In Aftermath of Strike, UC Academic Workers Assess Wins, Value of Unionization
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- UC academic workers went on strike in mid-November with demands for increased pay, longer parental leave, and improved childcare benefits.
- Workers voted to approve new contracts from Dec. 19-23.
- While the contract was approved by over 60% of academic workers, many are critical of the new deal and assessing the value of unionization in negotiating the new deal.
The University of California academic workers' strike ended just over a month ago. And as the dust settles, they're taking stock of what they won and lost and coming to grips with disagreements among the unionized workforce that spans the massive university system.
The academic workers include some 48,000 researchers, postdoctoral scholars, and academic student employees across the University of California (UC) system's 10 campuses. They are represented by the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW).
Bargaining teams for academic student employees and student researchers reached a tentative agreement with UC on Dec. 16. Previously, postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers ratified their new contract on Dec. 9.
However, the vote to approve their contracts, which ended Dec. 23, shows how complicated negotiating a contract for thousands of workers spread across 10 campuses can be in practice.
Graduate student researchers (GSR), represented by Student Researchers United-UAW, voted to approve their contracts by 68%, while academic student employees (ASE), represented by UAW 2865, voted to approve their contracts by 62%.
The variation in vote totals between UC campuses was noteworthy: Berkeley (72% approval for GSR, 69% for ASE) and UC San Diego (82% for GSR, 73% for ASE) had high rates of approval for both contracts, while campuses such as UC Santa Cruz (19% for GSR, 20% for ASE) and UC Merced (25% for GSR, 27% for ASE) had lower rates of approval.
Meanwhile, all UC schools, except UC Santa Barbara, voted to approve both contracts for graduate student researchers and academic student employees. UC Santa Barbara approved the contract for graduate student researchers by 57% but rejected the contract for academic student employees by 65%.
Still, the contracts made huge strides toward addressing the many workplace issues in the UC system, in the view of Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student researcher studying Materials Science and Engineering at Berkeley.
Chowdhury served as a head steward in UAW 2865 and a member of the bargaining team for Student Researchers United-UAW. He voted to approve the contract.
"We saw wage increases as high as 80% for some workers, raises in the base pay that will help workers (such as myself) address their rent burden, first-time and industry-setting bullying and harassment protections backed up by a third party, the neutral arbitration process, and more," he told BestColleges.
Here's What UC Academic Workers Won
The new contracts went into effect immediately and will be in place until May 31, 2025. The terms of the contracts include changes to compensation, benefits, and worker protections for both academic student employees and student researchers.
Student researchers will see wages increase in 2023 and 2024. By Oct. 1, 2024, the minimum salary will be $34,564.50, according to UC.
Academic student employees will receive a salary increase of 7.5% within 90 days of the ratification vote and then a 16.5% or greater wage increase on Oct. 1, 2023, according to UAW. The current monthly salary for a teaching assistant would increase from $2,583 to $2,777 in April 2023, with additional salary increases in October 2023 and October 2024.
Childcare and Paid Leave
Both student researchers and academic student employees will get $1,350 per fiscal quarter, or every three months, for childcare reimbursements. This increase from the previous $1,100 per quarter, will also include an additional $25 per quarter raises in 2023 and 2024, with the goal of $1,400 in 2024.
Both will also get a minimum of eight weeks of fully paid parental leave for birthing and non-birthing parents, up from six weeks of leave for birthing parents and four weeks for non-birthing parents.
Additionally, graduate student researchers will get a minimum of 12 days of personal time off.
Non-Discrimination and Anti-Bullying
The contracts also include a "Respectful Work Environment" article, which makes abusive conduct and bullying a violation of the contract. Examples of abusive behavior in the contracts include:
- Teasing or making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes
- Making unwanted physical contact or inappropriately encroaching on another individual's personal space, in ways that would cause discomfort and unease
- Repeatedly demanding that the individual do tasks or take actions that are inconsistent with that individual's job, are not that individual's responsibility, for which the employee does not have authority
- Making inappropriate threats to block a person's academic advancement, opportunities, or continued employment at the university
The new contracts also require UC to do more to address reasonable accommodations and accessibility needs.
According to UAW, UC may provide temporary work adjustments during the "interactive" period, where the university gets worker input to determine what accommodations are needed. New workers will get information about what rights and resources they have available to them in their appointment letters.
Additionally, the contact would create a joint committee that would work on accessibility issues.
Academic Workers Discuss How They Voted and Why
UC academic workers that spoke with BestColleges had mixed feelings about the strike and the new contract.
Their views show the difficulty inherent in negotiating a contract for a workforce of diverse academics dispersed among 10 campuses, each of which presents unique economic conditions for workers.
Emily Fox, a sociology Ph.D. student at UC Santa Barbara, voted not to approve the contract.
"The strike definitely won us more than we would have gotten without striking, but this new contract does not solve the most pressing issues that student workers face," she told BestColleges.
"Our first substantial raise doesn't come until next fall, and graduate students won't be making the much-touted 34k base pay until the following fall. Our most precarious student workers can't wait two years to pay their bills or afford childcare and medical care or feed their families."
Fox said she, and many other graduate student workers she knows, are rent burdened, which is defined by the Federal Reserve as spending more than 30% of income on housing.
"My current rent burden is 49%, and after our first raise in a few months, I'll still be paying 45% of my income straight back to the UC for rent," Fox said. "I'm lucky to live in university-subsidized family student housing, which is by far the cheapest option in the area. But that's not available to all other student workers. Most graduate students I know pay much, much more than this, and they will still be struggling to make ends meet after these raises."
Adam Moore, a third-year Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis in the Integrative Pathology program, also voted against the contract. He told BestColleges that he had an issue with how little academic student employees are paid compared to how much work they do in the classroom.
"[The contract] also [doesn't] address the unequal structure of compensation which [academia] relies on: whereby graduate students (and adjuncts) who do much of the instruction are paid a fraction salary of tenured professors, on the increasingly receding promise of secure academic posts after graduation," Moore said.
Moore said that the childcare supplement is "moderately encouraging" and "a step in the right direction" however "wholly insufficient," not even covering one month of care at a UC childcare facility.
Monthly childcare costs at Berkeley for the 2022-2023 school are $2,720 for an infant. At UC Riverside, it is $1,670 per month for five days of infant childcare. UC Santa Cruz offers childcare for $1,192 monthly, and at UC San Diego it is $2,079 monthly for infant care.
Moore also had issues with the reasonable accommodations article of the contract. It doesn't go far enough to address accessibility needs, he said.
"The Reasonable Accommodations article does not actually provide anything new to disabled workers — like myself — that wasn't already guaranteed in California law," he explained. "Having experienced a lot of ableism during my Ph.D., I was really hoping for any improvements for disabled workers, and we didn't get any."
Minerva Teli, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at Berkeley, voted to approve the contract and said she was very encouraged by the ability of the new contracts to protect workers from bullying and harassment.
"The university system puts academic workers in a vulnerable position because it inadequately holds problematic, even abusive faculty accountable for their actions," Teli told BestColleges. "To me, this contract is a step toward shifting the culture of how academic workers are treated at all UC campuses because we now have the protection and power of the union standing with us."
Teli said she knows academic workers who have left academia and the UC system because of the "inaccessible and hostile working environment" that some faculty advisors create. She also talked about how academic workers faced punishment for striking, which is a legally protected right.
"Since the strike began, I have had conversations with several researchers across my campus who experienced retaliation against them for striking, some of which are still facing it after the strike is over," Teli said. "These folks have been threatened with docked pay in future semesters, told they weren't allowed to be on strike, and told their work does not constitute labor."
Mixed Feelings on Unionization
Along with mixed feelings about the final contract, there are also varied opinions about UAW — the union that academic workers organized with.
Chowdhury said his experience with UAW has been "really positive" and that he has high hopes for future contract negotiations, the next one set for 2025.
"We made decisions democratically and in consultation with each other, from voting to authorize the strike, determining strike strategy, and ultimately ratifying the contract," he said. "Many told us that researchers, especially in STEM, would never strike, that we could never reach the goals we set of having [thousands] of workers out on strike and on the picket lines, but we proved those ideas wrong and can only get stronger from here."
However, not everyone had positive experiences.
Moore said he was initially excited to join the unionization effort, but that his time with UAW did not meet his "hopes and expectations," especially with his time in the official union Disability Justice Committee.
There was never a default remotion option advertised for union meetings, which is a way for disabled people to have access to meetings who cannot always be physically present at in-person gatherings, Moore said.
"To me, this is a direct exclusion of disabled people and anyone else who is high-risk for severe outcomes if they got COVID, and just anyone else who doesn't want to risk getting infected with a disabling and deadly virus," he said.
Union members worked on the issue of COVID-19 protections and wrote an article that would enshrine COVID-19 and other public health protections in the contracts, Moore said. However, when the idea was brought up by bargaining team members, it was "tabled indefinitely."
"As disabled workers, we will continue to fight for these demands, with and beyond the union, including making necessary structural changes to democratize our local chapters," he said.
Academic Worker Community Stronger for Striking
Teli said that the strike brought the academic community together from different departments and labs for a common goal.
"Participating in this strike has done more for my networking and community-building than any university-sanctioned event," Teli explained. "Our power is in our collective bargaining and labor, and I look forward to seeing how the community built during the strike continues to empower UC academic workers to fight for our rights."
Although Fox voted against the contracts, she agrees that the strike brought workers together on her campus. And she is excited to continue to work to make higher education work for all students.
"In addition to making new connections across departments, we strengthened relationships with supportive faculty and staff," she said. "Our next strike will be even stronger because we're continuing to develop this community… the fight for higher education that is affordable, accessible, and safe for all students and workers is long from over."