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48,000 UC Academic Workers Striking: You Can't Eat Prestige

The Sather Tower carillon tolled noon, bong-bong-bong-bong, as a representative from the University Professional and Technical Employees told the gathered thousands a story about the last time his union had to go on strike. The University of California wanted to cut into bone, he said, proposing to permanently shrink their pension for the pitiful reward of a 10 percent raise over five years. UPTE went on strike in March 2019, bong-bong-bong-bong, and won big concessions in a contract they signed with UC in July 2019. They were only forced to strike because the university stiffed them in 17 bargaining sessions spread out over two years. “This could be a long fight,” he warned the crowd. “We can’t expect the people in charge to do the right thing; we have to make them.” Bong-bong-bong-bong.

On Monday, 48,000 academic workers from the University of California walked off the job. The bloc is comprised of a dazzling array of workers: Graduate students, postdocs, academic researchers, graders, student researchers, spread across four different bargaining units, representing all 10 UC campuses. Some striking students are in their early 20s, while others are approaching retirement age. Some make hefty salaries, while many make less than $25,000 per year. They represent if not the heart of the UC system, then its vasculature; they are the people that actualize the university’s mission and keep it alive by teaching classes, securing grant funding, and writing academic papers.

The long-brewing UC strike also represents the intersection of two major labor trends. Over the past few years, as the economic contradictions of marketized higher education have more acutely pinched down on graduate students as the chokepoint that makes the exploitative model function, students and academic workers across the country, at schools like ColumbiaMichigan, and Illinois, have been standing up for themselves and demanding fair treatment. At the same time, organized labor is making historic inroads at famously exploitative companies like StarbucksAmazon, and Apple, and national support for labor unions is at a 57-year high. All the more inspiring is the fact that those gains are being made in the absence of a coherent national movement, and had started to pick up steam before the pandemic strained working conditions further. The UC strike is both the largest academic worker strike in United States history as well as the largest labor action in the country since 2019.

The contentions from the four units that cohered into the striking 48,000 are multifaceted, though they share the crucial through-line that these workers are underpaid for the immense labor they perform for the university. It’s a very simple dynamic: the University touts the papers they publish, the education they provide, and the research they perform, the majority of which is done by graduate students and researchers. Stacey Frederick, a researcher in UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources who is on one of the bargaining teams, told me that many research positions are “100 percent grant-funded.” Several graduate students I spoke to on the first day of the strike described a class teaching structure that would not function without them. “Do you think they could teach or publish papers without you?” asked the final speaker at Monday’s strike-opening rally. The answer is obvious, and revealing. Without its armada of researchers and grad students, the UC system is essentially a baroque real estate scam.

If you have spent any serious time at a university, you have experienced this dynamic. The professor lectures and assigns reading, and the graduate student instructor grades all the assignments, administers the tests, and does a serious amount of the actual breaking down of material into digestible chunks. Most of them are only nominally compensated for that labor. The modal salary for graduate student workers is $23,247. Megan Riley, a PhD student in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, told me that she still struggles to afford rent on a spot that’s a 40-minute drive from campus, despite working as a Special Reader, Teaching Assistant, and library worker for the school. “I was actually supposed to be a Teaching Assistant this quarter, and I’d signed a contract for that just days before the fall quarter started. But the next day i was informed that the class was being canceled because the department couldn’t find anyone to teach it,” she said. The school asked her to teach the class herself, with the nominal help of an instructor of record, and she said no, because doing so would have been exploitative on TA wages. She is going to have to leave L.A. to finish up her degree remotely, because she can’t afford to live in the city.

Read entire article at Defector