Advertisement

Dissension brews among striking UC union members over tentative agreement

Graduate student workers on strike at UCLA.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Share

A day after the University of California and union leaders representing 36,000 academic workers heralded a breakthrough agreement that could end a five-week strike, dueling narratives over the tentative pact emerged among graduate student supporters and opponents.

Rafael Jaime, president of one of the two United Auto Workers bargaining units involved in the negotiations, touted Friday’s agreement as a “historic” win that would reshape the lives of thousands of graduate student workers and inspire peers across the country to fight for better wages and working conditions. The pact, he said, would boost minimum wages by as much as 80% and enhance support for child care, healthcare for dependents and international students.

“This contract really does set a new standard for institutions of higher education,” Jaime said Saturday. “It’s a major step toward building a more equitable UC that is accessible to workers from all backgrounds.”

But opponents of the tentative pact announced Saturday that they would launch a statewide campaign to urge their peers to reject ratification. They said the wage gains are not as significant as billed, won’t fully kick in until fall 2024 and would do little to relieve the rent burden on academic workers struggling with housing costs in the pricey areas where many UC campuses are located.

Mark Woodall, a UC Merced PhD candidate in physics and chair of his UAW 2865 campus unit, said the tentative agreement abandoned the demand to link wage gains and housing costs, which he called the “organizing principle” behind the walkout that began Nov. 14 with 48,000 teaching assistants, tutors, researchers and postdoctoral scholars.

“The idea that these are being sold as spectacular wins is just ludicrous,” Woodall said.

About 48,000 unionized academic workers across the University of California’s 10 campuses walked off the job, calling for better pay and benefits.

Jan. 9, 2022

The divided views were reflected in the votes to accept the tentative agreement by bargaining team members for UAW 2865, representing 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other academic employees, and SRU-UAW, representing 17,000 graduate student researchers. UAW 2865 bargaining team members supported the pact 11-8; for SRU-UAW, the vote was 13-7.

Campus UAW units — which each provided two representatives to the bargaining team — showed significant divides.

All representatives from UCLA, Berkeley, Davis and Irvine supported the agreement; all from Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Merced opposed it. UC Riverside representatives from both bargaining units split their vote. For UC San Diego, three of the four representatives supported the pact; for UC San Francisco, one supported it and the other abstained. Both graduate student researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory voted yes.

Both sides said they would work hard to win over fellow union members when the ratification vote takes place Monday through Friday. If the pact is ratified by a majority of members, the strike will end.

Advertisement

For academic student employees, the tentative agreement would raise minimum pay from about $23,250 to about $34,000 for nine months of part-time work by Oct. 1, 2024. The rate at Berkeley, San Francisco and UCLA would be $36,500. The union had demanded doubling the minimum pay to $54,000 for 12 months, but leaders agreed to take the compromise to members for ratification, Jaime said.

Graduate student researchers would make a minimum of $34,564.50 for 50% time work by Oct. 1, 2024, under a new six-point salary scale.

Members of both bargaining units would receive certain student support funds. Child-care reimbursements would be set at $1,350 per quarter or $2,025 per semester, plus $1,350 for summer. UC also agreed to pay 100% of dependent child premiums for eligible student workers, enact new protections against bullying and harassment and increase paid family leave.

Earlier, UAW 5810, which represents postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, ratified a new contract that boosted their minimum pay to $70,000 with adjustments, among the highest in the nation. The unit returned to work last week. Their new contract also offers increased support for child care and healthcare for dependents, along with transit subsidies and protection against harassment and bullying.

The breakthrough in the protracted strike over graduate students’ wages and other issues — which roiled finals and grading at the end of the fall term — came after both sides agreed to bring in an independent mediator. Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento and former leader of the state Senate, stepped in to help.

Steinberg, in an interview, said he began meeting with both sides and “listening hard” on Dec 10. By Wednesday, he had made enough progress to set up in-person negotiations and worked past 11 p.m. shuttling offers and counteroffers between the two sides holed up in Sacramento City Hall.

Steinberg did not deny reports that he said he was ready to walk out without a compromise when the two sides continued to balk during negotiations.

“You get to a point where the parties dig in a little harder, and you have to say, ‘I’m now going to insist that you consider these options — this is it,’” he said.

A critical compromise, he said, came when UC agreed to raise the minimum compensation to about $34,000, and the unions agreed to drop demands to increase a pay guarantee for teaching assistants and other academic employees from nine to 12 months.

Advertisement

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.

Nov. 29, 2022

A majority of members of the bargaining team also agreed to drop demands for full remission of supplemental tuition for international students throughout their PhD journey, which can last six or seven years. Instead, they agreed to accept codifying the current general practice of offering tuition remission for up to three years after graduate students complete teaching, research and other requirements to advance to a PhD candidacy.

Aarthi Sekar, a UC Davis PhD candidate and bargaining team member, said she planned to promote the pact throughout campus as a major step forward to address the high cost of living.

“In talking with members as a bargaining team member for UC Davis, there is a lot of excitement for this contract,” she said.

But Woodall said the wage gains are being oversold and the pay increase is hardly enough to afford the escalating cost of living, even in Merced. When he moved to the Central Valley city in 2017, he paid $730 for a one-bedroom apartment, he said; such units now go for about $1,300.

He also said he disagrees with the higher pay for colleagues at UCLA, Berkeley and San Francisco, saying all graduate students should get “equal pay for equal work.” But those three campuses tend to offer graduate students higher pay in order to compete nationally for top talent.

Hannah Freund, a UC Riverside graduate student researcher who plans to oppose ratification, said their pay would increase by about 44% over the life of the contract, which is effective until May 31, 2025. But they said the raise would not be enough to cover the high cost of healthcare for their fragile medical condition. Freund also said they were distressed that the closed negotiations did not allow more input from union members.

Freund said graduate students have leverage to fight for more gains by withholding their work grading final exams and assignments.

Whatever dissent has surfaced among members of the bargaining team, leaders say the democratic process will be on full display this week.

“We have a very large and diverse union with 36,000 people,” Jaime said. “It’ll be up to each individual member to decide how to vote on this contract.”

Advertisement