University of California Workers Authorize Strike

Nearly 50,000 academic workers — researchers, postdocs, and teaching assistants — voted overwhelmingly to strike after they say the UC system failed to meet their demands.

Published November 3, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
University of California Workers Authorize Strike
Photo by lucentius / iStock Unreleased / Getty Images

  • Academic workers across the University of California's 10-campus system held a strike authorization vote from Oct. 26-Nov. 2.
  • The vote passed with nearly 98% approval.
  • Some of the workers' demands include increased compensation, access to sustainable transportation, more childcare assistance, and increased job security.
  • If called to strike, unionized academic workers would temporarily refuse to work, which could disrupt operations at UC campuses and laboratories.

Academic workers across the University of California's (UC) system have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike over what they called UC's unfair labor tactics.

The academic workers include researchers, postdocs, and teaching assistants (TAs) across the UC system's 10 campuses. They could strike as soon as Nov. 14, a move that would effectively shut down most UC undergraduate classes and laboratory research.

The UC system's 48,000 academic workers are represented by the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). About 76% of the members (36,558) voted on the strike authorization between Oct. 26-Nov. 2. It passed by a nearly 98% margin, according to UAW.

In an email press release, the UAW called the vote that had supermajority participation "far and away the largest and most decisive strike authorization vote ever taken by Academic Workers in the United States."

"UC has left us no choice but to escalate our campaigns," said Neal Sweeney, president of UAW 5810, which represents postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, in the release.

Compensation is a major issue for UC's unionized academic workers. Other demands include access to sustainable transportation, more childcare assistance, increased job security, increased aid for international students, disability accommodations, and protections against abusive conduct in the workplace.

UAW also claims that UC is using unlawful bargaining practices in attempts to union bust and circumvent the established bargaining teams.

UC's alleged unlawful conduct has prevented UAW from negotiating fair agreements, Joyce Chan, a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego), said in a statement.

"The UAW bargaining teams remain at the ready to work around the clock with UC to reach fair agreements, and the membership has now also spoken: they are willing to take action to stop UC's unlawful actions, if necessary."

Pay Must Match Cost of Living in California

BestColleges spoke with unionized UC academic workers who said compensation for their work in classrooms and laboratories has not kept pace with the rising costs of living in California.

Most graduate student instructor (GSI) pay doesn't even come close to covering the cost of living in California, Nadia Almasalkhi, a University of California, Berkeley Ph.D. student and GSI, told BestColleges in an email.

"We perform in-person jobs, so our pay has to match the cost of living where we work. It's that simple," she said. "Besides the basic issue of making ends meet, the current wages are also way below our market value and they undervalue the work we do serving the core missions of the university: teaching and research."

According to an internal UAW survey, 92% of graduate workers and 61% of postdoctoral scholars are rent-burdened, driving many of those in academia to get side jobs or to choose different institutions to work with so they could afford to live close to campus.

The UC system is proposing an initial 6% raise for graduate student researchers, a 7% raise for academic student employees, a 4% raise for academic researchers, and a $59,362 minimum salary for postdoctoral scholars, or a 7.5% increase, Ryan King, associate director of media relations for the UC Office of the President, told BestColleges in an email. Each group would also get annual 3% raises.

"Providing fair and competitive pay to all employees is a UC priority and essential to ensuring the excellence of our workforce and the quality of our service to students and the public," King said. "Due to the different roles and duties of each of the UAW-represented groups, compensation for each bargaining unit necessarily varies."

However, UAW is pushing for a $54,000 annual minimum salary for all graduate workers, a $70,000 annual minimum salary for postdoctoral scholars, and a 14% initial salary increase for academic researchers, according to FairUCNow's bargaining summary document.

At stake is more than academic workers' living standards — the UC system's position as a leader in cutting-edge research is put in major jeopardy by the current conditions, Maya Gosztyla, a fourth-year Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at UC San Diego, told BestColleges in an email.

"The rent prices in [UC San Diego] graduate student housing have risen more than 50% in the time I've been here," she said. "UC simply cannot recruit the best researchers while expecting them to pay the majority of their stipends back to the university as rent. We need fair compensation and affordable housing."

Union Alleges Unfair Labor Practices

UAW also claims that UC is using unlawful bargaining practices in attempts to union bust and circumvent the established bargaining teams.

A tracker on UAW's website documents ways in which the university has allegedly attempted to unlawfully bargain with one or more of the union's units.

For instance, UAW alleges that UC has negotiated directly with and raised the stipends of specific departments. UAW likewise alleges that UC has failed to provide necessary and relevant information for bargaining proposals.

UAW has filed more than 20 unfair labor practice charges with California's Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) since bargaining began in spring 2021; 6 have been found to have enough evidence to assert that an unfair practice may have been committed, according to the UAW.

Gosztyla told BestColleges that UC used unfair labor practices when postdoctoral scholars and teaching assistants tried to unionize in the past. She hopes this time that voting to authorize a strike will also force officials to bargain in good faith.

"It's clear to me that [UC] will not begin having a serious conversation with us about fair compensation and common-sense worker protections until we strike," she said. "UC has a proven track record of only responding to strong unified action by our workers."

The Council of UC Faculty Associations, in a statement regarding a possible strike, called out UC's alleged use of illegal bargaining tactics.

"The Council of UC Faculty Associations calls on the University of California to cease its unlawful behavior, resume good faith negotiations, and settle fair contracts with the unions," the statement read.

"We support fair wages and working conditions for academic workers and hope a strike can be avoided. If not, we encourage all Senate faculty to support our fellow academic workers … Should [UC] fail to engage in negotiations, The Council of UC Faculty Associations will offer guidelines on faculty rights in the event of a union-sanctioned strike."

UC officials told BestColleges that the allegations of unfair bargaining are "not true."

"Throughout the negotiations, UC has listened carefully to the union's concerns and bargained in good faith, as illustrated by the many tentative agreements reached thus far including on topics underlying the UAW's allegations," King said. "Despite these unfounded claims, UC remains committed to continuing its good-faith efforts to reach agreements with UAW as quickly as possible."

Strike Would Impact Campuses Across California

The 48,000 UC academic members represented by UAW are split into four different bargaining groups, each with a different union contract. No healthcare workers are represented by UAW, and UC medical centers will remain open during a strike.

All workers, including international workers, are lawfully allowed to strike, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Federal law protects workers from being "fired for participating in a protected strike or picketing against their employer."

"We're all bargaining separately but at the same time," Maura McDonagh, a third-year neuroscience Ph.D. student working out of a lab at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), told Best Colleges.

A strike could last until the university reaches a deal with one or multiple bargaining teams or members of bargaining teams decide to stop striking.

If workers do strike, UAW said picket lines would likely go up on all 10 UC campuses.

"If our bargaining teams call for a strike, then absolutely I will strike," Almasalkhi said. "That means I and other striking GSIs won't be teaching, grading, holding office hours, lesson-planning, responding to student emails, attending lectures — nothing. Instead, we'll be on the picket line."

Student researchers bring billions of dollars in research funding to the UC system, Gosztyla said. If they went on strike, that research would be endangered.

"A strike would mean that we completely abstain from that research and instead, spend our time on the picket line," she said. "It could mean that extremely valuable research is compromised — which is not an easy sacrifice to make — but we are willing to do it in order to ensure that research conditions are improved for years to come."

McDonagh agreed that, if workers are forced to strike, sacrificing lab work would be worth it.

"If I'm not physically going into the lab, I'm not checking on my [lab work], I'm not running experiments," they said. "Instead, I'm going to be out on the picket line, at least four hours a day with my co-workers, and really showing up for the fellow postdocs, academic researchers, and student researchers that are also going to be there."

UC spokesperson King told BestColleges that all UC campuses will be prepared to continue instruction and research if a strike is called.

"Ultimately, differences must be resolved at the bargaining table, with both sides being flexible and willing to compromise," he said. "The University believes its proposals have been fair, reasonable, and responsive to the union's priorities, and looks forward to continuing negotiations with the UAW and settling these contracts as quickly as possible."

What's Next for UC Academic Workers?

With the strike authorization in hand, UAW bargaining teams will now have another opportunity to negotiate contracts with UC leaders. If a deal cannot be reached, a strike may be called as early as Nov. 14.

The overwhelming support for the strike authorization vote should be a "wake-up call" to UC that encourages them to make a deal, Almasalkhi said. Academic workers have the leverage and they're ready to use it.

"We're not going to settle for poverty wages," she said. "If [UC] wants to prevent this strike and the disruption to their campuses, then they need to get serious at the bargaining table, bargain in good faith, and make some reasonable proposals."

A strike might benefit UC in the long run, McDonagh said.

"This isn't done out of anger or frustration, it's really done in the hope that we're going to change our working conditions for ourselves and for future generations of scientists," they said. "It's in UC's hands to address [our concerns] and maintain a status of excellence, not only for record-setting grants and amazing research, but also for being a workplace founded on respect, and appropriately compensating its workers."