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Thousands of University of California teaching assistants and scholars go on strike

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In the biggest work stoppage of the year, thousands of university workers in the University of California system went on strike Monday against the university system’s bargaining practices with their union, which is trying to win wages higher.

Some 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, researchers and evaluators on the front lines of teaching and research in California’s prestigious public university system are demanding a minimum annual salary of $54,000 and increased child care benefits. children, claiming they don’t earn enough to live in the state. They also accuse the university of failing to bargain in good faith with their union, United Auto Workers.

“At every turn, the university has sought to act illegally at the bargaining table, which prevents us from reaching an agreement,” said Neal Sweeney, president of UAW Local 5810, which represents more than 11,000 UC post-docs and university researchers.

The University of California strike is also the largest college strike in higher education in US history, according to the UAW.

Bargaining units that represent UC university workers said university management illegally made changes to transit wages and benefits without consulting the union. They also alleged that the university refused to provide necessary information about bargaining unit members and otherwise obstructed the bargaining process. Negotiations have been ongoing for over a year.

University officials have denied allegations that their negotiators broke the law during negotiations. They said they had made good faith efforts to negotiate, as evidenced by a number of tentative agreements the parties have already reached.

Ryan King, a spokesperson for the UC system, said school administrators have listened to union priorities, provided fair responses and shown “a genuine willingness to compromise.”

“Our primary goal in these negotiations is to reach multi-year agreements that recognize the significant and highly valued contributions of these employees to the University’s teaching and research mission with fair pay, quality and supportive benefits. family, and a supportive and respectful work environment,” King said in a statement.

The strike threatens to disrupt classes, research and grading ahead of final exams at all 10 campuses in the UC system. Students should rely solely on professors for grades, instruction, and other individual instruction.

University administrators and the union continued to meet from the weekend until Sunday evening, with some progress towards an agreement, but union officials said they remained far apart on the central issue of wages.

In the days leading up to the strike, some tenured professors at UC said they had the right to cancel classes during the work stoppage and expressed their solidarity with the academics.

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The strike comes amid a wave of increased work activity in the United States, spurred by pandemic working conditions and a record labor market that has given workers more leverage to negotiate wage and hour improvements. Workers won historic union victories at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple this year. Minnesota recently faced the largest private sector strike in the nursing industry in US history.

United Auto Workers call on UC leadership for a $54,000 minimum wage for all graduate students and a $70,000 minimum wage for all postdocs, plus annual cost-of-living adjustments in contract negotiations. Many graduate students earn as little as $20,000 a year, and postdocs earn at least $55,631. The union also asked for $2,000 a month in reimbursement for childcare expenses, extended paid parental leave and public transit passes for its members.

“We are trying to make transformational changes to our working conditions which will in turn impact the quality of research and education,” said Sweeney, the union leader. “The problems we face are similar to those of other workers in this country. We are inspired by other struggles at Starbucks and Amazon, and we hope our struggle will inspire others as well.

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The university system offered salary increases ranging from 4 to 7% in the first year of the contract, with later more modest increases. The workers rejected these offers, saying they were too low. For example, many teaching assistants would earn less than $30,000 per year with the university’s proposal.

University negotiators also offered child care allowances ranging from $2,500 to $4,050 a year and subsidies for public transit. Some workers receive $3,300 in child care subsidies per year. Workers said the proposed annual allowance would barely cover a month of childcare. Still, the union said, bigger wage increases are paramount to winning a contract that improves the quality of life for their members.

The university’s management maintains that “providing fair and competitive compensation to all employees is a priority for UC and essential to ensuring the excellence of our workforce and the quality of our service to students and to the public,” UC administrators said in a press release.

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The heightened activism around cost-of-living demands on the UC system follows a wave of unauthorized “wildcat” strikes that erupted at UC Santa Cruz and spread to a number of UC campuses in 2021. Workers have demanded cost-of-living allowances to explain soaring housing prices in the state. Following the strikes, UC Santa Cruz agreed to increase housing allowances for teaching assistants.

The union said the vast majority of UC graduate students spend more than a third of their income on rent. For example, teaching assistants at UCLA earn an average of $24,000 a year, the union said. The median annual rent in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metro area is over $36,000 per year, according to Realtor.com.

UC teaching assistants described commuting hours for affordable housing, donating blood plasma to make ends meet, and paying more than half their income in rent.

Jacob Kemner, a graduate student in environmental studies at UC Riverside, earns about $28,000 a year and donates blood plasma twice a week for about $200 in additional income.

“I make ends meet by selling plasma,” Kemner said. “I’m less able to be efficient in my job because of it because I spend six to ten hours coming and going from the plasma donation center. If I didn’t spend time on this, I could plan and mark the lessons. »

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Aya Konisha, a teaching assistant and second-year doctoral student in UCLA’s sociology department, said she couldn’t afford to live near campus and had to commute an hour on public transit to get to school.

“My salary is definitely not enough to make ends meet,” said Konisha, whose rent is half of her $2,400 monthly income. “I prepare all my food at home. I don’t make expensive purchases and often skip meals when I have to teach. UCLA is supposed to be the number one public university in the United States…but it’s grossly unfair.

The United Auto Workers filed 28 unfair labor practices this year against the UC system for failing to bargain in good faith. The State of California is investigating the charges and has filed two lawsuits against the UC system.

UC officials denied the allegations and said that despite the claims, the system “remains committed to continuing its good faith efforts to reach agreements with the UAW as quickly as possible.”

In August 2021, the UAW, which has made inroads in higher education, won 17,000 student researchers, in the biggest labor victory of that year.

Earlier this month, the UAW announced that 97% of the more than 36,000 workers who voted across the UC system had authorized a strike over unfair labor practices.

Prior to the strike, 36 California lawmakers sent letters to UC President Michael Drake urging him to avoid the strike by “stopping unfair labor practices.”