After months of bargaining, the United Auto Workers, or UAW, union that represents postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, academic student employees and graduate student researchers has had enough. At 8 a.m. Monday morning, 48,000 academic workers across the UC system have gone on strike. As of press time, there is no end in sight.
According to Max Smiley, a graduate student researcher in the UC Berkeley physics department, the university has allegedly violated various state labor laws during negotiations and subsequently, the union has filed charges with the California Public Employee Relations Board. With this strike, the union is not only trying to stop these alleged violations but bring the university back to the table with “serious” proposals.
“We’ve tried everything in the books up till now, and it hasn’t made the university listen, so this is what we have to do,” said Tanzil Chowdhury, a bargaining team member with UAW and a graduate student research assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, during the strike.
According to the UC website, the university “strongly disagrees” with the allegations that they have engaged in unlawful behavior. The website adds that the university has bargained “in good faith,” using the tentative agreements reached thus far as evidence of this, and that they remain committed to reaching agreements as quickly as possible.
Of the conditions they are fighting for, Chowdhury said that the most important is wages that keep up with the cost of living near each respective campus.
According to Helen Vanderwende, a postdoctoral researcher in UC Berkeley’s molecular and cell biology department, the union’s current proposal includes a minimum of $54,000 per year for graduate student workers and $70,000 per year for postdoctoral workers. They are also hoping to negotiate 14% salary increases for academic researchers. The university has come back with varying percentages of increases for each of the four bargaining units, according to the UC website.
“Over 90% of graduate workers and over 60% of postdoc researchers are rent burdened, meaning theyre paying more than 30% of their income toward rent and utilities,” Chowdhury said during the strike. “That’s made it impossible for us to live where we work.”
Beyond from higher wages, the union is looking to secure increased child care support for parents and families, subsidies for green modes of transportation and the elimination of non-resident supplemental tuition, or NRST, according to Smiley and Galen Liang, a PhD student and graduate student instructor in campus’s math department.
Fair UC Now, the union’s website, notes the child care protections should include $2,000 monthly child care reimbursements, subsidies for UC-affiliated child care programs, health care for dependents and expanded access to paid parental and family leave.
Of the remaining core demands, the union has secured workplace protections, according to the website. This “Respectful Work Environment” article deems abusive conduct and bullying to be a violation of contract and establishes a “strong definition” of abusive, clear timelines under which to investigate such conduct and additional protections while an investigation is ongoing.
Those who went on strike said the turnout made them feel “empowered,” “energized” and “inspired.”
“There are thousands of workers here who are out on strike,” Chowdhury said. “It looks like campus is completely shuttered at the moment and it’s real proof of our power.”
Although Liang noted that one day of striking likely won’t pressure the university into compliance given that their proposals have already been on the table for six months, he added that it’s a good starting point from which to build momentum.
After all, Liang said, the negotiation is like a tug of war — the outcome will depend on how much power each side has. Union power, he added, comes from numbers.
“Our power as a union comes from numbers, so I hope that … people really stop their work, really go on strike and bring their co-workers on strike,” Liang said. “It’s not my chance of succeeding, it’s our chance of succeeding, it’s our chance of having a fair contract, it’s our chance of affording to live where we work.”
Alex Niles, President of the University of California Student Association, or UCSA, said that the organization is in full support of the strike and the demands of Fair UC Now, and is urging all undergraduates to support it.
Among the actions the UCSA is encouraging undergraduates to take, Niles added, are joining workers on the picket line, requesting professors to cancel classes in solidarity, signing the undergraduate support letter and donating to the strike’s mutual aid fund.
Niles said the strike is an “undergraduate issue,” noting that the working conditions of academic workers are the learning conditions of undergraduates. Niles noted that academic workers are critical to undergraduate students’ success in courses, research and personal lives.
“They are the ones who are close to us, available to us, and willing and able to provide that care for us. They do all these things but at the same time they are being exploited,” Niles said. “UCSA is calling on all undergrads to actively support the strike for its entire duration — in the long run, it is to our benefit to see this done.”
Amber X. Chen and Lydia Sidhom contributed to this report.