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UC says strikers’ demand to tie pay to housing costs could have ‘overwhelming’ cost impacts

Unionized academic workers across the University of California’s 10 campuses hit the picket line Monday
Unionized academic workers at UCLA join others across the University of California’s 10 campuses on the picket line on Monday. They are calling for better pay and benefits.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Pay and housing demands by University of California academic workers — who launched a massive strike across the system this week — could amount to several hundred million dollars annually, an “overwhelming” financial impact, a UC senior leader says.

In a letter released Wednesday, UC Provost Michael Brown told the system’s 10 chancellors and other top leaders that California housing costs are a “significant challenge” and pledged to “work diligently” to support students. But he drew attention to the impact of two union demands in particular: tying compensation to housing costs and waiving out-of-state tuition for international scholars.

Brown said that state enrollment subsidies for UC students funds only Californians, so the university must rely on other means — including supplemental tuition — to cover costs for international and out-of-state students.

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“If we were to provide remission of out-of state supplemental tuition, non-California student employees would in effect receive a larger compensation package than California resident student employees for doing the same work,” Brown said.

Rafael Jaime, a UCLA doctoral candidate and president of United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other academic workers on strike, said that union leaders have not yet seen Brown’s letter but that the provost’s cost estimates seemed inflated. He said the unions would be happy to bargain over the issue.

“If the university has a better proposal that seriously addresses the housing crisis, we’re ready and willing to hear it,” Jaime said.

Nearly 48,000 UC academic workers — including postdoctoral scholars, graduate teaching assistants and researchers — walked off the job this week in a strike billed as the largest at any academic institution in history. The action by the workers, who perform much of the teaching and research across 10 campuses in the state’s premier higher education system, triggered canceled classes, shuttered labs and other academic disruptions just weeks before final exams. The strike also included workers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The strike comes after more than 50 bargaining sessions starting a year ago, but graduate students at UC Santa Cruz first drew national attention to their financial hardships with a wildcat strike in 2019 and 2020. Then-UC President Janet Napolitano ordered them to stop withholding grades, as some had done, or face termination. Dozens were fired, but most were eventually reinstated. This week, four UAW bargaining units banded together in a unified labor action.

The work stoppage aims to challenge long-held labor practices at UC and other universities across the country, which have come under growing scrutiny for how graduate workers and academic employees are paid in an era of rising inflation and growing union activism.

The workers are demanding significant pay increases, child-care subsidies, enhanced healthcare for dependents, longer family leave, public transit passes and lower tuition costs for international scholars.

Union leaders say housing costs on and near many UC campuses have continued to rise, making the majority of their members “rent-burdened,” or spending more than 30% of their income on rent. The unions are asking that their pay be tied to increases in the local cost of living, including housing so that no one pays more than 30% of their salary toward housing costs.

Regarding international students, Jaime said the demand to eliminate their supplemental tuition would make the nonresident fee policy more consistent, because UC already, in one way or another, covers the higher costs for about 60% of international graduate student workers. “It’s very arbitrary and unpredictable” right now, Jaime said. “No one should have to pay to work at the University of California.”

Several academic workers spoke out at the UC Board of Regents meeting Wednesday in San Francisco, asking for support. Board Chair Richard Leib said that he empathized with the workers but that some of their demands could be difficult to accommodate.

“I’m sympathetic to the graduate students. I get the suffering they’re having,” Leib said during a break at the meeting. But he said the cost of tying pay to housing “could be great and hard to manage.”

Brown noted that the academic student workers were part time and under UC’s proposals would be “among the highest compensated” among those at leading public universities and similar to what top private institutions offer.

UC has offered salary scale increases of 7% in the first year and 3% in each subsequent year for teaching assistants and tutors, and increases for postdoctoral scholars of 8% the first year, 5% the second year and 3% in subsequent years. UC said pay increases would amount to up to 17%, depending on the union.

UC also is proposing child-care subsidies and increased paid pregnancy and family leaves, with different proposals for different bargaining units.

The two sides have made some progress. They came to an agreement, for instance, on stronger protections against workplace bullying and abuse. But UC has asked for a neutral mediator to step in.

Many students and faculty members have expressed their support for the strike.

Miles Chen, 21, a third-year global jazz studies major at UCLA, said one of his classes that meets three days a week has been canceled because the teaching assistant is participating in the strike. At the undergraduate writing center, where Chen works as a receptionist, almost all of the tutors there have been on strike. He said he’s been joining the picket line in solidarity.

“Pretty much every single student I’ve spoken to, including myself, we’re all very supportive of the movement,” he said. “What’s been happening is incredibly unjust to them and they have every right to strike and leave their post and force this administration to shape up.”

Ragini Srinivasan, 20, a third-year UCLA math/economics and political science major, said one of her classes has been moved online during the strike. “I also do want to pursue a career in academia, and one thing that’s always very daunting or stressful to think about is how hard to get there and how very little security there is along the way, so I can only imagine what it’s like for the TAs,” she said.

UC Student Assn. President Alex Niles, 21, a UC Santa Barbara fourth-year interdisciplinary major, said he hasn’t gone to class this week in order to not cross the picket line. Two of his professor-led lectures were also canceled.

“When you explain to students that this is a last resort and they understand the conditions the TAs are going through, people are very understandable and receptive to why there’s a need to strike,” he said. “At the end of the day, UC has the ability to end the strike whenever they want to by negotiating in good faith and granting fair contracts to academic workers.”

At UCLA, Victor Narro said some of the labor studies professors, himself included, have been sharing information about the strike in their lectures and classes, have taken their students to the picket line and have invited guest speakers from the union.

“There has been an upsurge in union organizing in universities recent years with service workers, academic workers, and non-tenured and adjunct faculty,” Narro said. “Graduate student labor organizing has spiked in recent years, especially post-pandemic.”

James Vernon, a history professor at UC Berkeley, said he has canceled his two classes in solidarity with striking graduate and academic workers. He said many other professors have joined him in canceling classes, but others have continued to teach as university leaders have asked them to do so.

He said the current pay for graduate student workers is “neither sustainable at an institutional or personal level.”

“No one wants to be going out on strike, no one wants to be not teaching,” Vernon said. “It’s hard for them. … We’re all really mindful of that.”


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