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The University of California is Also a Landlord

The University of California—a system of higher education encompassing 10 campuses, 280,000 students, 230,000 faculty and staff, and an operating budget greater than that of 25 states—has offered several reasons why graduate student workers deserve to be underpaid. The jobs are apprenticeships; hardship will be retroactively remedied by future employment. The jobs are part-time, meant to complement workers’ role as students. But as prospects in higher education constrict, graduates face more contingent and contract work. Part-time pay means workers must fill the gap with generational wealth or by decades of servicing debt. On a school schedule, academic workers get nine paychecks a year. The rent, of course, is due in all 12.

According to internal research done by their union, UAW 2865, half of grad workers in the U.C. system pay half their incomes in rent. Ninety-two percent are “rent-burdened,” meaning their landlords claim more than 30 percent of their pay. While U.C. President Michael Drake enjoys a $6.5 million six-bedroom in Berkeley paid for by the university,* grad workers sleep on couches, in cars, or in shelters. They pile into overcrowded housing or commute from hours away. On November 15, 19,000 graduate students joined three other UAW organizing efforts, representing postdocs, student researchers, and academic researchers, to inaugurate a strike of 48,000 people—the largest strike of academic workers in U.S. history. “Either you’re striking for yourself because that’s the position you’ve been put in, or you’re striking for your comrades, your classmates, your departmentmates,” Magally A. Miranda Alcázar, a striking teaching assistant in Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told me.

There’s more to the academic workers’ struggle than salaries. At stake is the privatization project that has for decades entangled the public university with for-profit enterprise, particularly in real estate. As the strike’s focus on rent burdens and its initial demand of a cost-of-living adjustment make clear, workers are not just fighting for what they live on, but against an institution that constrains where and how they live.

High rents have been central to U.C. grad worker organizing efforts from the start. At U.C. Santa Cruz, a group of grad workers spent 2018 canvassing for Measure M. That citywide attempt to protect tenants from evictions and cap yearly rent increases in line with the consumer price index was defeated after real estate lobbies outspent advocates 12-to-1. The group turned its attention to building a U.C. Santa Cruz tenants’ union—organizing the tenants within U.C. housing, one of the largest landlords in the city. But this project fizzled too. After these setbacks, Sarah Mason, a head steward at UAW 2865 and a teaching assistant in sociology at U.C. Santa Cruz, explained, “The clear path forward was to articulate ourselves as workers directly to our employer.” Grad workers couldn’t intervene to make rent prices affordable, so they sought a raise to be able to afford rent.


Universities can access a unique tool to generate wealth, Davarian L. Baldwin, author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, told me: their nonprofit status. That status has implications for how the institutions interact with both private industry and the state. For the U.C., tax exemptions on land holdings help funnel private investors into “innovation” districts and glitzy development projects around campuses—often derided in the refrain, “U.C. stands for ‘under construction.’” The U.C.’s exemptions in California’s Constitution allow it to supersede local tenant protections and evict long-term residents to maximize portfolio gains, a tactic revealed by residents of 1921 Walnut Street in Berkeley. Universities help produce the housing crisis their students experience: They off-load housing needs to communities in which they are situated while driving up property values. By acting as “land baron,” “political boss,” and “city manager,” Baldwin argued, they ensure that all residents become citizens of “univercities.” Sarah Mason made this point about Santa Cruz: When U.C. “raises their prices on campus, it has an impact on local rents.” In other words, you don’t have to be a student or staff to be subject to the university’s power.

Read entire article at The New Republic