The University of California is one of the highest regarded public school systems in the nation. It is known for its esteemed faculty, extensive research opportunities, and strong academics, but also for its reliance on graduate student workers who lead discussions, grade papers, craft syllabi, and essentially help the University function smoothly. As Jamie Mondello, a PHD candidate in psychology at UCLA, told The New York Times, “We’re really the backbone of the institution.” Many graduate students work for the university system leading discussions, grading papers, crafting syllabi, and essentially helping the University function. These graduate students are also our future researchers, thinkers and teachers, but the University has failed to meet the needs of graduate student workers so they can graduate as made apparent by the largest academic strike in history that started on November 14th, and is now entering its fifth week.
Around 48,000 grad students consisting of student researchers, teaching assistants, postdocs, and academic researchers left their classrooms, offices, and labs for the picket line in the middle of fall quarter that just ended this past Friday. They are represented by the United Automobile Workers. Their demands center around the fact that their cost of living, especially rent, is exorbitantly high in California, with 92% of grad students claiming they are rent-burdened. Struggling to pay rent, they are demanding that the UC needs to pay more than double their base salaries from around $24,000 to $54,000, as well as a minimum salary of around $70,000 for postdoctoral workers and a 14% pay raise for academic researchers; all figures based on current housing costs. They also demand future increases in salary in line with rising housing costs. Without this raise, the workers must continue to choose between living near campus and having to commute long hours, racking up transportation costs especially due to rising gas prices. Graduate students with families are also demanding $2,000 a month in childcare reimbursements, dependent healthcare, free public transit passes, and more. A full list of their demands can be found on their website (https://www.fairucnow.org/cola/).
The financial burdens place strains on the graduate students’ experience and negatively impacts their physical and mental wellbeing in addition to putting them at risk for food insecurities.. Before taking his position as president in the union that represents postdocs and academic researchers, Neil Sweeney worked 50 to 60 hours a week and still could barely get by. In a forum hosted by KQED about the strike, Sweeney said, “The salary was so low that every month I really had to think about if I would make it through that month. Just getting coffee — I had to think about every single expense. I had two small children. My partner was a full-time student. We lived in campus family housing, and we went to the campus food bank every month to make sure we had food.” And yet, as he states, “My research was bringing in millions of dollars in funding for the university.”
The budget problems of the University compounded by a top heavy administration benefiting heavily from underpaid workers, is not new, and it can be traced back to the passing of Proposition 13 in 1978. Prop 13 effectively froze property and commercial tax rates at the point of purchase. While this was originally received with enthusiasm as a way to curb inflation, it is currently a way for corporations to avert paying higher property taxes and prevents first-time home buyers from buying property, especially in certain neighborhoods. Homeowners who purchased their house thirty years ago are still paying 1982 property taxes, a figure much lower than the property taxes required from more recent homeowners. According to a 2022 study, wealthy, white neighborhoods have experienced the biggest tax breaks, in contrast to BIPOC homeowners who have higher tax burdens. Because of these tax breaks, the state has lost billions of dollars, around $11.5 billion annually. As a result of this lack of funds, public education in California has been severely underfunded. Over the last two decades, UC tuition has gone up from $170 in 1950 to $7434 in 2005 to the current tuition rate of $13,752 while the state has cut $57 billion dollars from higher education. Prop 13 has also had a big impact on neighborhoods around UC campuses and is one of the reasons why affordable housing for graduate students is almost impossible to find while wealthy homeowners grow wealthier. This disparity is echoed on UC campuses with upper level administrators receiving ballooning salaries and housing accommodations while grad students struggle just to pay the rent.
The strike and the predicament of the situation at the UCs mirror a similar situation for Oakland Tech teachers and lower admin staff, and points to a larger struggle: the fight for public education. In support of the strike, many faculty have canceled classes and according to a UC Faculty pledge, approximately 34,000 grades will be withheld until the strike is over. While on Friday, the University and UAW 2865 entered into private neutral third-party mediation, and the postdocs and academic researchers ratified a new contract, 36,000 academic workers remain on strike. It is not too late to help end the unlawful behavior of the University and support the strike by donating to the UAW-UC Academic Workers Strike Support and Hardship Fund, signing the California Labor Federation Petition to UC President Drake, and writing to our legislators. The strike might end this week, at the end of the month, or extend to next quarter, but the fight to uphold K-12 and higher public education will be a long haul.