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Academic Staff at the University of California Walk Out in Protest Over Low Pay

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Sacramento: Tens of thousands of academic workers across the University of California system went on strike on Monday, in one of the country’s largest strikes in recent years, as teaching assistants, researchers, and other university staff demanded hefty pay raises in the face of soaring housing prices.

The strike is the latest in a wave of union action in a thriving labour market, and it affects approximately 48,000 unionised campus staff at the famed public university system.

Thousands of workers picketed on colleges from San Diego to Berkeley, disrupting classes, slowing research, and cancelling office hours. To avoid crossing picket lines in the generally pro-labour state, several teachers cancelled lectures in solidarity with the strikers or switched education to Zoom.

The university system has stated that its ten campuses, which are home to roughly 300,000 students, will stay open and that instruction and operations will continue.

However, the students and employees engaged, who are represented by the United Automobile Workers, provide a core labour force in classrooms and labs across the university system, with most campuses only a few weeks away from final exams. The unions involved have not specified a deadline.

“We’re the ones who do the bulk of the teaching and the majority of the research,” said Rafael Jaime, a doctorate candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles and president of UAW Local 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and other classroom employees.

“We’re the backbone of the university,” he continued, “and I’m not sure how operations will be maintained with us on the picket line.”

Graduate students have long been an important part of higher education, advising students, teaching classes, grading examinations and papers, and manning major research projects and labs.

However, in recent years, concerted initiatives to raise pay and improve frequently precarious working conditions have gained support, particularly as salaries in other industries have grown amid a hot, post-pandemic labour market.

Unions have used their bargaining muscle to make advances at high-profile corporations like as Amazon and Starbucks this year, bolstered by polls showing voter support for organised labour at its highest level since the mid-1960s.

The University of California strike is the greatest university-based labour action in U.S. history, according to the UAW.

The current economy, according to Paula Voos, a professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, is ideal for labour action.

“If you look back in labour history, a moment like this has typically been a time of high strikes,” Dr Voos remarked. “We’re at the pinnacle of the business cycle, with low unemployment and high inflation, firms concerned about the next downturn, layoffs beginning, yet we’re not in a recession yet.” But we’re concerned, and businesses are reducing back and saying no.”

Three years ago, a “wildcat” strike at the University of California, Santa Cruz ended with the termination of more than 70 graduate students who had refused to turn in fall grades as part of the labour action.

48,000 UC graduate student workers go on strike - Los Angeles Times

The majority were finally reinstated. This year, however, unionised graduate students and adjunct teachers at Columbia University and New York University have signed contracts.

However, Dr Voos emphasised that an oversupply of graduate students, particularly in the humanities, places universities in a position of strength in labour negotiations.

“Students are vulnerable because they require recommendations from professors, they are concerned about their future, and the academic work market is not particularly strong right now,” she explained.

Employees at the University of California, many of whom have been bargaining with the U.C. system for more than a year, are demanding that their pay more than doubles in some circumstances, particularly to address the cost of housing.

The University of California campuses are located in some of the most expensive property markets in the country, not only in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but also in coastal enclaves such as Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Irvine.

Even subsidised campus housing expenses are much higher in some regions than market rates in much of the country.

Campus housing has long been a policy issue, perplexing state legislators and provoking town-gown court disputes. According to a union survey, housing consumes more than a third of graduate student workers’ pay. It was more than half for 40% of them.

Mr Jaime, 33, who teaches an introductory Shakespeare class at U.C.L.A., said he couldn’t afford an apartment in the campus’s Westwood district. Instead, he lives in downtown Los Angeles, about 15 miles away, with two roommates.

Nonetheless, he claims that the $1,600 he spends in rent each month consumes half of his earnings, not including the costs of his travel to college via bicycle, light rail, and bus.

Workers also want more compensation for public transportation, more child care subsidies, extended health care coverage for dependents, and other benefits.

Kaiser Permanente accuses Redwood City striking workers of vandalism,  'altercations with patients' - Redwood City Pulse

The university system said in a statement that it recognised the workers’ “significant and highly valued contributions” to its teaching and research mission and that it had provided “fair responses” on matters such as compensation, housing, and a “respectful work environment.”

“We have listened closely to UAW priorities with an open mind and a genuine readiness to compromise,” the statement stated, adding that “several tentative agreements” had been achieved on matters such as health and safety.

On Monday afternoon, the university system announced that it had proposed bringing in a neutral, third-party mediator to the negotiations and that under its current proposals, wages for U.C. academic employees would be “at the top of the pay scale” for public research universities, and “more comparable to private universities” such as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Southern California.

However, significant differences remain. Workers want salaries to be set high enough that no employee has to spend more than 30% of their monthly pay on housing;

the University of California system has acknowledged that housing is an issue for workers throughout California, and it already provides a limited amount of subsidised housing for graduate student workers that are priced up to 25% below market rates.

According to union representatives, the university system has also broken labour legislation nearly two dozen times during negotiations, interacting directly with specific groups of workers and modifying working conditions without going through collective bargaining. Officials claim that harsh work practices sparked the strike.

“The institution must bargain fairly,” said Neal Sweeney, president of the United Auto Workers negotiating unit, which represents academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars. “If they do that, we believe we can strike a game-changing agreement.”

The university system has denied any criminal activity and urged unions to remain at the negotiation table. “We are dedicated to continuing to negotiate in good faith and obtaining full agreements as quickly as feasible,” the University of California said in a statement.

The strike appears to have caused substantial difficulties on Monday. Picketers demonstrated on a campus that appeared to be practically empty due to cancelled classes at U.C. Berkeley. A nanotechnology research lab at UC San Diego that regularly employs roughly a dozen PhD, post-doctoral, and undergraduate students was closed.

Sections of Sociology 101, architecture and other popular undergraduate programmes were cancelled at U.C.L.A., as the shouts of hundreds of strikers rang out over the enormous campus: “U.C., U.C., you can’t hide!” “We can see your greed!”

Enrique Olivares Pesante, a fourth-year PhD student in English at U.C.L.A. who was picketing in front of the school’s film building, said he earns $2,500 per month before taxes and pays more than half of that in graduate housing rent. “It came to this because it was unworkable,” he said of most teaching assistants.

Chaka Tellem, 21, the student body president and a senior at U.C. Berkeley, sympathised with the strike despite the fact that his lectures in macroeconomics and African American history had been cancelled.

“We are in a university that appreciates the necessity of collective action, strikes, and nonviolent direct action, both historically and today,” he stated.

Meanwhile, Anthony Huo, 19, said he was preoccupied with determining whether his next class will meet.

“I think it’s happening,” he remarked, rushing across the storied Berkeley campus in the autumn air. “Maybe? I’m not sure. I’ll do my best.”

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