Heeba Hartit, a teaching assistant and a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of California, Riverside, is paid by the university to work 20 hours a week. She says Hartit logs closer to 30 or 40 hours on average while teaching three sections, as well as “planning the curriculum, studying and reading the course material, participating in the lecture component of the discussions I hold, answering emails, grading papers.” , reviewing rough drafts, office hours and more.”
This is hardly a new phenomenon; Most universities have tacitly benefited from unpaid hours of extra work by their student assistants for decades. But in California, where basic housing costs have skyrocketed for years, the math no longer adds up.
The state’s student teachers, in many ways the backbone of the UC system, often cannot afford to live where they work. This is a nationwide problem. In the short term, the 10 university campuses are poised to feel the pain.
Teaching assistants earn $24,000 per year, far less than the average rent in Los Angeles and other markets where UCs are based.
A Nov. 14 strike date has been set by about 48,000 UC student workers, a group that includes teaching assistants, tutors, postdocs who teach and grade papers, and other academic staff. Organized under the umbrella of the United Auto Workers union, student workers are part of a large if relatively unknown workforce; rough 10% of all postdocs in the USA are used by the UC system.
Pay is the heart of the matter, since rising salaries are practically the only way to afford rent in the areas where many UC campuses are located. Teaching assistants, for example, earn $24,000 a year, far less than the average rent in Los Angeles and other markets where UCs are based. Some researchers earn higher salaries — potentially up to $40,000 — but most are limited to 20 hours a week.
The union is demanding a minimum of $54,000 a year for all student academic staff, a figure negotiators say is based on the median cost of housing in the state. A university spokesman said UC is offering wage increases to help workers “meet their housing needs.” These proposals ranged from 4% to 7% and are not close to what the union is aiming for.
Not surprisingly, more than 50 negotiation sessions months ago have not narrowed this gap. In addition, union officials say the university has changed working conditions and wages more than once without negotiation, which they plan to address in each new agreement. 98% voted to authorize a strike.
“We cannot reach our full potential as researchers and educators if we work under unfair conditions,” said Maya Gosztyla, a graduate student and graduate student in the Biomedical Sciences program at UC San Diego. “We have negotiated in good faith to ensure a better long-term future for academic staff at our campuses, but UC has not shown us the same respect.”
A strike would jeopardize UCs’ ability to complete the fall semester without severe disruption. “Our teaching assistants do most of the teaching work for UC, and we do basically all the research,” Tanzil told Chowdhury, a graduate student at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Chronicle of San Francisco. “If those two things stop, the university can’t really function.”
“I have co-workers who have had to move away for over an hour and have to share the space with several roommates to afford the rent.”
~ Heeba Hartit, teaching assistant, UC Riverside
This isn’t just a school problem. California’s escalating housing crisis has put increased pressure on renters everywhere, who make up 44% of all residents in the state. And not just in obvious UC markets like Los Angeles, Irvine, Santa Cruz or San Diego.
Hartit’s story is a case in point. She studies and works in Riverside, which has long been considered “a more affordable UC,” as she put it. But she pays half of her annual net income to live in an off-campus apartment, and the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario market has recently climbed into the ranks of the top ten most expensive in the US in terms of rent. According to that Los Angeles Times, more than 92% of UC teaching assistants nationwide are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income in housing costs. Four out of ten spend more than half of their income on an apartment.
“I have colleagues who had to move away for more than an hour and had to share an apartment with several roommates in order to be able to afford the rent,” says Hartit. “Even for those living in campus housing, workers divert about 50% of their pay back to UC for housing in extremely poor condition.”
Ultimately, the threat to UC’s highly regarded system is a talent drain, one reason why a sudden compromise coming from the university side wouldn’t be shocking. Last fall, UC management averted a last-minute strike by the system’s 6,500 faculty members by agreeing to 30% pay increases over five years, plus increased job stability.
The student worker action can also end up on the wire. The Nov. 14 strike date should coincide with the final weeks of the fall quarter, when student academics rely heavily on teaching courses, advising students on upcoming exams, administering final exams and looking up grades. Administrators at several campuses have predicted serious hardship for UC students when the strike begins.
If so, Hartit says she won’t be alone protesting at UC Riverside.
“Many of my students will stand with me on the picket line,” she says. “My students all have great compassion and support for our current situation. My working conditions are their learning conditions.”
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