Closed labs, cancelled classes: inside the largest strike to hit US higher education

2 months ago

Closed labs, cancelled classes: inside the largest strike to hit US higher education

The Guardian

Three weeks of strikes by university academics have brought campuses across California to standstill. Labs are closed, assignments go ungraded. Graduate students have walked off the job, professors have cancelled class and even construction staff have put down their tools in solidarity.

The strike is groundbreaking – the largest in the history of US higher education and part of a wave of organizing at college campuses across the country. It has brought together 48,000 graduate workers, academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars within the nine-campus University of California system who say the low wages they are paid make it impossible to live in the cities where they work. The most common salary for graduate workers is $23,247, according to the academic workers unions.

Even in a year of high-profile labor organizing from Starbucks to Amazon, the moment is being hailed as a milestone. It’s already scored a victory – a tentative agreement reached with some workers will bring significant wage increases – and could go on for weeks longer.

“There’s a lot of new organizing in higher education,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers. “What we’re seeing is the result of decades of squeezing workers. [Universities are] focusing on their shiny new buildings or sports or their public image and depending more and more on heavily exploited workers to achieve their mission and workers are saying that’s enough.”

The UC workers, represented by UAW 5810, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW, are pushing for increased compensation – and say their current wages make it impossible to live in the cities where they work – as well as childcare reimbursements and job security protections. Academic workers say they struggle to afford rent in cities heavily impacted by California’s housing crisis – some report living in their cars – stress that has forced some people out of their chosen fields entirely.

“We’re still facing wages that absolutely do not match the cost of living in the cities that our UC campuses are based in and we really feel that,” said Sarah Arveson, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley and vice-president of UAW Local 5810.

Student workers protest in Oakland, California.
University of California workers protest in front of the UC office of the president in Oakland, California. Photograph: Salgu Wissmath/AP

The strike, which began 14 November, has already seen success – this week the UC system came to an agreement with postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, agreeing to pay hikes of up to 29%.

Those wage increases are crucial for many workers, Arveson said. For Daniel McKeown, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Irvine, the new agreement means it’s much more likely he will be able to continue in academia and eventually become a professor.

The 39-year-old has two children, a doctorate in physics and more than $100,000 in debt after five years struggling to get by as a graduate student. McKeown’s work as a teaching assistant took up much of his time, interfering with his studies, but he was paid so little he relied on loans to support himself, he said.

“The fact that I worked that hard and all I have to show for it is an extra $100,000 in debt is very infuriating. I have regrets about that. I think maybe it wasn’t worth it to take on that debt,” he said. “We got marched into an impossible situation economically and on every level we weren’t given fair treatment. It was never a fair deal.”

Instead, he watched colleagues forced to leave the field for better-paying jobs: “We get all this training and we end up just working for Microsoft. There’s a lot of us in physics who have been pushed out where we wanted to continue on and continue researching because we couldn’t afford to.”

With the wage increases on the way for postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, McKeown is hopeful he and others will be able to stay in the fields they love.

“This is going to help everyone in the long term and it’s going to be a victory and strengthen the academic system as we know it,” he said.

Postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers are continuing to strike in solidarity with other workers, including graduate students, who have not come to an agreement with the university system, which workers have accused of unfair labor practices. The UC has said its proposal to student employees is “fair and generous” and would place academic employees “at the top of the pay scale among the country’s leading public universities”.

The university, which has emphasized such workers are only part-time, has offered minimum salaries of $28,275 for graduate student researchers and $24,874 for academic student employees. Strikers are asking for a minimum salary of $54,000 for all graduate workers.

Ximena Anleu Gil, a student researcher and graduate student at UC Davis and member of the bargaining team for Student Researchers United, says the university system has failed to come up with a serious offer on wages.

Anleu Gil, who has a disability, says she has been rent-burdened for the entirety of graduate school and forced to live with many roommates and rely on mutual aid and help from her parents in Guatemala to get by.

“It is really hard to focus on my responsibilities as a student researcher and teaching assistant when month after month I’m trying to figure out how to make ends meet,” she said.

“The current system is not sustainable. We’re presenting to the UC a very reasonable way to help lift workers out of a very dire situation and we’re just disappointed that they are still not taking this issue seriously.”

“We want to go back to our students, we want to go back to our research,” she said.

The strike at the University of California comes amid a resurgence in labor organizing in the US after the pandemic, including in higher education. Givan expects the UC workers will achieve major victories that will have implications for universities across the US.

“Higher education workers across the country will look to this as an example both of what you can win with collective action and a new set of standards and a new minimum where workers demand a living wage,” she said. “You can’t set up a university that depends on workers who don’t make a living wage.”