America: 48,000 academic workers of the University of California went on a historic strike

By Arpan

More than 48,000 academic workers of the University of California (UC) system went on a historic strike starting Monday.

According to the organizers, it is the largest strike by academic workers in US history.

California is home to the largest number of higher education institutes in the USA. The UC system consists of a network of 10 public universities and more than 280,000 students take education from them.

Due to this huge scale, the strike is significant from the perspectives of both university administration as well as academic workers.

The academic workers on strike consist of researchers, postdoctoral scholars, teaching assistants, and other employees.

What caused them to strike

Among the various states in the US, California is one of the states which are most expensive. In the UC system, many of the departments are located in areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, and San Diego, where the cost of living is very high and house rents are skyrocketing.

According to the academic workers, although the goodwill of the university is maintained by forcing them under a large workload, low wages and increasing cost of housing and essential commodities have made their lives miserable.

United Automobile Workers 2865 (UAW2865), is one of the unions representing academic workers. For a long time, bargaining was going on between the union and the administration regarding various demands, but they were unable to reach an agreement.

The union conducted a vote in early November regarding the strike authorization. More than 98% voted in favour of going for a strike.

Janna Haider, is a graduate student in the department of History, at UC Santa Barbara and also the recording secretary of the Santa Barbara branch of UAW2865.

According to her “Our material conditions have been so bad for so long that a lot of people have run out of patience with the university,”

According to Galen Liang, a striking graduate student in the Math department of UC Berkeley math department, nearly half of his monthly paycheck of $2,700 is spent on rent and utilities, which makes it difficult for him to pay medical bills. He is also unable to afford tickets to visit his family abroad.

United for a Fair Workplace, a student group based at the University of California conducted a survey, in which they found that more than 92% of graduate-student workers are compelled to pay up to 30% of their salaries for housing. Half of them are even compelled to pay more than 50 percent.

Who experiences rent burden at UC?

All kinds of Academic Workers. Membership surveys by UAW found that 92% of Graduate Workers and 61% of Postdoctoral Scholars are rent-burdened. Even worse, 40% of Graduate Workers report spending more than half of their income on rent.

Rent burden at UC is a crisis. The chart below shows the average rents paid by campus based on the results of a membership survey conducted in 2022. California’s exorbitant housing crisis takes a large toll on UC’s Academic Workers. You can find a full breakdown of average housing cost by campus and job title here.

Campus Average Monthly Housing Cost – Grad Workers Average Monthly Housing Cost – Postdocs & Academic Researchers
Berkeley $1,423 $1,904
Berkeley Lab $1,976
Davis $1,131 $1,643
Irvine $1,107 $1,762
Los Angeles $1,454 $1,863
Merced $1,049 $1,198
Riverside $1,212 $1,554
San Diego $1,278 $1,791
San Francisco $1,585 $1,882
Santa Barbara $1,056 $1,688
Santa Cruz $1,432 $1,750

Note: Per the HUD definition of rent burden, average monthly housing cost includes water, power, and gas.

Core demands

The key demands of the workers on strike are as follows. They want the salaries of graduate-student workers to be increased to $54,000. The other demands include increasing job security, greater accessibility for workers with disabilities, and additional assistance for students with children.

Response of larger community

California Teachers Association and other labour unions have spoken in support of the strike.

Kevan Antonio Aguilar is an assistant professor of History at UC Irvine who joined the strike in support of the graduate workers, seeking the fact that many of them are living under the poverty line.

In his conversation with Al Jazeera that he told that compared to the previous labour conflict at the UCs, faculty are becoming increasingly more vocal about their support for the strike and many even canceled their lectures in solidarity with the strike.

The academic workers on strike feel the need to campaining among the larger academic community regarding their situations.

Much of the education of undergraduates is facilitated through academic workers but there is a lack of awareness among the undergraduates about the living situation of academic workers. Due to this reason, the workers on strike feel that there is an increasing need to communicate with the undergraduates.

UC Statement

In the wake of strikes by academic workers, UC authorities released statements.

Although the UC California in its statement denies any unfair labour practices; claims to have been generous, responsive to union priorities, and trying to resolve the disputes at the earliest, according to the academic workers on strike, the UC administrators were not bargaining with them in good faith.

UC Santa Cruz in their statement said “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.”

UC Berkeley officials said in an email to graduate academic workers that the administration and the faculties are working closely to resolve the issue with minimal disruption.

A new wave of Workers’ movement in the USA

It is important to note that, this strike is not an isolated event. Although there has been a long silence in terms of large-scale labour unrest for many decades, in recent times their numbers are growing very fast.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added financial stress, which has forced many workers to protest against the bad labour conditions and demand an increase in wages.

Especially, this year we have seen historic growth in labour union activities.

Demanding wage increases and more recruitment to fulfill the shortage of staff, more than15000 nurses in Minnesota went on strike for three days. In the coffee chain Starbucks, in many locations workers petitioned to unionize.

In a New York warehouse, Amazon workers successfully built their first union.

There is an increasing consciousness that only through solidarity workers can improve their working and living conditions in particular and build a more equitable society in general.

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