Thousands of teaching assistants and academic staff at the University of California went on strike

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In the largest work stoppage of the year, thousands of academic workers in the California university system went on strike Monday over the university system’s bargaining practices with their union, which is trying to push through higher wages.

About 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, researchers, and graders on the frontline of teaching and research at California’s prestigious public university system are seeking a $54,000 annual minimum salary and increased childcare benefits, saying they don’t earn enough to live in the state . They also accuse the university of not negotiating in good faith with their union, the United Auto Workers.

“The university has tried at every turn to act illegally at the negotiating table, which is preventing us from reaching an agreement,” said Neal Sweeney, the president of UAW Local 5810, which represents more than 11,000 postdocs and academic researchers at UC .

The UC strike is also the largest academic strike in US history, according to the UAW.

The bargaining units, which represent UC academics, said university management made illegal changes to pay and transit benefits without consulting the union. They also alleged that the university refused to provide the necessary information about who is in the negotiation unit and otherwise obstructed the negotiation process. Negotiations have been going on for more than a year.

University officials have denied allegations that their negotiators broke the law during negotiations. They said they had made a good faith effort to negotiate, as evidenced by a number of preliminary agreements the parties have already reached.

Ryan King, a spokesman for the UC system, said the school administration had listened to union priorities, responded fairly and shown “a real willingness to compromise”.

“Our primary goal in these negotiations is multi-year agreements that recognize the important and valued contributions of these staff to the university’s teaching and research mission with fair pay, quality health and family-friendly benefits, and a supportive and respectful work environment,” King said in a statement .

The strike threatens to disrupt teaching, research and pre-exam marking at the 10 campuses that make up the UC system. Students would have to rely solely on the professors for grades, tuition, and other one-on-one tuition.

University administrators and the union continued to meet over the weekend into Sunday evening, with some progress towards an agreement, but union officials said they remained far apart on the key issue of wages.

In the days leading up to the strike, there were a few full UC professors said They had the right to cancel classes during the walkout and expressed solidarity with academic staff.

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The strike comes amid a wave of increased work activity in the United States, buoyed by pandemic working conditions and a record-breakingly hot job market that has given workers more room to negotiate improvements in wages and hours. Workers have scored historic union victories at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple this year. Minnesota recently faced the largest private-sector health-care strike in US history.

The United Auto Workers are asking UC leadership for a minimum salary of $54,000 for all graduate students and a minimum salary of $70,000 for all postdocs, as well as annual cost-of-living adjustments in contract negotiations. Many graduate students make as little as $20,000 per year, and postdocs make at least $55,631. The union has also requested $2,000 a month in childcare reimbursements, extended paid parental leave and public transit tickets for its members.

“We are trying to make fundamental changes to our working conditions, which in turn will affect the quality of research and education,” said Sweeney, the union leader. “The problems we face are similar to those of other workers in this country. We take inspiration from other struggles at Starbucks and Amazon and hope our struggle will inspire others as well.”

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The university system has offered salary increases of between 4 and 7 percent in the first year of the contract, with smaller increases later. Workers have rejected these offers because they are too low. For example, many teaching assistants would make less than $30,000 per year with the university’s proposal.

University negotiators have also offered childcare grants ranging from $2,500 to $4,050 per year and some transit subsidies. Some workers receive $3,300 a year in child care grants. Workers have said the proposed annual stipend would barely cover a month of childcare. Still, according to the union, higher pay increases are paramount to securing a contract that improves the quality of life for its members.

University leadership asserts that “Providing fair and competitive pay for all employees is a UC priority and essential to ensure the excellence of our workforce and the quality of our services to students and the public,” UC administrators said in a press release.

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Rising militancy over cost-of-living claims in the UC system follows a wave of unauthorized “wildcat” strikes that erupted at UC Santa Cruz and spread to a number of UC campuses in 2021. The workers demanded living allowances to account for rising housing prices in the state. After the strikes, UC Santa Cruz agreed to increase housing allowances for teaching assistants.

The union said the vast majority of UC graduates spend more than a third of their income on rent. For example, teaching assistants at UCLA make an average of $24,000 a year, the union said. According to Realtor.com, the average annual rent in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area is more than $36,000 per year.

UC teaching assistants described commuting hours away to find affordable housing, donating blood plasma to make ends meet, and paying more than half of their income in rent.

Jacob Kemner, a UC Riverside graduate student in environmental studies, makes about $28,000 a year and donates blood plasma twice a week for about $200 in extra income.

“I make ends meet selling plasma,” Kemner said. “It makes my job less effective because I spend six to ten hours going to and from the plasma donation center. If I didn’t spend time on it, I could plan and grade the classes.”

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Aya Konisha, a teaching assistant and sophomore in UCLA’s sociology department, said she couldn’t afford to live close to campus and had to commute an hour by public transit to get to the school.

“My salary is definitely not enough to make ends meet,” said Konisha, whose rent consumes half of her monthly income of $2,400. “I make all my food at home. I don’t do any expensive shopping at all and often skip meals when I have to teach. UCLA is supposed to be the number one public university in the United States… but it is grossly unfair.”

The United Auto Workers filed 28 unfair labor practices against the UC system this year for not bargaining in good faith. The state of California is investigating the allegations and has filed two complaints against the UC system.

UC officials denied those allegations, saying that despite these claims, the system “remains committed to pursuing its good faith efforts to reach agreements with the UAW as soon as possible.”

In August 2021, the UAW, which has entered higher education, gained 17,000 student researchers, marking the largest union win of the year.

Earlier this month, the UAW announced that 97 percent of more than 36,000 workers who voted across the UC system approved an unfair strike over labor practices.

Before the strike, 36 California lawmakers sent letters to UC President Michael Drake, urging him to avert the strike by “ending unfair labor practices.”

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