. It’s akin to Elon Musk claiming he can’t afford to pay Twitter employees market rates for their labor.

    Reply
  7. polar donkey

    To teach a course for a semester at Northwest Community College in DeSoto County Mississippi (just south of Memphis), you get $1,500. You get paid more working part-time at Home Depot.

    Reply
  8. David in Santa Cruz

    I’m a UC alum and I live near a campus, taking an interest in happenings at my alma mater. I think that the real issues involve the UC system foisting teaching on students rather than hiring faculty — and the failure to provide student housing.

    My local UC campus is located in a community that has been unable to grow in a way that can provide sufficient housing at a cost that these striking students can ever reasonably hope to afford. I have personally publicly addressed the UC Regents meeting about the need for the campus to provide subsidized (or better free) housing to students — especially to the grad students who are striking.

    I have found myself opposed by NIMBY faculty members who are opposed to graduate student housing because it would be in close proximity to the subsidized housing that hundreds of faculty have been gifted as part of their compensation. These faculty members are actually funding litigation to block the graduate student housing that I helped convince the Regents to authorize.

    The strikers are students after all — this is not their “job.” They’re simply trying to make ends meet while they obtain their academic training. Decent housing for students should be a right not a privilege. The unwillingness of UC to construct housing commensurate with their mandate to accommodate the growing population of the state is at the root of this strike.

    Reply
    1. Acacia

      I also attended UCSC, albeit long ago. To amplify David’s point, it’s worth noting that the UCSC campus is a giant parcel of land — over 6000 acres — in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. Under the present Long Range Development Plan (LRDP), a very large chunk is considered a nature preserve. My guess is that a majority of students and faculty probably support this policy (at least, they did in my day), but as the university has grown (e.g., there are today roughly 3x the number of grad students as when I was a student), more housing and entire colleges have nevertheless been built. The current LRDP aims to provide housing for 100% of the students, though only beyond 19,500, which is slightly more than the current enrollment. At present, also, there is on-campus housing for about 9,300 students. So, over half the students must still figure out off-campus housing, presumably at market rates.

      While I agree that the UC system is “foisting teaching on students rather than hiring faculty”, this is more or less the norm in US higher education, where about 75% of teaching is done by lecturers and GSIs on temporary contracts. I don’t see that this excuses UC policies, but I feel a more persuasive argument is needed against those who support the status quo. The current strikes are progress in that they seek better compensation for the work being done by grad students and lecturers, but the structural inequality and exploitation at the heart of higher education remains.

      Something is just wrong with the institution when you have all of these academics talking about “agency” and championing liberal ideals of freedom, while 75% of teachers in the same system are temp workers.

      Reply
  9. MFB

    I hope everyone here realises that this is not something unique to either California or the United States. Even back in the late 1980s at the University of Cape Town, when I was a temporary teaching assistant, similar circumstances applied. The idea then was that you would be a serf for a while and then go off and get a good job. Unfortunately the economy was disintegrating and no good jobs were available, and things haven’t much improved since — for a brief period african students enjoyed opportunities under affirmative action, but this has become so corrupt, and the economy is in such a poor state, that being a TTA is a hopeless project.

    Incidentally, Cape Town is the most expensive town for rentals in South Africa, which doesn’t improve the situation for those coming to the university from elsewhere.

    A lot of this stuff derives from the “New Public Management” ideas brought in by Thatcher in the 1980s and Clinton in the 1990s.

    Reply

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