The UC strike has been in the making for 50 years

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Nearly 50,000 academic staffers throughout the University of California system went on what may be the largest strike in California history this week. Since Monday, when the strike began, classes at the system’s ten campuses have been canceled because there is no one to lead them. “Postdocs, researchers, graduate teaching assistants are basically running the university in many ways,” Lavanya Nott, a researcher and graduate student in UCLA’s geography department, told Los Angeles Times. Their demands — higher wages, paid vacation, childcare grants and transit cards — are familiar in a state where the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years, but the crisis they face dates back nearly half a century manufacturing. If you want to understand the conditions that caused the strike, you must first understand a single piece of legislation that went into effect 44 years ago: Proposition 13.

In June 1978, California voters were asked to consider a voting measure called “Tax Limitation – Initiative Constitutional Amendment,” which aimed to freeze all tax rates on residential and commercial real estate at the time of purchase. (The father of the campaign, a boisterous Republican named Howard Jarvis, called the tax revolt a way of standing up to the “loafers and idlers” in government.) Inflation was rampant at the time, while taxes on homeowners rose, and California voters were happy to say yes. Now, nearly 50 years later, a homeowner who bought their home in 1980 still pays 1980 property taxes — regardless of an increase in the appraised value — as long as they own the home. (A loophole allows homeowners to pass their properties on to their children without triggering a revaluation). The resulting math is staggering: A 2018 report found that the owner of an Oakland home purchased decades ago paid $1,168 in annual property taxes, compared to the $13,000 owed by the owner of a similarly sized neighboring property , which was purchased in 2016. A 2022 study also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the biggest Prop 13 tax breaks have gone to whiter, more affluent neighborhoods.

This deprived the state of much-needed income, just as Jarvis intended. While exact numbers are hard to come by, a failed attempt in 2020 to partially repeal Prop 13 estimated that California would generate an additional $11.5 billion in annual tax revenue if only the state’s commercial real estate owners were taxed at fair market value – most of which would be paid for by giant corporations.

This lack of funds, coupled with other state-level divestment decisions, affected all of California’s public institutions, and education arguably suffered the most. By 1982, the introduction of tuition had declared the end of free college tuition in California. As spending per student dropped, Prop 13’s generous subsidies for homeowners who got in early — and the incentives it offered to stay there — made it incredibly difficult for all but California’s wealthiest residents to break into the housing market. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the neighborhoods surrounding UC campus, where housing has become scarcer as longtime homeowners have organized against new unit development — and continue to get richer thanks to Prop 13. This disparity plays out on UC’s campus as well, as university chancellors receive competitive pay and free housing (including a $6.5 million mansion recently purchased with government money), while the average student worker earns $23,247 dollars earned each year.

Given that history and the nagging rise in housing costs in recent years, it’s little surprise that things are coming to a head. A staggering 92 percent of unionized workers are burdened by rent, with 52 percent paying more than half of their income on rent, according to internal union membership surveys. And as doctoral students, the striking workers tried to gather the data to make their demands clear: Alexander Ferrer, housing researcher and doctorate in geography. Candidate at UCLA currently on strike surveyed available housing around school. Using 2021 census data, Ferrer was able to find just 952 units within ten miles of campus that would cost less than 30 percent of the average graduate student salary. There are 14,300 students at UCLA.