UC postdoctoral scholars and researchers reach tentative deal but strike continues
The University of California and its postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers reached a tentative agreement Tuesday that would elevate their pay to among the highest in the nation — but they won’t return to campus yet in solidarity with some 36,000 graduate student employees who remain on strike.
“We are proud to have reached agreements that address the soaring cost of living, and reflect the value of our contributions at UC,” Neal Sweeney, president of United Auto Workers 5810, said in a statement. “These agreements represent a new, best-in-class model that will improve quality of life — and the quality of research — for scientists across the U.S.”
The tentative deal involves two smaller bargaining units and does not settle the uncertainty roiling campuses systemwide over how to handle grading and final exams as fall terms draw to a close. That’s because the workers who do such hands-on work with students make up the vast majority of strikers — graduate student teaching assistants and researchers in two large units, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW. They remain far apart on wage proposals.
At a news conference Tuesday, Sweeney said the tentative deal would put UC postdoctoral scholars at higher median pay levels than even pace-setting Stanford. Union members still need to ratify the agreement but once that happens, they will be contractually obligated to return to work — even if others are still on strike.
UC hailed the agreement and thanked the 10-campus system’s faculty and students for their “flexibility and patience” during the strike.
“Our dedicated colleagues are vital to UC’s research activities and we are very pleased to have reached agreements that honor their many important contributions,” Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations, said in a statement. “These agreements also uphold our tradition of supporting these employees with compensation and benefits packages that are among the best in the country.”
As 48,000 University of California academic workers push their historic strike into a third week just days before finals, tensions and anxiety are rising. “People are losing their minds,” a UC Santa Barbara professor says.
The postdoctoral employees and academic researchers make up about 12,000 of the 48,000 union members who launched the nation’s largest ever strike of academic workers three weeks ago. They say the tentative deal will significantly improve the quality of their lives by raising the minimum annual pay for their full-time positions from about $55,000 to $70,000 or higher with various adjustments by the end of the five-year contract — including a $12,000 raise by next October.
“This will be quite transformative for me,” said Adam Caparco, a UC San Diego postdoctoral scholar who is researching how to make eco-friendly pesticides, develop drought-resistant plants and improve waste management.
Caparco said he lucked out with a reasonably priced apartment during the pandemic and only spends 30% of his monthly take-home pay of $3,500 on rent. But he still lives paycheck to paycheck, he said, having to rely on credit cards for unforeseen expenses such as a $1,200 car repair earlier this year.
The wage gains in the tentative agreement, which Caparco said he intends to ratify, would give him more financial security — and breathing room to think about saving for a new car or getting a gym membership.
Faculty members say they value their academic workers and want them to earn enough for a secure life. But many are concerned about where the money will come from to pay for the higher wages and benefits.
The postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers are largely supported by grants secured by faculty. Federal grants have stayed flat for years and often limit the share that can be paid on salaries or how the funds can be spent. It is not clear, faculty said, whether funding agencies would allow grants to be used for subsidies for childcare, e-bikes or public transit — some of the new benefits included in the tentative deal. They also questioned what would happen if they did not have funding for another provision in the agreement, extending appointments from one to two years.
“We want people who work for us to be supported, but we’re concerned that it’s on our shoulders to do it and we don’t have the resources,” a faculty member said.
Sweeney, the union leader, stressed that UC should double down on reaching a deal with the graduate student teaching assistants and researchers.
The strike of 48,000 University of California workers may have long-lasting consequences to the system’s teaching and research excellence, some fear.
“We think the university can and should start making serious proposals to the other two units and they should reach agreement as soon as possible, even this week,” he said.
But UC and graduate students remain far apart on wage proposals. The university has asked for a neutral mediator to step in, which the union opposes.
While the postdoctoral scholars agreed to a roughly 20% increase in the annual minimum salary — from about $55,000 to $66,000 — the graduate students are demanding a 145% hike from $22,000 to $54,000.
George Blumenthal, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, said graduate student workers needed and deserved more support, but such a wage demand was “far from being within the realm of the possible” given UC’s budget and wage agreements with other employee groups. He said the postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers also had a pressing incentive to settle because their contracts are generally just for a few years and they need to show productivity to secure the renewal or their next job.
Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, said it was up to his union bargaining team to decide whether to bring back an offer to members with a lower wage demand. But they need far higher pay to survive and continue the critical teaching and research they provide UC, he said.
“The kind of wages graduate students earn make it really difficult to continue in academia,” he said. “All we’re asking for is for UC to value the work we do and pay us dignified wages.”
For postdoctoral scholars, the tentative agreement includes:
—A 20%-23% salary increase (up to $12,000) by October 2023 for most union members. The current lowest postdoctoral worker would receive a 57% increase over five years.
—Annual increases of 7.2% for postdoctoral workers on scale and 3% for those above scale for 2024-2027.
—An increase of four weeks to eight weeks of paid parental and family leave.
—Childcare subsidies that will start at $2,500 annually and increase to $2,800 annually — their first such subsidy.
—Longer appointments for more job security, greater protections against bullying and for workers with disabilities.
—Transportation benefits, including a commitment for free transit passes within three years and a 15% e-bike discount.
For academic researchers, the agreement includes an average 29% salary increase over the five-year contract. They will also receive eight weeks of paid family leave, longer appointments for better job security, enhanced transportation benefits and more protection against bullying and for workers with disabilities.
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