Nearly 50,000 academic researchers, postdocs, graduate students, and teaching assistants across 10 campuses at the University of California, USA, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are about to go on a massive strike today about what they see as unfair labor practices related to inadequate pay, rights and benefits.
“We negotiated all weekend, and while significant progress has been made, we are still a long way off on many issues that will make UC a fairer university,” said Rafael Jaime, UC Los Angeles graduate student and president by United Autoworkers Union (UAW) 2865, which represents 19,000 student workers.
On the evening of November 2, more than 75% of UC’s 48,000 workers voted to go on strike after months of fruitless negotiations with UC, California’s largest employer. With $5.4 billion in funding, UC accounted for 8.6% of all US university research spending in 2018-19. 10% of postdocs in the United States work at one of UC’s 10 campuses.
The strike will have “a major impact on research progress in the state and at UC,” warns Lexie McIsaac, a postdoctoral researcher in computational chemistry at UC Berkeley. “Labs will stop working, there will be entire research grants with no progress.”
“I pay half my income in rent”
Teaching assistants and graduate researchers at UC are paid just $21,000 (£17,828) a year. According to UAW fellow Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate researcher in materials science and engineering at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the UAW is offering $54,000.
Postdoctoral salaries in the US are tied to the US National Institutes of Health salary scale, which starts at just under $55,000 and reaches approximately $65,600 for those with seven or more years of experience. However, union organizers are demanding that the salary floor for postgraduates at UC be $70,000. “I pay about half my income in rent, and with inflation and everything else, living on the allowance is harder than I thought it was,” says McIsaac.
The UAW is also calling for a 14 percent salary increase for academic researchers and annual cost-of-living and experience adjustments. “Academic researcher” can mean both very experienced scientists running their own laboratories and those just beginning their careers. According to union organizers, UC pays some people in this category as little as $20,000 and others as much as $65,000.
In addition to wage increases, the UAW is also demanding better transportation and childcare services, as well as more job security, fairness for international scientists and more rights for disabled workers.
However, UC says things are under control. “Our campuses are preparing to mitigate the impact of any strike activity on our students by ensuring, as much as possible, continuity of teaching and research,” the university wrote in a statement sent to world of chemistry. “In addition, the campus is being prepared for the contingency if a strike disrupts the end of the academic semester.”
The university found that its “offers for fair pay, quality health and family-friendly benefits, among other proposals, are fair and reasonable and address union concerns.”
The union accuses the university of violating labor law
But the unions are not satisfied. “We made pretty slow progress in our negotiations with the university — they were negotiating in bad faith and literally breaking labor laws, which made it quite difficult to come to an agreement on most issues,” McIsaac said. She and other postdocs have been negotiating with UC for almost a year and a half.
The UAW accuses UC of violating labor laws more than 25 times during the negotiations. For example, McIsaac says UC has long turned down requests for commuter perks like subsidized public transit tickets. But then the university quietly provided free passes on the local subway to about a quarter of UC Berkeley’s graduate students. “When there’s negotiation on this particular issue, you can’t just go around trying to give some people that advantage and not others,” she says.
Tarini Hardikar, a PhD student in theoretical chemistry at UC Berkeley and a member of the UAW negotiation team, says UC continues to block progress in the negotiations. “They make unilateral changes in areas that should be decided jointly in a negotiation session, they hide important information from us that prevents us from negotiating, and they only delay the process,” she says. “The status quo benefits UC.”
Those negotiating on behalf of the UAW say UC is unable to compete with its competitors and could bleed talent. Stanford, Columbia, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pay their chemistry graduate students significantly more than UC Berkeley, says McIsaac.
But the problem goes beyond California and the United States. In the UK, more than 70,000 academic staff at 150 universities will go on strike for three days later this month over similar concerns over inadequate pay and working conditions. A contract like the one the UAW is calling for would “certainly send a message to other universities that it’s important to address these issues before all students are forced to go on strike,” McIsaac said.
“The labor movement in science is at a critical juncture where workers … are fed up with their working conditions and are making better demands,” says Hardikar. “They say, ‘If we’re the ones fulfilling the critical mission of educating the next generation, and if we’re doing the critical work of cutting-edge research, then why do we still live in poverty and why don’t we have any? good working conditions? Conditions?”‘