Assessing the UC Grad StrikeRoundup
tags: strikes, University of California, graduate students, labor history, academic labor
Laura J. Mitchell teaches African and world history at University of California, Irvine, and is immediate past president of the World History Association.
The predictable routines of teaching, writing and contributing to campus life I’ve developed over the past two decades were dislocated last fall by the largest strike in U.S. higher ed. Preparing for the start of winter quarter across the University of California system feels different in 2023, both because fall fizzled out without the usual closures and because my sense of the relationships I’ve cultivated with students through years of practiced intentionality is frayed.
I’m not the kind of historian who longs for the good old days (which, frankly, were hardly ever good, even for the elites), or the experienced professional who finds comfort in the familiarity of the status quo. I study change and change makers. I admire the disrupter culture that’s part of today’s technology sector. I’ve taken to the streets to agitate for change in the U.S. and South Africa. I nevertheless find myself nostalgic for the civic ideal of the University of California that I grew up with: a social contract in which the taxpayers, the government and students prioritized multifaceted universities as a public good and in which the university administration prioritized students and research over student centers and fundraising campaigns.
Nostalgia doesn’t help us live in the present, though. As a world historian, I’ve learned some things from studying the past on a global scale that help me think about the aftereffects of the UC strike.
- Change is hard.
- Systemic change comes with costs that are unequally borne across society.
- Elites and people in power don’t willingly give up privilege.
- It’s hard to appreciate the magnitude of change while you’re living through it.
The fact of the strike exposes fissures in the current structure of higher education. The graduate student workers’ steadfastness, the university’s intransigence and the undergraduates’ frustrations about missing out on instruction and services they paid for reveal the severity of the cracks. The significant improvement in wages and benefits for teaching assistants, graduate student researchers and postdoctoral scholars are milestone changes, marking an important victory for organized labor. But the contract was ratified with a split vote, with only about 62 percent of teaching assistants and 68 percent of graduate student researchers supporting the deal, compared to a 98 percent vote earlier in the fall in favor of striking. The new agreement falls well short of the union’s goals, leaving many graduate students wondering if the labor and sacrifices of a strike were worthwhile. The agreement reached on the Friday before Christmas Eve doesn’t address foundational problems in the neoliberal university.