Cal Grad Student Worker Strike Ends With Deal Panned by Many Rank-and-File Union Members

By Brett Wilkins, a staff writer for Common Dreams

While many University of California graduate student workers welcomed Friday’s strike-ending ratification of a new labor agreement that delivers increased pay and benefits, other rank-and-file union members expressed anger and disappointment that the deal does not deliver enough.

The Los Angeles Times reports two bargaining units of United Auto Workers—which represent the 48,000 student workers—approved tentative agreements on contracts that will take effect immediately and run through the end of May 2025. The six-week strike—the largest academic employee walkout in U.S. history—will end, and most U.C. graduate workers will return to their jobs after winter break.

More than two-thirds (68%) of Student Researchers United (SRU)-UAW members approved the tentative agreement, while about 62% of UAW-2865 members backed the proposal. Support among SRU-UAW voters ranged from 19% at U.C. Santa Cruz to 86% at U.C. Berkeley Lab. For UAW-2865, U.C. San Diego (73%) showed the strongest support for the agreement, while just one in five U.C. Santa Cruz voters approved the deal.

The agreement sets minimum salary scales for student workers, raising base pay from around $23,250 to $34,564.50 for 50% time work by October 1, 2024. U.C. Berkeley, U.C. San Francisco, and UCLA workers will get at least $36,500 due to the higher cost of living in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Childcare reimbursements, non-residential supplemental tuition, and other benefits are included in the package.

“The dramatic improvements to our salaries and working conditions are the result of tens of thousands of workers striking together in unity,” UAW 2865 president Rafael Jaime said in a statement. “These agreements redefine what is possible in terms of how universities support their workers, who are the backbone of their research and education enterprise. They include especially significant improvements for parents and marginalized workers, and will improve the quality of life for every single academic employee at the University of California.”

Nick Geiser, one of the student negotiators, said that “I think this represents one of the most successful collective bargaining agreements in academic history and certainly in modern American labor history.”

However, many rank-and-file UAW members opposed the agreement. Fifteen of the 40 student negotiators voted against the deal, arguing that “the proposal is inadequate and that a stronger contract is within reach.”

“One of the main issues I have is that the major salary increase will not come to fruition until 2024,” Samia Errazzouki, a doctoral candidate in history at U.C. Davis, told The New York Times. “When I signed up and voted to authorize the strike, my understanding was that we were negotiating to see the fruits immediately.”

Janna Haider, a U.C. Santa Barbara history Ph.D. student and bargaining team member, told the San Francisco Examiner that the contract “does not come close to our initial demands and it leaves a lot of our co-workers still rent burdened, still impoverished, but also now in this weird position where they make slightly too much to qualify for certain public assistance programs.”

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times and lamenting the exclusion of accessibility and police defunding provisions from the deal, Haider said that “it is disappointing and upsetting that we have enshrined systemic inequity in a union contract.”

“But we will respect the results provided the ballots were counted honestly, and rank-and-file workers will continue to fight for a real cost of living adjustment, for an end to police violence, and a more just U.C. and UAW,” she said.

Enrique Olivares Pesante, a UCLA PhD student in English and teaching assistant, told the paper that he voted for the agreement even though he believes it is insufficient.

“Getting this contract wasn’t the end of it,” he said. “It’s just the beginning and the continuation of a very long struggle.”

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  1. Bart Hansen

    It sounds like the graduate student workers used to get paid enough for rent; now it will be enough for rent and a car payment. Adjuncts maybe get enough for rent, car payment and health care. That leaves many other obligations to be provided by second jobs.

  2. Jeremy Grimm

    The sands of the Education Industrial Complex may have shifted in this wind but the root problem remains. Graduate Students may get a little more but who will be getting less and who will probably be paying more? I expect student fees will rise to cover the increased costs for graduate student pay and the pay for the many administrators who will be hired to maintain good relations with the graduate student union, plus a little more increase to add to the University’s profit margins. Like the graduate students, other sectors of the University workforce will have to organize and strike to garner a bigger slice of the University profits pie. But in the end the administrators will take even bigger slices of pie for themselves, and students and their parents will cover the increased costs. A premium education will come at the cost of ever greater premiums. That will be more and more true as fewer students attend the Universities. The mystery remains whether scarcer more expensive degrees will receive wage and salary increases to compensate for the added costs. I suspect this wage and salary issue will be sorted out based on who the parents are and what strings they can pull.

  3. big bill

    I am a former member of this local, one of the saddest large local unions in the country and part of the most corrupt National unions in the country. They could have a lot of power to change the lives of their poverty stricken membership and shape the larger politics of public service and education in California, but time and again they choose not to because it’s too much work and goes against the UAW’s national strategy of making concessions with management to keep the union status quo in power.

    Sometimes, as with this strike, the grad local will make a big stink for a week or two before settling for a contract full of concessions and some poison pill whose effects won’t be felt for years but will eventually weaken the union, like the two-tier pay scale they just adopted in California, the same tiered salary system that has been undermining the auto industry locals for 25 years. If any members oppose the crappy contract, leadership calls them anti-union. Pathetic. And also an example of why American unions are in the weak position they are in today.

  4. David in Santa Cruz

    As someone who has had a close relationship with UC Santa Cruz for half a century, I can say that the issue is housing not compensation. Santa Cruz is simply an impossible place to locate a public university and the “market” will never be able to provide adequate housing stock to accommodate a public research university serving both undergraduate and graduate students.

    The little town is wedged in a tiny coastal plain between the mountains and the sea and is 100 percent built-out. Way back in the 1970’s UC was considering shuttering the campus and the community reacted by voting to greenbelt the surrounding undeveloped land. During the 1980’s UC built hundreds of units of faculty housing on the campus and now the residents of that faculty housing are bitterly waging a NIMBY battle against student housing on UC land. In the 1990’s nearby Silicon Valley reared its ugly head and aside from the luxury busses heading “over the Hill” to Apple and Meta, ScAmazon and Google have staked-out significant space in town.

    The UC grad students can strike for higher pay until the end of time, but they can’t build more housing at “market rates” that will be adequate to serve their needs. Pay increases will simply drive-up rents. I’ve proposed that the campus be converted into a research institute — the Lawrence Labs of the Green New Deal — that undergraduate education be moved elsewhere and the existing dorms converted to researcher housing. Na-gon-happen…

    1. Laura in So Cal

      Nope. Low property taxes aren’t the problem. As I did some research on property taxes in other states, I was shocked to discover the huge “homestead” exemption that exists in many states which is a base amount that is excluded from the assessment prior to applying the tax rate. We have one also, but it wasn’t indexed for inflation or ever raised so it currently sits at a value of $7K.

      Also, the Prop 13 argument ignores voted indebtedness and extra assessments which are common and add extra taxes to the annual bill.

      Also, assessed values increase by 2.5%? each year and assessed values reset upon sale of a property OR when you pull a permit for any kind of improvement which is required for most renovations.

      When I was doing my research, I assumed the same value house and the only states I found with higher property taxes were states like WA and TX that didn’t didn’t have personal income taxes plus a few very high prop tx states NJ, NY etc.

      The original reason for prop 13 was that in a market with lots of real estate bubbles etc., annual reassessments were causing large numbers of people (especially senior citizens) to default on their prop taxes and having to sell, move, declare bankruptcy etc. Those reasons still stand (see recent bubble that is now deflating).

      For real numbers,

      My house TODAY has a market value of @$750K. (based on a recent sale of an identical home in my neighborhood and taking into account condition). Houses for sale are sitting and values are still dropping. 18 months ago there were several sales of over $900K. I’ve owned my home for 15 years and paid @$550K. My assessed value is $685K and I pay property taxes on $678K.

      General Levy of 1% is 6,780
      Voted inDebtedness is $1,470
      Direct Assessments $1,490
      Total tax is 9,740/year or 1.42%/year of assessed value.

      Voted items are for K-12 schools, the community college district, and a special waterproject. Direct assessments are 14 different lines items/services. Things like our local sanitation district, flood control, support for our local emergency services, the fire dept etc.

      If I were to pin point a basic reason for the problem, it would be the rise of administration over teachers. From the pay in the article, it sounds like you could fire one person in administration and double the pay of 2-3 teaching assistents/grad students etc.

      1. B24S

        While I agree that administrative bloat, and corporate-level pay for said administration, is a primary factor in UC’s problems, your explanation of Prop 13 is lacking.

        While prop 13 was sold to the voters as protecting grandma and grandpa from being thrown to the wolves, residential tax rate relief was merely cover for excluding commercial real estate from revaluation on corporate sales, takeovers, etc. More a situation of shifting costs from Wall St. to the citizenry.

        Between growing up in (then) rural metro-NYC area, where we watched our neighbors get taxed out so developers could move in, and living in California for 48 years now (32+ as a homeowner), where I do appreciate the residential part of Prop 13, as we get by on SS (or hope to after selling the old stone house in NY and paying off our mortgage), we have watched this for decades, and supported efforts to reform Prop 13 so corporations cannot continue to avoid sharing society’s costs.

        1. Glen

          I think that is a solid analysis. Bottom line is that middle/lower class incomes have not kept pace with the cost of anything:

          Wage Stagnation in Nine Charts

          America is now a country of few really really rich people that have benefited tremendously from tax and fiscal policy by the government (and Fed) and everybody else. Hint: if you are reading this blog – you are EVERYBODY ELSE.

          Today we can point fingers at California, and discuss how things are better in Texas, and there are certainly situations/scenarios where people can improve their lot in life by moving, switching jobs, starting businesses, but the longer term trend is still California leads the nation by a decade, and every other state eventually gets there too. Unless we start going after the root cause here (which is really really rich people run the country and they don’t give a [family blog] about you) then things will continue to get worse for the 99%.

          As to my two cents on the UC system, and working there. I went to UC for my engineering degree in the late 70’s, early 80’s, and worked there in the College of Engineering. It cost about $1200 a year to go to college. I was able to work part time and put myself through college. As to the quality of the education – it was the best in the world in my biased opinion. I knew more than one person that transferred out of Stanford to go to a UC school because it was fairly common knowledge that if you could AFFORD Stanford, then you were going to be at least a B student which made it more difficult to get into a good UC Med school or Vet school. I’m not sure how well it rates today, but I can say that having an education system that impoverishes it’s participants, and leaves them shackled to a giant ball of debt means it has failed to empower it’s graduates to make a better world. Instead they are cannon fodder for the very same mega corporations/rich people that created and benefit from this mess.

          What I’m watching now, that the grad student workers had to go on strike, and accept what at first glance looks like a stop gap solution means that as a society, we are well underway with eating our seed corn. We are destroying one of the best higher research and education systems in the world. It’s a horrible thing to watch, but it does align pretty well with what Silly-con Valley has apparently morphed into – a giant data scraping operation so as to throw ads at you in a giant race to bleed the last drop of income out of the ever shrinking middle class and further enrich our billionaire oligarchs. Just more eating our seed corn as a country.

        2. Laura in So Cal

          My point was that low property taxes weren’t the cause of low pay for teachers etc at UC as was implied by a previous poster. In fact, California has been running cash surpluses in recent years although I assume they are ignoring their pension liabilities in that classification.

          To address your point, I understand your point of view, but I am wary of mission creep associated with changing the current laws. A couple of points.

          1. Locally, the only small and medium business that have survived the past few years OWN their property. They are somewhat insulated from the rent increases etc associated with lease turnover (especially when ownership of the property changes). Prop 13 helps maintain them.
          2. Define Commercial property. If you rent a room out, do AirBnb, run a service business out of your house, have a home office…do those count? I don’t know the answer to my own question, but I could totally see the definitions being changed to have more properties become “commercial” if the law was changed. Maybe I’m just cynical.

          The devil is in the details.

      2. Adam Eran

        You’re missing the gigantic loophole in Prop 13. Commercial property is not reassessed on sale if less than 50% of the property sells. So Michael Dell (of Dell computers) bought a Santa Monica hotel, splitting title between himself, his wife and a corporation he controls and…it’s still assessed at 1978 values (plus the modest 2.5% per year adjustment in a state that has seen several 30% inflation years for real estate).

        The campaign recently proposed to close the loophole (with prop 15), but their campaign unfortunately failed. How much is at stake with this commercial property exemption? The campaign estimated $12 billion a year in property tax revenue. Incidentally, as things stand now, the only discretionary income local governments have is sales tax revenue. Is it any wonder commerce (especially car dealers) dictates the terms of land use?

        Finally, California continues to impoverish itself with land speculation. The speculators can buy outlying, commute-lengthening ag land for a few thousand dollars an acre, then sell it to builders for 50 – 100 times that when they get the entitlements to develop it. That egregious 5,000 – 10,000% profit is also income tax free if they exchange into income-producing properties like shopping centers and apartments.

        There are alternatives. German developers have to sell the land to local governments at the ag land price, then re-purchase it at the development-land price. The entire profit– the “unearned increment” (the term of art)–remains in the public’s pocket. And Germany has a very nice public realm (available even to the poor) too. Their colleges are tuition-free. They have apprenticeship programs. The arts budget for the City of Berlin exceeds the National Endowment for the Arts for the U.S. of A.

        I’d even suggest the U.S. oligarchy’s hatred for the generous German public realm is one of the principle motivations to penalize Europe with war in Ukraine. Their version of “labor discipline” is not nearly as draconian as it is in the U.S.

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