Desires for improved, “livable” wages and stronger childcare benefits have driven 48,000 graduate students, teaching assistants, and researchers across the entire University of California system to strike. The employees and students, represented by the United Autoworkers, have been in bargaining with the University system for over a year. They initiated their strike just prior to the end of the academic semester in frustration with the University system’s recalcitrant stance at the bargaining table.

It’s an unprecedented strike, spanning 10 campuses across the state of California.

“One of our biggest demands are living wages, greater support for parents and caregivers, equity for international scholars and sustainable transit options,” said Rafael Jaime, a teaching assistant at UCLA and the president of UAW Local 2865. “Right now, most graduates – the average graduate student worker earns about $24,000 a year. And the university right now is offering only a 7% raise in a year with 8% to 9% inflation.”

Jaime also pointed out that as many as 40% of the grad students pay out more than half of their annual salary on rent, and in many cases, they are paying that rent to university housing.

Todd Emmeneger, a PhD candidate and TA noted, “As TAs we want to raise the brightest generation of students. And we can’t do that when we are wondering how we are going to make next month’s rent, choosing between feeding ourselves and skipping meals, or some [TAs] even live in their car.”

Jaime said he has coworkers who’ve “been forced out of academia entirely because of the working conditions that we face every day.”

“We do all the grading, the teaching. We meet with students to help improve their papers. And it’s a lot of work. But, you know, many of my workers – many of our co-workers on south campus – – that are teaching research assistants, they work more than 40, 60 hours a week on – and they’re expected to work that much on a really low salary.”

“At every turn, the university has sought to act unlawfully at the bargaining table, which is preventing us from reaching an agreement,” said Neal Sweeney, the president of UAW Local 5810, which represents more than 11,000 UC postdocs and academic researchers.

The bargaining units that represent UC academic workers said university leadership has illegally made changes to pay and transit benefits without consulting the union. They also alleged that the university has refused to provide necessary information about who is in the bargaining unit and has otherwise obstructed the bargaining process. Negotiations have been underway for more than a year.

In the days leading up to the strike, some tenured UC professors said they had the right to cancel classes during the work stoppage and spoke out in solidarity with academic workers.

The union is asking the University System to raise the minimum salary of graduate students to $54,000 and to increase post-doctoral student salaries to $70,000. They are also asking for annual cost-of-living adjustments. The union has also requested $2,000 a month in child-care reimbursements, expanded paid parental leave and public transit passes for its members. ■