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Thousands of University of California workers, graduate students strike for higher wages

(LOS ANGELES) — Thousands of University of California graduate students, academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars are holding a system-wide labor strike at all 10 UC campuses. Their demands include higher wages, improved leave for parents and caregivers, childcare support and full funding for public transit.

The strike, which started Monday, was organized by 48,000 United Auto Workers-represented workers. The union represents University of California system postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers and graduate students employed as researchers, instructors, teaching assistants, tutors and readers.

Workers going on strike accuse the university system of failing to support a diverse workforce, which undermines the quality of research and education. Workers say the university’s compensation does not match the cost of living and claim the inequitable working conditions are pushing scholars out of academia, according to their website.

“We have been bargaining throughout the weekend and while important progress has been made, we are still far apart on many of the issues that will make UC a more equitable university,” Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, which represents 19,000 of the 48,000 workers, said in a statement.

Wages

Workers on strike are demanding the UC system provide them compensation that addresses the affordable housing crisis, access to transportation benefits so those who commute can do so affordably and the cancelation of supplemental tuition paid by non-California resident students.

In a statement Monday, Jaime said the “biggest sticking point” centers on compensation.

“The University’s proposals do not adequately address the affordable housing crisis confronting our members. UC also wants to limit and control our earnings by calling some of it ‘student support,’ which would block a portion of our pay from being covered by our union contract,” Jaime said.

Workers say they do the majority of teaching and research at UC, “yet UC is refusing to offer us a fair share of the record-setting grant and state funding that our labor brings in,” according to the UAW Academic workers union website. The workers also say that research budgets and funding from the state are at record levels, but UC is not offering compensation that matches workers’ contributions.

Workers are demanding minimum annual salaries of: $54,000 for all grad workers, $70,000 for postdocs, a 14% salary increase for academic researchers, annual cost of living adjustments and experience-based increases.

UC told ABC News in a statement Tuesday its offering post-docs pay increases of 8% in the first year, 5% in the second year and 3% in subsequent years. For researchers, the offer is for a 4% increase for year one and 3% each subsequent year. For student employees, it’s 7% for teaching assistants and associate instructors and 8.33% for for teaching fellows.

The university system added that hourly-paid student employees would receive 5-8 % increases under the offer. Graduate student researchers would get 17-26% pay increases in the first year, but 9-10% and 3% each subsequent year.

Affordable housing

Workers say they are fighting for a UC where first-generation scholars do not have to live with “severe rent burden and debt.”

Workers say that the university system’s low wages combined with the high cost of living leaves many workers rent-burdened. The union says that UC academic workers spend countless hours searching for housing and suffer consequences from the high proportion of their income eaten up by housing.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development defines rent burden as individuals who pay more than 30% of their pre-income tax on housing costs.

According to a survey of UAW union workers, 92% of graduate workers and 61% of postdoctoral scholars are rent-burdened. Forty percent of graduate workers said they spend more than half their income on rent.

Average monthly housing costs varied by campus and worker title. The lowest average monthly housing cost for grad workers in 2022 was $1,048 at UC Merced and the highest was $1,585 at UC San Fransisco.

For postdocs and academic researchers, the lowest average monthly housing cost was $1,198 at UC Merced and the highest was $1,976 at Berkeley Lab.

“Anyone that’s been living in one of these cities has seen that California is already very expensive, but the last few years with inflation and the way that the housing market has been working, it’s become really, really untenable to live on these wages,” Sarah Gooding, a researcher and PHD student at UC Davis, told ABC News in an interview.

Childcare support

The workers are also asking for more support from the university for parents, demanding childcare subsidies and improved leave for parents and caregivers.

The union is also asking for childcare reimbursements of $2,000 per month, full tuition subsidies at UC-affiliated childcare programs and dependent health care.

The university said it is offering a childcare benefit of $2,500 per year and an expanded benefit of up to 8 weeks of paid leave for new parents and family care for eligible postdocs. The offer gives student employees and grad students $1350 per quarter or $2025 per semester, plus $1350 for summer.

With the cost of living continuing to rise Gooding said the current system is “gatekeeping students from becoming parents.”

“If we hadn’t lucked into a housing situation that isn’t climbing as steeply, I don’t even know if we would have been able to consider getting pregnant,” Gooding said.

Gooding told ABC News the union has been trying to negotiate with the university since as early as January and the workers plan to continue the strike “as long as it takes.”

The University of California system told ABC News it continues to “negotiate in good faith” and will do everything it can to mitigate the impacts of the strike on student learning. UC said it believes the best path to an agreement is with the aid of a third-party mediator.

“Negotiations continued throughout the weekend, and the current University proposal would set the standard for graduate academic employee support among public research universities,” UC said in a statement.

The university system added, “It is important to note that our graduate student employees work strictly on a part-time basis while earning their graduate or doctoral degree, and that compensation is just one of the many ways in which they are supported as students during their time with the University.”

UC said it has conducted over 50 bargaining sessions and its preparing contingencies “should a strike interfere with the conclusion of the academic term.”

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