You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Graduate student workers on strike at University of California, Los Angeles, Nov. 16, 2022.

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The predictable routines of teaching, writing and contributing to campus life I’ve developed over the past two decades were dislocated last fall by the largest strike in U.S. higher ed. Preparing for the start of winter quarter across the University of California system feels different in 2023, both because fall fizzled out without the usual closures and because my sense of the relationships I’ve cultivated with students through years of practiced intentionality is frayed.

I’m not the kind of historian who longs for the good old days (which, frankly, were hardly ever good, even for the elites), or the experienced professional who finds comfort in the familiarity of the status quo. I study change and change makers. I admire the disrupter culture that’s part of today’s technology sector. I’ve taken to the streets to agitate for change in the U.S. and South Africa. I nevertheless find myself nostalgic for the civic ideal of the University of California that I grew up with: a social contract in which the taxpayers, the government and students prioritized multifaceted universities as a public good and in which the university administration prioritized students and research over student centers and fundraising campaigns.

Nostalgia doesn’t help us live in the present, though. As a world historian, I’ve learned some things from studying the past on a global scale that help me think about the aftereffects of the UC strike.

  • Change is hard.
  • Systemic change comes with costs that are unequally borne across society.
  • Elites and people in power don’t willingly give up privilege.
  • It’s hard to appreciate the magnitude of change while you’re living through it.

The fact of the strike exposes fissures in the current structure of higher education. The graduate student workers’ steadfastness, the university’s intransigence and the undergraduates’ frustrations about missing out on instruction and services they paid for reveal the severity of the cracks. The significant improvement in wages and benefits for teaching assistants, graduate student researchers and postdoctoral scholars are milestone changes, marking an important victory for organized labor. But the contract was ratified with a split vote, with only about 62 percent of teaching assistants and 68 percent of graduate student researchers supporting the deal, compared to a 98 percent vote earlier in the fall in favor of striking. The new agreement falls well short of the union’s goals, leaving many graduate students wondering if the labor and sacrifices of a strike were worthwhile. The agreement reached on the Friday before Christmas Eve doesn’t address foundational problems in the neoliberal university.

What’s more, the gains will be phased in over several years. Seasoned negotiators know that winning concessions for labor is often about the long run. New contracts take time to implement. That’s cold comfort to students who still must pay heating bills, even in the mild climate of coastal California, where most of the UC’s campuses are. The contract is a landmark, but the celebrations are muted all around.

Even as I celebrate the graduate workers’ gains, I still lament the awkward limp to the end of fall quarter. The last day of the teaching term usually feels like a happy achievement. I share with my students a sense of pride: we’ve worked hard together and accomplished something big. We also share relief: we’ve worked hard, and a well-deserved break is on the horizon. These things remained true in December 2022, but we didn’t gather in a lecture hall on that last Friday to reflect, ask new questions and collectively brainstorm final papers. The end-of-term course evaluations reflect that absence in ways I didn’t anticipate. Undergraduates may complain about their workload, but most of them really do want to learn something. Many who expressed sympathy for the graduate students’ cause also clearly articulated their own sense of loss. Variations of “It’s not fair” peppered the evaluations of my large lecture course. They’re right.

I didn’t see my undergraduate students in person for the last three weeks of the term. There was no final meeting of the teaching staff (me and three graduate teaching assistants) to norm grades on the final paper. During the strike I honored the picket line, withholding my labor in solidarity with their collective action.

The university says it values the labor of those who do a great deal of the front-line teaching and day-to-day tasks in our research labs. The faculty says we recognize our graduate students as early-career colleagues. But the structure of the university and financial support for graduate students say something else.

Yes, they’re still students engaged in coursework and supervised research as they earn advanced degrees. They’re also skilled, talented adults who support themselves financially. They should be able to pay rent for a safe place to live and nourish themselves without public assistance.

Working toward a graduate degree is a professional choice, akin to landing a job as a management trainee in a big company—but without the upside of a high salary down the road. Few faculty members went to graduate school anticipating we’d get rich, but most of us expect to be able to pay our bills and keep a roof over our heads, something that was easier, even on graduate student grants, in the economy of 20 or 30 years ago.

Today’s graduate students live in today’s economy. We need a different system than the patchwork of year-by-year stipends, short-term research gigs, crummy summer jobs and temp work that kept me and my cohort afloat in the 1990s. Sure, we survived it (most of us, anyway), but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better for the current generation, one that faces more extreme financial, emotional and health burdens. The new agreement makes the stipends bigger—and that’s welcome—but it doesn’t change the university’s reliance on underpaid workers to get its work done.

I was among the UC graduate students who struck in the mid-1990s for the right to unionize. Our goal then was to create workplace equity, something we’ve moved toward since the first TA contract in 2000. This cohort of student workers asked for more. It behooves the university to listen. There’s more than just wage increases at stake. The strike is over, but uncertainties and deep inequalities linger.

We all should return to campus in the new year attentive to the raw emotions everyone is experiencing. Many of the graduate students coming back from strike are deeply disappointed with the contract. The split vote also split human relationships and political solidarities. Undergraduates wonder if the faculty and teaching assistants cared about the impact on them, making uneven power relationships even more prickly. Faculty who depended on the labor of teaching assistants to help prepare students for final exams and do the grading are still contending with ungraded student work—work the TAs can’t help with now that fall quarter is over and their appointments expired. Meanwhile, the registrar’s office waits for final grades (as do the undergraduates who still wonder where they fit in this fraught equation). Those same faculty members are also immersed in the pre-quarter preparation for a whole new round of classes.

If we want to continue to attract an ambitious, talented and diverse pool of scholars willing to defer full-time wages and years of saving for their own retirement, then we must remember that graduate school is a professional choice, not a vocational calling that entails taking a vow of poverty. We’d also do well to keep in mind that the process of education—especially at its most rigorous—is best approached with a spirit of cultivation rather than extraction.

I’m deeply saddened by the knowledge that I won’t again see most of the 180 undergraduate students who walked with me on a path through ancient world history last fall. I hope that in our abortive seven weeks together, they learned analytical skills and enough history to make their own decisions about the costs of this strike and the benefits to society of a robust system of higher education. If the university truly values its mission, its leaders will begin to consider what sustainable structural change might look like, since wage-focused patches on a broken system will strain resources without addressing the underlying problem—that the work of higher education is premised on underpaying its most vulnerable employees.

Next Story

More from Views