Taking a Stand

University of California graduate assistants, postdocs and others stage a mass protest for better pay and benefits, while graduate workers in Illinois celebrate a win and those in Indiana continue striking.

April 27, 2022
 
A person in the foreground speaks at a podium. A crowd of people is assembled.
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Tuesday’s student and academic worker rally at the University of California’s San Diego campus.

Teaching assistants, postdoctoral fellows and academic and student researchers from across the University of California system—who total some 48,000, on 10 campuses—staged a mass one-day protest Tuesday, urging administrators to view and treat them as essential academic workers.

Each group of workers—TAs, postdocs, academic researchers and, as of last year, research assistants—is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, in different bargaining units governed by different union contracts. But as they’re all currently in negotiations for their respective contracts and share issues of concern, they’ve asked the system for a coordinated bargaining table. (The student researchers are negotiating their first contract, following recognition by the system after their strike authorization vote in December.)

The system hasn’t yet granted the request for coordinated collective bargaining on common issues across workplaces, and that’s part of what Tuesday’s action was about. But the protests and rallies spanning UC’s 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were also about amplifying key contract issues.

Some common goals: eliminating the burden of soaring rent, adopting and expanding protections against harassment and discrimination, and improving accessibility for workers with disabilities. The system must also commit to targeted interventions against racism and to increasing diversity and inclusion, the workers say, and to making the campuses more family-friendly, via expanded family leave and dependent health-care and childcare support.

Other goals include getting UC to waive all nonresident tuition and fees and provide support for international students’ visa and immigration costs, and finding a way to make public transportation free under all contracts.

Gwen Chodur, a Ph.D. candidate in nutritional biology at UC’s Davis campus and president of the University of California Graduate & Professional Council, said ahead of her on-campus rally speech Tuesday that housing costs remain a “major concern throughout the UC” and a big piece of union negotiations (Chodur, like many Ph.D. students, is paid as both a TA and a researcher). But talks have thus far been disappointing: UC’s most recent offer includes a 4 percent pay increase for the first year of the contract and a 3 percent annual increase after that, Chodur said, “which is a pay cut at the rate of inflation.”

Beyond surging housing costs and record rates of inflation, Chodur said she’s had problems with the university’s payroll system dating back to 2019, in part because the system doesn’t adequately keep up with how graduate assistants’ roles or job titles change from quarter to quarter.

Pay and Housing (and Inflation)

“We’re among the lowest-paid employees, and so when our pay is late, we’re even more deeply impacted because it’s hard to have any kind of savings built up,” said Chodur, adding that her paycheck was 50 days late in the summer of 2020, causing her rent check to bounce. “I was really worried that I would be evicted and be homeless, since there’s no way that I could afford a security deposit or a first month’s rent type deal—even if I could find housing in Davis, where the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent.”

Chodur, who has publicly addressed these issues with UC’s Board of Regents, said that the university “never apologized and, when I took them to court for a wage theft claim, said that they did not owe anything because they did eventually pay me.”

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Amy Kanne, a Ph.D. student of computer science and engineering at UC’s San Diego campus and a member of the student researchers’ bargaining team, said she’s also concerned about housing costs. Kanne is currently funded by a fellowship that pays a little more per month than the typical graduate assistant salary. One-third of that goes back to UC in rent, she said, as she’s living in university housing, where she pays several hundred dollars less per month than her incoming roommate. So while Kanne described herself as financially better off than many of her peers, at $3,000 monthly, pretax, she’s still well below the recommended living wage for a single person (which, for San Diego, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator estimates to be $45,934 before taxes).

“I don’t know a single person who is not paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent,” she said. “And most people that I know—the vast majority—pay half of their income on rent.”

Inflation has only made things more challenging, namely the cost of fuel and food, Kanne also said: a basket of groceries that used to cost between $40 and $50 now costs up to $70 for her.

About ‘Respect’

Kanne described Tuesday’s San Diego campus rally as centered on respect for academic workers, including those from marginalized groups, for whom academic precarity can be especially challenging (Kanne identifies as LGBTQ).

“The way UC treats academic workers is unconscionable, and this is really our chance,” she said, comparing the system’s recent $6.5 million purchase of a historic Berkeley home for UC president Michael V. Drake (using a private fund) to its approach to bargaining with workers thus far. “This is the moment that we have to significantly improve the lives of academic workers all across the UC and cause ripple effects across all of higher education. I’m honestly just really proud of all of my fellow academic workers and union siblings all across the UC—how everyone is standing up in the face of injustice.”

The UAW said late Tuesday that protesters who staged a sit-in in downtown Los Angeles and had been arrested, and released. Workers at the Irvine campus also reported being blocked from entering the administration building to deliver a demand letter.

Ahead of Tuesday’s action, UC’s Irvine campus announced that it was phasing in year-round funding for all qualified Ph.D. and master of fine arts students for up to six years. This is independent of any union contract and specific to Irvine, however, and some union members have argued that the plan—which guarantees summer funding to all by 2026—isn’t aggressive enough in its timeline.

Erika Cervantes, system spokesperson, said via email, "We highly value the role all these employees play in supporting our students and our faculty, and UC’s mission. Our overarching goal with each of these negotiations is a multi-year agreement that recognizes these employees many important contributions to the UC community with fair pay, quality health and family-friendly benefits, and a supportive and respectful work environment. We are also committed to good-faith negotiations with the UAW, where both sides come to the table with an open mind, a genuine willingness to listen and be flexible, and a sincere commitment to productive, respectful negotiations. UC is deeply grateful for the tremendous resilience, flexibility, and unwavering commitment that our employees and the entire UC community have shown during the past two years."

Cervantes continued: "We respectfully disagree with the union’s assertions about takeaways and UC being intransigent. Our proposals for postdocs and GSRs [graduate student researchers] include annual pay increases and enhanced paid leaves. We are very early in our bargaining with our other academic student employees and have not yet addressed those issues. We are committed to fair pay, quality benefits and a supportive, respectful work environment for all of our employees. We approach all of these negotiations with an open mind and a good-faith commitment to listening to union concerns and working collaboratively with union leaders to address priority issues."

Not Just UC

Tuesday also saw developments in two other public-sector academic labor strikes. American Federation of Teachers–affiliated graduate assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago ended their weeklong strike over stalled contract negotiations, saying they’d secured a significant pay increase, $2,000 in retroactive pay for the last year of negotiations, strike pay, support for survivors of abuse and more.

UIC chancellor Michael D. Amiridis said in an all-campus memo that the tentative contract agreement “ends a long negotiation process, but ultimately addresses the needs of our graduate workers while balancing the best interests of our entire campus community.” He called the deal “fair and beneficial for all involved.”

At Indiana University at Bloomington, where graduate assistants have been on strike for two weeks for both union recognition and collective bargaining powers, there was an emergency faculty town hall. Dozens of faculty members signed a petition calling on the Bloomington Faculty Council to hold a special meeting, in part to discuss a possible vote of no confidence in the provost, Rahul Shrivastav. In that role since February, Shrivastav has said that he won’t budge on the issue of recognition, and he told faculty members earlier this month, “I do not believe that we need a union to improve graduate education.” He also called a strike “unacceptable” and unreflective of the “academic community we all strive to create at IU.”

IU’s graduate assistants, who are affiliated with the United Electrical Workers and who, due to state labor law, need the university’s voluntary recognition and cooperation to pursue collective bargaining, are asking most of all for better pay. Minimum stipends were until recently under $18,000, while the current estimated cost of living for a single person in Bloomington is $26,000 after taxes. Like many of their counterparts on other campuses, IU assistants also want to see the elimination of student fees that cut into their stipends by at least $1,350 per year.

In a statement last week, Shrivastav said he’d formed a task force, to include graduate assistants, on the future of graduate education. He also reiterated that the union is not a university entity and said that “policies for graduate students who have teaching responsibilities are established by IU faculty” and “unequivocally state that all instructors—full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and [graduate assistants]—must adhere to the stated goals and purposes of a course, to teach it at the scheduled time, and to provide evaluation of students (i.e., grades) at the time specified by faculty policy.”

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