About 48,000 university employees at ten University of California (UC) campuses went on strike on November 14, demanding higher wages and benefits. This is the largest strike of the year in the United States. It is also the largest strike in the history of higher education in America.
The average salary for graduate students with positions at the university (as teaching assistants, readers, and tutors) is $24,000 per year, which isn’t even a living wage: the cost of an apartment in cities where campuses are located averages $24,000 per year and $37,000 in Los Angeles. And the current inflation rate of over 7% is eroding purchasing power. Some of the university’s hard-working students have second or third jobs, others sell their blood, and others have even become homeless.
The union is asking for an average salary of $54,000 per year for most employees and $70,000 for postdocs (who currently earn $55,361) with an applicable cost-of-living escalation clause that would adjust for inflation. The union is also asking for $2,000 a month for child care, extended parental leave and public transit tickets. Teachers who are members of the California Teachers’ Association and whose average salaries range from $85,000 to $176,000 are not participating in the strike.
Neil Sweeney, a postdoc in microbiology and president of UAW Local 5810 (the autoworkers’ union, which also organizes academics), says the union is trying to make “transformative changes” that will improve workers’ lives, as well as teaching and research. Contract negotiations had been going on for more than a year when the strike began, and the union filed 28 complaints of unfair labor practices because the university had not negotiated in good faith. The university management wants arbitration, but the union wants to continue negotiations on strike.
The strikers are postdocs, university researchers, student workers (teaching assistants, lecturers and tutors) and doctoral students working at the university’s ten campuses, spread over more than 800km north-south. They are members of three local unions, all affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW). In the United States, various industrial unions have begun to organize academic workers at universities across the country who are represented today as industry membership has dwindled not only from the UAW but sometimes from the United Electrical Workers, the Communication Workers or the United Steel Workers, and by the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. Strikers, like teaching assistants, do much of the tuition and grading at the university, and without them, many courses have had to close while students’ final grades risk not being finished on time. Since the strike, UC workers have received support from the California Federation of Labor, which has called for the cancellation of all on-campus events. The unionized UPS Teamsters (trucks) said they would not be making on-campus deliveries for the duration of the strike.
Fight the university and the democratic governor
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsome is the chief executive of the University of California. The university is administered by a Board of Regents, 18 of whom are appointed by the Governor for 12-year terms, while others are senior government officials. The Regents manage a budget of $43.9 billion, mostly from the state budget and undergraduate tuition, which brings in $14,226 a year—those coming from other states or countries pay $43,980 a year. Indeed, the university’s finances depend largely on corporate tax receipts, and California is home to some of the country’s largest companies: Walt Disney, Chevron, Apple and Google, among many others. However, these companies only pay a flat tax rate of 8.84%. Ultimately, to win, UC strikes must win concessions from the governor and, eventually, the state legislature, which controls both taxes and the state budget.
This huge strike, especially if successful, could have a significant impact on other workers, in higher education and among public employees. With the recent nationwide strike by 2,000 workers at 100 Starbucks stores and the struggle for unionization recognition at Amazon, we can see young workers transforming unions into more militant organizations.
Translation Henri Wilno