Little Bargains for Big Issues

tags: University of California, graduate students, labor history

Michael Berlin is a disabled writer, scholar, and educator, living in Charlottesville, VA. He received his doctorate in comparative literature from UC Irvine, where he served on the Strike Committee of the Student Researcher Union and was a Departmental Steward for UAW 2865.

THE LARGEST STUDENT WORKER STRIKE in United States history began on November 14th, 2022, at the University of California, when 48,000 postdoctoral scholars, researchers, and graduate students voted to approve demands that had the potential to remake public higher education. Most centrally, these initial demands would have raised wages in accordance with the cost of living, eliminating the rent burden that impacts 92% of graduate students at the UC, leaving many of them in poverty. But a decision made by union leadership on November 30th guaranteed that the strike would fall far short of its goal. That day, a narrow majority of members of the workers’ bargaining teams—representing two locals of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Local 2865 and the Student Researchers Union—voted to drop their fight for a living wage, reducing the salary they proposed on behalf of UC workers from $54,000 to $43,000, in addition to other concessions.

These cuts were opposed by many rank-and-file student workers and researchers. A petition circulated ahead of the vote demanding that no unilateral concessions to the UC be made attracted 2,000 signatures in a matter of hours. When the bargaining team for Local 2865, the larger of the two locals on strike, opened official debate on the question, 500 students flooded the Zoom room where the vote was to be held to voice their anger at their union representatives. The sweeping demands they sought to defend would have offered protections to marginalized groups within the UC, upholding the rights of disabled students by codifying specific accommodations, ending stipulations that result in international students having fewer years to finish their PhDs, and significantly expanding benefits for the families of student workers.

For many workers who signed the strike pledge, taking on the UC also meant fighting the university in its role as California’s largest landlord, directly addressing the UC’s contribution to a statewide housing affordability crisis. Had the contract fully reflected the demands of the union’s activist base, it would also have addressed the university’s role as a purveyor of police violence, which endangers people outside the UC community—including unhoused people at the intersection of the two crises, who are among the most vulnerable to the aggressive tactics of the UC Police Department. Activists also hoped for a contract that would have reinvested the nearly $150 million that the UC spends on policing into the wages of workers whose labor sustains the university. When the cost of living (COLA) demand was cut, the bargaining teams signaled that the strike would focus on a narrow set of economic issues that most affect graduate students, rather than on structural issues that unite workers inside and outside the university.

Less than a month after these concessions, the strike failed as a political movement. The contract that resulted from the November negotiations was rushed through in the busy period between Hanukkah and Christmas, leaving union membership at the UC deeply divided, with a third of student workers voting against the outcome. The wins touted by union leadership are real but insufficient: a raise in wages to a base of $34,000 a year for full time workers (a compromise salary that just keeps pace with the University of Southern California and falls well short of Stanford University, both of which lack unions); a slight increase in childcare subsidies and parental leave; and the institution of a grievance process for student researchers, who have gained the ability to file complaints about harassment and bullying. The new contract leaves the vast majority of graduate students rent burdened. It also divides workers by paying graduate students at the “prestige” campuses of UC Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco more than their peers who live in equally expensive rental markets such as Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. In a poison pill aimed at future organizing, the new contract codifies retaliation against students who wish to strike in solidarity with other workers.

Read entire article at Jewish Currents

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