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Graduate Student Strikes Fight Back Against Decades of Austerity, Seek to Revive Opportunity

Academic workers are having a moment. This past year,2,500 NLRB petitions were filed for union elections and graduate workers at MITYaleNorthwesternJohns HopkinsBoston University, and the University of Chicago represented the six largest. And graduate workers weren’t the only ones organizing: Non-tenure contingent faculty mobilized at HowardNYUThe New SchoolFordham, and Rutgers. Union organizing has also spread to the University of Southern CaliforniaSyracuse University, the University of Illinois ChicagoWashington StateBarnardDartmouthWesleyan, and the University of Alaska, among other campuses. 

Outside of academia, last year saw growing union momentum across industries, attributed partly to inflation, Covid-19, and high approval ratings for unions. But the surge in campus organizing is also an expression of – and response to – an ongoing austerity campaign against public higher education that dates back half a century. By challenging corporate business models and articulating the connection between privatization and deteriorating working conditions, academic workers have aimed their sights at reclaiming higher education as a public good, and they see unions as the primary vehicle with which to do so.

Nowhere is this clearer than at the University of California (UC), where 48,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) members waged the largest labor strike of 2022. In mid-November, teaching assistants, tutors, researchers, and postdocs represented by four bargaining units across all ten UC campuses were able to pull off what was also the largest higher ed strike in the nation’s history by coordinating when each contract expired. After six weeks, the union secured wage increases of up to 80 percent over the life of the contract, and expanded benefits like childcare subsidies and dependent healthcare. 

Rafael Jaime, president of UAW Local 2865, representing the UC system, tells Teen Vogue, “The reason we’re seeing a growing movement of unionization across the country is that many of us see what’s happening in academia and want to fight back and reclaim higher education as an engine of economic opportunity.” 

Once a model for quality, tuition-free higher education, Ronald Reagan seized on the militancy of student movements on campus to turn the University of California into a political foil for his right-wing agenda. During the 1966 governor’s race, Reagan campaigned on “clean[ing] up the mess at Berkeley” and suggested cutting the budget and charging tuition. The UC system became the center of reframing higher education as a “private investment” to prepare future workers for the labor market. The Board of Regents imposed a yearly $150 “student fee” in 1970. Since then, tuition has ballooned to $13,752 a year for California residents and $46,326 a year for nonresidents. 

Read entire article at TeenVogue