Demanding better pay, more benefits and job security, 48,000 academic workers in the University of California system continued striking for a second day Tuesday, resulting in canceled classes and halted research.
Academic workers and their supporters formed picket lines across the university system that includes 10 campuses and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The strike is shuttering laboratories and canceling classes just ahead of midterm exams. Some disruptions were a result of teaching assistants’ absences, but some professors also canceled courses in solidarity with strikers.
The strike, which began Monday morning, involves postdoctoral scholars, academic student employees such as teaching assistants, graduate student researchers and academic researchers in California’s preeminent public research university system. Strikers teach many undergraduate classes and often lead discussion sections in courses.
“We teach the classes, grade the papers, and perform the cutting-edge research that has earned UC its reputation as the best public university in the world and the global leader of R1 research institutions,” said a statement from Student Researchers United. “In short, UC works because we do.”
University of California Student Association is encouraging undergraduate students to support the strike by joining the picket line, encouraging professors to cancel classes and donate to the strike fund.
“It looks like campus is completely shuttered at the moment, and it’s real proof of our power,” Tanzil Chowdhury, a bargaining team member with UAW and a graduate student research assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, told UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian.
Workers are demanding higher wages, improved parental leave and child care support, reduced housing costs and support for international scholars. All four bargaining units are represented by the United Auto Workers.
The bargaining committee proposes a $54,000 minimum salary for graduate workers, $70,000 minimum for postdoctoral workers and 14% salary increase for academic researchers. It also proposes capping rent for on-campus housing, providing $2,000 monthly for child care, and subsidies and incentives for public transportation and biking. It also asks for longer appointments for its workers to ensure job security. The union also wants the university to reimburse visa fees and nonresidential tuition for its international workers.
The University of California says it has countered with wage proposals that would put workers in the system on par with those of highly selective private universities.
“The wage proposals offered to the UAW, if accepted, would place UC’s academic employees at the top of the pay scale among public AAU universities and, in fact, are more comparable to what private universities such as Harvard, MIT, and USC offer,” said the University of California in a statement.
Emiko Gardiner was on the picket line early Tuesday morning at UC Berkeley. She’s a first-year astrophysics PhD student who teaches four discussion sections – totaling about 100 students -for an undergraduate introductory astronomy course.
She’s paid for 20 hours of work each week, but sometimes works additional hours. Gardiner’s position as a graduate student instructor, often referred to as GSI, pays hers about $41,000 gross income per year in one of the highest cost of living areas in the United States.
Her apartment rent consumes about 35 percent of her gross pay, she said. Gardiner commutes to campus by bus, which takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
“We all want to get back to work, so I just want to urge UC to come to the bargaining table in good faith so that we can get back to doing our jobs,” she said.
Fellow striker Jack Schrott is a PhD student in the physics department, where he also works as a graduate student researcher in a lab and mentors students.
While Schrott’s rent costs about 30% of his monthly income, his peers and friends often pay closer to 40% to 50% of their monthly salary.
“The housing insecurity that a lot of us feel definitely weighs on our ability to work well in our research environments and also as graduate student instructors,” said Schrott, who is paid about $40,000 a year and estimates he works upwards of 50 hours per week despite having a contract that pays him to work 20 hours weekly.
A favorable contract, he said, could be “not just a big win for people working within the UC system and struggling to find housing in these expensive housing markets, but could create a shift in how we pay academic workers countrywide.”
Contrasting activities continued on the UC Berkeley campus on Tuesday. A large crowd of cheering students marched in support of the strikers at the campus’ main entrance and around its bell tower. Elsewhere on campus, many students could be found doing schoolwork on their laptops. Inside the Martin Luther King Student Union building, study areas were packed despite the strike.
The academic workers have found support from 33 members of the state Assembly who signed a letter last week urging UC President Michael Drake to cease “unfair labor practices” and warning that the strike could result in “mass disruption.” It noted that the union filed over 20 unfair labor practices against the university.
“The UC is one of the top public university systems and research institutions in the world, in no small part because of its ability to attract the most talented scholars from a wide array of backgrounds,” the letter read. “But the UC system cannot live up to its mission and reputation if its own employees do not feel respected.”
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Joseph Leach 4 months ago4 months ago
Individuals who are employed the university have been severely under paid for years , it’s about time that the university respect the commitment of their employees!!!
Nadia Almasalkhi 4 months ago4 months ago
Most UC GSIs don’t get paid as much as those interviewed in this article. I’m a UC Berkeley GSI and my yearly salary is $26k!
SD Parent 4 months ago4 months ago
This article doesn't really give the background of the work/student expectations for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to put their demands in context. PhD graduate students do not pay tuition/instructional fees for their education; instead, they receive a stipend with an expectation of working, generally as teaching assistants who conduct sections and/or labs and/or help with proctoring and grading exams. This process of working in lieu of tuition for graduate students is not unlike … Read More
This article doesn’t really give the background of the work/student expectations for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to put their demands in context.
PhD graduate students do not pay tuition/instructional fees for their education; instead, they receive a stipend with an expectation of working, generally as teaching assistants who conduct sections and/or labs and/or help with proctoring and grading exams. This process of working in lieu of tuition for graduate students is not unlike “work-study” for undergraduate students (which pays a student relatively low wages for a reduction in tuition/instructional fees). These graduate students are also doing research by working (often in labs for STEM degrees) on their PhD theses, so at the end of (hopefully) 4-5 years, these students can go on to work in professions and positions with higher pay than they would have if they had just an undergraduate degree. It’s worth pointing out that for STEM fields, the lab facilities that the grad students and post-docs work in are very expensive enterprises utilizing equipment and/or reagents and/or travel that are paid by the universities directly or via grants obtained by the research professors. These research perks are often overlooked by the students but are part of the university’s graduate student expenses. In summary, graduate students are students – not full-time professionals – so it doesn’t make any more sense to provide them a “living wage” than it would to provide undergraduates with 20 hours of work-study a “living wage.”
Graduate students who are working on a Masters degree are generally expected to pay tuition, as this is usually a two-year program that merely leads to higher pay in one’s field (or greater chance of employment). Some Masters programs require students to work as teaching assistants, and a case could be made that they should be paid for that work (perhaps hourly), similar to what occurs in the undergraduate work-study program.
Postdoctoral fellows, who already have their PhD, are also considered “in training,” learning a specialization or a different area of study than in their graduate work. Because they already have a PhD, post-docs often have greater responsibilities, such as lecturing (rather than just acting as teaching assistants). In theory, lecturing could be considered training for post-docs, but in practice, it’s rare for a post-doc to actually be mentored on their lecturing rather than just expected to help out. For this reason, a better case could be made that postdoctoral fellows should be paid commensurate with what a lecturer at the university would make to do the same work. (Frankly, the UCs should require professors to conduct their own lectures because undergrad students didn’t sign up for a professor’s class to instead be taught by a post-doc.)
To add more nuance, some post-docs are paid from their own grant funds, while others are paid from the grant funds of the lab in which they conduct their work. A case could be made that if a post-doc has their own funding, they should be paid for their work for the university at the same rate as a lecturer, whereas, if a post-doc is funded by the grant of a university lab, they are already being paid by the university and maybe should receive a reduced rate for their teaching jobs.
In any of these scenarios, it’s not the university’s responsibility to pay for childcare. These same grad students and post-docs would need to find childcare if they were working anywhere else, so why would working at the university be any different?
As for student housing, a case could be made that all students – undergraduate and graduate, and perhaps even postdocs – should have greater opportunities to obtain UC student housing. Pushing students into finding housing in the expensive communities that surround the UCs (especially the UCs with the best reputations for research and graduate programs, like UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD) increases demand for housing, which increases housing costs for the entire community – and these high housing costs are what appear to be driving the current push for higher compensation.
Finally, I wonder, did the same students who are complaining of low wages as grad students complain about high tuition/fee costs as undergrads? The increased costs of paying huge swaths of UC employees higher wages and benefits will likely result in tuition/instructional fee increases for undergraduate and graduate students alike.