A month into the nation’s largest strike involving higher education, the work stoppage by University of California academic workers at 10 campuses is causing stress for many students who are facing canceled classes, no one to answer their questions and uncertainty about how they will be graded as they wrap up the year.
Some 48,000 student employees walked off the job on Nov. 14 to demand higher wages and better benefits. The employees, represented by the United Auto Workers Local 5810, say they were left with no other choice but to strike to demand increased wages necessary to keep up with the sky-high rents in cities like Berkeley, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Last week, university officials agreed to a 29% pay hike for postdoctoral employees and academic researchers who make up about 12,000 of the 48,000 workers. The university system also agreed to provide more family leave time, childcare subsidies and job security.
But the postdoctoral employees and researchers have refused to return to work until a deal is also reached for the 36,000 graduate student teaching assistants, tutors and researchers who are bargaining separately for increased pay and benefits. The strike is being closely watched and could have a ripple effect at schools across the country.
Colleges and universities increasingly rely on graduate student employees to do teaching, grade papers and conduct research that had previously been handled by tenured faculty.
Many University of California students fear the strike may extend well into next year, disrupting their plans to apply to degree programs.
University of California, Berkeley sophomore Janna Nassar said she believes academic workers should be better paid, but she is growing concerned as the strike continues. She was counting on final review sessions with her graduate student instructor for one of her economics classes before she takes the final exam next week. But now the 18 year old said that’s not an option.
Before the strike, she said she attended lectures for that class three times a week and two discussion sessions with the graduate student instructor. She is required to complete the class before she can declare a major in economics next year.
“This is the hardest I have studied in all of my semesters here, and I feel the least prepared,” she said. “It’s really disheartening to know that I might have to declare late or maybe I won’t be able to declare econ and will have to choose another major.”
Susana Sotelo, a UC Berkeley sophomore who plans to declare a psychology major, said four of her five classes were taught by graduate student instructors or lecturers. Those classes have been canceled or moved online and turned optional.
The one class taught by a psychology professor also moved online and he told the students that no new material would be taught for the rest of the semester to support the strike, she said.
Sotelo, 19, said she is not yet sure how she will be graded for her classes except for her psychology class, which will be considered successfully completed if she turns in her research project. Ironically, her research work is about the stress undergraduate students go through when choosing a major.
“My one professor has been very understanding. He sent various emails saying that to support the strikers, he would not give any assignments and would cancel discussions,” Sotelo said.
The average pay for UC student employees is about $24,000 annually and many academic workers say they have to skip meals or take additional work to make ends meet with their meager salary.
Jonathan Mackris, who is pursuing a doctorate in film and media at UC Berkeley, said he teaches an undergraduate class about silent film history but often must take on other jobs, including grading papers or teaching reading and composition.
He said he brings in $2,100 a month and pays $1,870 for a studio apartment near campus. His landlord recently told him his rent will increase to $1,950.
“I go through phases where sometimes I’ll wake up at like two in the morning and like be really stressed about it,” he said.
The bargaining units say they are demanding the university agree to pay that will lift workers out of “rent burden,” which is defined by the federal government as having to pay at least a third of your salary toward rent.
The student workers are also demanding childcare, no more supplemental tuition for international students and better protection from harassment in the workplace, especially for scientific researchers who can be pressured into working long hours into the night and on weekends.
UC officials said in a statement they believe the proposals they have made to the bargaining units “are fair, reasonable and honor the important contributions these bargaining unit members make toward the University’s mission of education and research.”
The university said it has proposed total compensation for those working part-time to range from $46,757 to $74,798, depending on the bargaining unit title and campus.
“The proposals offered by the university to the UAW would place our graduate students and academic employees at the top of the pay scale across major public universities and on par with top private universities,” the university said in a statement.
If graduate employees and researchers win better pay at the UC system, it could prompt similar changes at colleges that compete with UC or where graduate workers are organizing unions, said Tim Cain, associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia.
“If the unions succeed in getting close to what they’re seeking, it will be eye-opening,” he said, adding that “if the conditions fundamentally change at the UC schools, then the marketplace changes for other schools as well.”
Across the country, 75% of academic workers doing research in labs, libraries and archives, and teaching undergraduate courses are graduate students, according to Cain.
Cain sees the strike as part of a broader shift in U.S. labor after the pandemic placed a heavier burden on workers and drew attention to nationwide wage disparities.
“We’re in a moment where there is a great deal of labor activity among workers who are not well treated by larger systems, and I think a number of people working in higher education see themselves as part of that larger disruption,” he said.
What the effects of the disruption will be on UC undergraduate students whose education had already been in disarray because of the pandemic remains to be seen. But for Nassar, who isn’t certain if she will be able to declare an economics major, the effect seems long-lasting.
“It’s like a breaking point,” she said. “It’ll probably affect us for the rest of our undergraduate careers.”