Op-Ed: As a UC professor, I support the strikers. Our schools shouldn’t have let it come to this
Nearly 48,000 employees across all 10 University of California campuses went on strike this week. These union members — including postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers and graduate students employed as instructors, teaching assistants and tutors, among other roles — are demanding higher pay, child-care payments, better working conditions and access to affordable housing.
It’s no mystery why 98% of the United Auto Workers members who cast a vote on the strike supported it. The average UC system grad student worker makes $24,000 annually — nearly $15,000 less than the average apartment in Santa Cruz costs a year. That’s obviously an impossible wage to live on.
As a former TA and a current professor, I know as well as anyone the value of these workers’ positions in a university system. In my experience, most university professors are provided a teaching assistant, some several, depending on the size of the class and the position of the professor. With some variation, most TAs are in charge of all student interaction outside of class. In other words, if a student has a question, they meet in person with or email the TA, not the professor.
Tying workers’ pay to their housing costs could have ‘overwhelming financial impacts,’ for UC. a system provost warns amid strike.
But the real workload is grading. Professors typically have their TAs do all of it, which means reading hundreds of pages of student work a week, commenting on said work and then entering grades in whatever method of categorization that particular professor uses. This is an overwhelming amount of work, all on top of the already strenuous responsibilities of graduate school.
I felt lucky when I was “awarded” a TA position in graduate school — my program used the term “awarded,” as if it were not a paid job but a prize bestowed upon only the select few who had earned such a prodigious position. I worked under one of the finest writers of the last two decades, and I was not yoked with the heavy responsibility of grading students’ papers. But my experience is a rare exception to the standard TA model that resembles indentured servitude more than reasonable postgraduate employment.
One TA at my campus told me: “I have to go on strike …there’s just nothing else we can do. They won’t negotiate with us. They won’t even talk to us.… We need more money. I can’t even pay rent. I have a scholarship, and I still have to take out student loans just to scrape by. But we can’t do it anymore.” I heard that sentiment — “we can’t do it anymore” — repeated by every person I talked to about the strike.
Workers are asking for a base salary of $54,000, more than double their current average pay. UC officials have offered a 7% raise for some workers in the first year and 3% each year after. Although officials say they cannot financially meet workers’ full demands, the investment assets of the UC system stood at $152.3 billion as of the end of the 2021-22 academic year, according to the UC president‘s office. Some UC administrators receive half-a-million-dollar salaries. It’s not so much a question of the system needing more money as it is a matter of distributing that money fairly.
UC is not just letting down its student employees. It’s letting down the entire system, including the provosts, professors and the most important element: the student body.
The failure by UC to reach an agreement with nearly 50,000 academic workers on pay increases and other benefits tarnishes a higher education system long seen as the best in the country.
I support the strike because I support my students. I am still figuring out what that means right now for me as a professor. I have two basic choices to continue classes: keep teaching them in person, or switch to online instruction. The former means crossing a physical picket line, and the latter feels like an empty gesture of solidarity that doesn’t help disrupt the system to support the strike.
For now, I am holding my classes in person. I believe that’s the only way I can honor my primary responsibility to provide my students with the best education I can possibly deliver. But I also fear that, if doing so means I am minimizing the effectiveness of the strike, I’m not helping my students in the long run. Ultimately, the better these employees are taken care of, the better they will fulfill their vital roles in educating our undergraduates, which should be the priority of any public institution of higher learning.
Polling one of my classes, I found that all but one of the 26 students supported the strike (and only half were content with moving classes online, which makes sense; this generation of undergraduates already had their secondary education drastically interrupted by the COVID pandemic).
Students and staff alike deserve more from their university system. As bargaining continues, UC has put its professors in the difficult position of compromising on education and working around the university’s shortcomings.
But that is nothing new to the seasoned educator. After all, part of our job has always been bridging the gap between societal equity and bureaucratic greed.
Joseph Holsworth teaches literature theory and criticism at UC Santa Cruz and is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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