Most have not forgotten last fall’s UC-wide academic workers strike. Most are likely also aware that the ratification of the United Auto Workers, or UAW, 2865 contract was contentious, with union members split on whether a more advantageous agreement could have been reached.
However, some strike organizers, including Alexandra Michaud, doctoral student and graduate student instructor, or GSI, in the department of Slavic languages and literatures, believe that that should no longer be the focal point of the discussion. Instead, the campus community should focus on the events that have transpired since and how it can move forward.
“At this point, we have the contract that we have,” said Zachary Hicks, doctoral student and GSI in the same department, in an interview. “We made some gains there.”
Hicks and Michaud, along with Jonathan Mackris, department of film and media doctoral student and GSI, told me more about this in a group interview via Zoom.
“One way of evaluating the contract is the way the university, the employer, is responding to it now,” Michaud said.
According to a report from the University of California, San Diego Guardian, the University intends to retroactively deduct strikers’ pay. In order to achieve this, it distributed attestation forms to graduate student workers requesting that they report what they had done — and whether they had performed their duties as employees — for the duration of the strike.
The legality of this move, however, has been disputed. “When workers go on strike, the employer does have the right not to pay them for work that they’re not doing, but there is a procedure for going about whose pay to dock and how much,” Michaud said.
Unions allege that the university, in seeking to dock pay without first obtaining the consent of graduate student workers, has broken the law, and have filed an Unfair Practice Charge against the university on this account.
“Veering from regular payroll procedures and practices,” the UAW’s filing reads, “the University asserted that it would make these deductions over the course of three months, without getting employee consent or first notifying employees of the actual deduction amounts before money was withheld from their paychecks.”
It points out that these attestation forms did not, at any point, ask for consent to payroll deductions, provide options for alternatives to these deductions (such as making multi-installment payments to the university, instead of having their pay straightforwardly cut) or even inform employees how much pay cuts would amount to. Instead, the university simply indicated in these forms that employees had to indicate the amount of work they had missed so that they could have their wages docked appropriately, and the issuance of these forms therefore allegedly constituted an unfair practice.
When contacted for comment, Ryan King, a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President, expressed in an email that the university has acted in compliance with its obligations and in collaboration with union organizers.
“This included sharing copies of the attestation forms with the UAW for feedback,” King said in an email. “Over the course of our discussions, we have traded versions of the form and the University made modifications based on the union’s feedback. We also agreed to provide the union with copies of the completed forms for full transparency.”
Though King did not state this straightforwardly, the co-creation of attestation forms might indicate some kind of consent. More than that, the university argues not only that the university’s pursuit of retroactive pay docks is legal, but that it would also be actively illegal not to go through with them.
The rules for federal grant dollars received by the university “provide that the University may not legally pay our employees or gift them funds if they did not provide a service to the institution,” King said in an email. “Our goal is to remain in compliance with federal, state, and policy requirements regarding the appropriate distribution of these funds for work conducted while minimizing any further burden on our academic student employees and faculty departments.”
This has been contested by the UAW, which claimed in its filing that the union never even consented to the distribution of this form to its members, and that the university “had the audacity to attribute authorship of its flawed and unacceptable form” to it anyway. According to this version of events, consent to dock pay would never have been obtained by the university through the collaborative creation of attestation forms, and the university would — allegedly — be in breach of the Higher Education Employee-Employer Relations Act and the Prohibition on Public Employers Deterring or Discouraging Union Membership.
However, whether these attestation forms break any laws has not been organizers’ only concern. Michaud also alleged that, when graduate student workers did not submit these forms, the university sent them, instead, to other members of the campus community. “They turned to faculty and research supervisors and asked them to fill out forms attesting to whether or not we were at work as a very clear attempt to sow division and rancor between grads and faculty,” she said.
In response, King stated that UAW employees who failed to fill out self-attestation forms would simply be compensated based on standard practices for verifying pay. “Departments were instructed to record leave as leave without pay and in accordance with the technical guidance issued,” he said in an email.
Besides eroding a relationship that had already been strained during last semester’s strike, the strike organizers I spoke with allege that this move was made to send a broader warning against labor action to others who work and learn at the university, “constantly extending the threat to all these other corners of campus,” Mackris said.
“The message that they’re trying to send to grad students does affect AFT, it does affect ASME, it does affect the faculty, because it’s trying to discourage anybody from undergoing a similar kind of labor action,” Mackris said. “To that extent, it points out — in a way that maybe the strike did not — the extent to which all of us are involved in this common fight and all of us stand to benefit or to gain from undertaking labor action on campus.”
Campus administration has, similarly, called for unity on campus. It has taken a different approach, however, focusing instead on its efforts to rebuild relationships in the aftermath of the strike.
“The process of negotiating a new labor contract inevitably places the employer and union members at odds with one another. We recognize that there were many differences of opinion throughout the process, with emotions occasionally running high,” Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost Benjamin Hermalin said in an email to the campus community in January. “At the same time, we firmly believe that there is more that unites us than that divides us. We are hopeful that we’ll be able to set aside any lingering divisions and move forward in advancing our common goals. Many of our efforts going forward … are directed toward the critical need to heal and rebuild our community.”
To achieve these goals, a recovery management team and five working groups, centered around academic/instructional planning, faculty experience, campus climate and healing, financial planning and communications, have been established on Berkeley’s campus. A post-strike recovery website has also been created to keep the campus community informed on these efforts.
When asked about the messaging around the need to repair damaged relations, however, strike organizers seemed skeptical.
“I mean, it’s obviously a really bad faith thing to say, right?” Hicks said.
Instead, Michaud believes that the campus community can only emerge stronger from the events of last semester through solidarity between all its members — a bottom-up approach instead of the top-down one the university has taken thus far.
“I think that the ‘rebuilding’ that has been called for — the only place it can come from will be from undergraduates and graduates coming together, researchers and instructors coming together; lecturers, Senate faculty and professors across all fields, service and technical employees at the university all coming together,” Michaud said.
Strike organizers also expressed concern about the ways in which students and employees in STEM departments have been affected in the aftermath of the strike.
“One of the outcomes of this strike is that the researchers just got unionized for the first time, so this was the first contract for researchers, which is also why the retaliation seems to be falling, on our campus, on the STEM departments especially,” Mackris noted. “There is a sort of unique dimension to the extent to which conversations around cuts on enrollment, et cetera are really falling on a lot of their shoulders.”
Union leadership has expressed their broader concern about enrollment cuts in departments such as UC Santa Barbara’s feminist studies department, UCLA’s psychology department and UC San Diego’s physics department. In a letter to UC President Michael V. Drake, UAW 2865 President Rafael Jaime and UAW 5810 President Neal Sweeney expressed that this would hurt not only the quality of undergraduate education, but also socioeconomic mobility as a whole as working class Californians lose access to graduate degrees.
When asked whether recent budget cuts and failures to increase budgets were carried out in retaliation to last fall’s strike, King failed to provide a response, instead writing, “Given that the contract is in the final budgeting and initial implementation phase across our system, it would be premature to speculate on its budgetary impacts.”
“The number of slots that they’re offering for enrollment this year will be cut down by as many as half, so there’ll be half as many students admitted to this upcoming cohort in fall ’23 than there would have been the year prior. A number of students are being forced out: The number of years that you can actually be a PhD student is being limited so they can be forced out the door,” Mackris added. “And so those are very specific instances where it’s very clear that this is beyond just an issue of how much money (there is) on campus; it’s also about intentionally trying to discourage people from going on strike in the future.”
Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, however, has denied this.
“The campus administration has not issued any directives or advice about whether or how departments and schools should adjust the number of new graduate students they admit for 2023-24,” Gilmore said in an email. “The central campus is increasing the funding it makes available to departments for next academic year, but even with that additional funding some departments may need to reduce the number of new students they admit in order to cover the increased labor costs for continuing and new students.”
“This is in no way retaliation for the strike, but simply a necessary response to the economic reality of the increased labor costs,” Gilmore said in an email.“At this point, however, the admissions numbers do not suggest any cuts of the magnitude you reference.”
Similarly, King stated that no directives reducing graduate enrollment have yet been issued from the Office of the President, though he did note that “it would be premature to also speculate on any impacts related to enrollment.”
Nevertheless, Rosemarie Rae, vice chancellor and chief financial officer at UC Berkeley, has called the estimates of the new contract costs a “financial shock to the system.”
“I think it was a good agreement, and I’m happy with that,” UC Board of Regents Chair Rich Leib told the Los Angeles Times. “But there are ramifications. It’s not like the money’s coming from the sky. We’re trying to figure it out, but it’s going to require changes.”
This all paints a picture of scarcity. While the university has not yet rolled out austerity measures like enrollment cuts in order to meet these costs, it seems that it may soon have to. Before then, departments may have to compromise on undergraduate and graduate education alike in order to balance their books. Applying a more critical lens, however, one cannot help but wonder how true to life this portrayal is.
The university’s assets swelled by $38 billion in 2021 to reach a staggering $168 billion, seeing the largest one-year increase it has ever had. In particular, the UC system owns and profits from an impressive amount of real estate, renting property to some 106,000 students and raking in as much as $2 billion in property sales in 2021. “If McDonald’s is a real estate company that sells hamburgers, the U.C. system is a real estate company and hospital administrator that sells degrees,” wrote Tracy Rosenthal, co-founder of the L.A. Tenants Union.
Perhaps a more significant part of the university’s wealth, however, is its capital investment projects such as Blackstone — which it poured $4.5 billion into.
The investment in Blackstone is an issue all on its own. Owing to Blackstone’s allegedly predatory practices in housing markets already in crisis — including driving up rents, conducting “aggressive evictions” and actively reducing the supply of affordable housing — the Council of UC Faculty Associations has called for the university to divest.
According to King, the UC Investments office expressed that it did not have any comments on this.
Setting those troubling concerns aside, however, for the purposes of this story, the $4.5 billion might suggest an availability of funds that the university has denied. Knowing that the university has the money to invest in firms like Blackstone, one must wonder why it cannot afford to pay its graduate student employees a living wage.
“They’re doing pretty well,” Hicks said. “The problem is that they don’t want to fund their workers and their core operations … Any kind of austerity coming down is being done intentionally.”
Yet, campus administration insists that the university as a whole — and UC Berkeley more specifically — finds itself short on funds, unable to use a majority of the resources that it owns. According to Gilmore, the idea that the UC has $168 billion in assets is “misleading.” $125.6 billion exists as part of pension funds that cannot be spent on university operations, and the remaining amount is highly restricted in terms of how it may be used.
Gilmore went on to state that the UC Berkeley campus, specifically, has faced significant budgetary strain in recent years as it has worked to rid itself of its $150 million deficit and has found itself hit by the pandemic.
“The recent settlement of the UAW strike has added a very significant degree of unanticipated and unfunded costs which we will need to address,” she said in an email.
There have arisen, therefore, disagreements on the answers to the most fundamental questions such as what the university can or cannot afford. With this in view, the depth of the fissions in the UC community becomes apparent; hardly able to agree even on what can be done, how can those who live and work across 10 different campuses agree on what should be done?
“What is to be done? The eternal question. This is the perfect question to pose to the Slavic department; it’s our favorite question,” Michaud said. On a different corner of my laptop screen, Hicks laughed, nodding emphatically.
The solution, perhaps, is obvious — communication between different groups on campus and in the university community as a whole is vital.
“This is something that no one single group on campus can really effectively do anything about,” Michaud said. “It can’t just be the grad students, it can’t just be undergrads, it can’t be just faculty; it has to be everyone together. So I think that what people should take away from this, if anything, is try to have a conversation with somebody today.”