Nearly 48,000 UC graduate students poised to shut down many classes, labs and research with strike – Monterey Herald

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Nearly 48,000 University of California academic workers — the backbone of the vaunted higher education system who research, mentor and teach — are poised to strike Monday in a labor action that could shut down some classes and lab work just weeks before final exams.

In what would be the nation’s largest strike of academic workers, four UAW bargaining units representing teaching assistants, postdoctoral scholars, academic and graduate student researchers, tutors, fellows and others are set to picket from 8 a.m. at all of UC’s 10 campuses. The campuses are scheduled to remain open and plan to continue instruction and operations.

The workers are demanding significant pay increases, with many saying they are struggling to afford housing near their campuses, which are located in some of California’s priciest real estate markets. A union survey found that 40% of graduate student workers spend more than half their pay on rent and 92% of them spend more than 30%, said Rafael Jaime, a UCLA PhD candidate and president of UAW 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and readers.

Other demands include childcare subsidies, enhanced healthcare for dependents and longer family leaves; public transit passes; lower tuition costs for international scholars and better accessibility for workers with disabilities.

“We teach the classes, grade the papers, and perform the cutting-edge research that has earned UC its reputation as the best public university in the world and the global leader of [top] research institutions,” the unions said in a statement. “In short, UC works because we do.”

UC, in a statement, said it recognized “these employees’ important and highly valued contributions to the University’s teaching and research mission” and has offered “fair” proposals that would increase wages, extend paid leave, increase childcare benefits and cover all campus fees for eligible workers.

But the two sides remain far apart on key issues.

On pay, for instance, graduate students — who serve as teaching assistants, tutors and readers — are demanding $54,000 annually, a wage increase that would more than double their average current pay of about $24,000.

UC is offering a salary scale increase of 7% the first year and 3% in each subsequent year. The university says that affordable housing is a problem for Californians overall, including many UC faculty, students and staff, and that campus rents are 20% to 25% below market rates.

But many graduate students say those reduced campus rates are still too high to afford. Jaime, for instance, said a UCLA studio for graduate students rents for about $1,600 a month — more than half the average monthly graduate student worker pay of $2,000. He considers himself fortunate that he spends only $1,200 in monthly rent for an apartment in downtown Los Angeles that he shares with two roommates.

But he can’t afford a car and commutes to UCLA by bike and public transportation — a not-uncommon situation for academic workers, and one that has shaped their demand for transit passes and subsidies for bikes and e-bikes.

“It means budgeting a lot and stressing out a lot,” said Jaime, adding that some graduate students are unhoused and others have left academics because of financial pressures.

It’s important, he said, that UC support graduate students — especially those who bring diversity to their fields.

Jaime, who is of Mexican and Native American descent, said his own research in medieval and early modern literature is pushing back on ideas about the racial and ethnic “purity” of Anglo Saxons that have been “weaponized” by white supremacists.

Jackie Ku, a UC Irvine PhD candidate in political science who leads discussion sections, grades student work and sometimes lectures as a teaching assistant, says he has virtually no savings and is living from paycheck to paycheck on his $22,000 annual pay. He said he’s faced financial insecurity his whole life, as the son of a single mother from China who speaks little English and worked at low-wage jobs in the textile industry.

Ku said he had to decline a university housing offer because he couldn’t afford the monthly rent of about $1,000 and currently lives in the more affordable Inland Empire. His monthly rent is $600 for an apartment he shares with three roommates, but his two-hour daily round-trip commute to Irvine adds $200 in monthly gas bills.

That financial precarity makes it difficult at times to attend conferences critical for professional development and networking, because it can take months to receive university reimbursement for the costs, he said.

Academic workers stress that their push to improve pay and working conditions is not simply for themselves but also for their students and the university overall.

Adam Carpaco, a UC San Diego postdoctoral scholar, is researching genetic engineering in plants to produce more ecofriendly pesticides. He said he is proud to help build UC’s reputation with his research and spark students’ intellectual curiosity and scientific skills with his mentoring. Among his eight recent mentees, he said, one undergraduate overcame her lack of self-confidence during a summer session in his lab and now plans to apply for the full graduate program.

“We care about our students. We care about our research,” Ku said. “But if we can’t afford to live and work at UC, it’s also undergraduates who suffer… [from] overworked TAs without nearly enough time” for them.

At UC Davis, Sarah Warren Gooding is anxious about how she and her husband will be able to afford childcare for their baby, who is due next month.

Gooding, a PhD candidate in the neuroscience program, studying the brain and opioid dependency, makes $36,000 annually, thanks in part to a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. She also was fortunate, she said, to find a home with a relatively affordable rent that amounts to about 36% of the couple’s annual pay.

But she said there is a one-year waitlist for childcare in Davis, and the going rate is about $2,000 a month. Other academic workers have shared stories of sending children to India for care or spending as much as 90% of monthly pay on childcare. The union says that lack of sufficient family support is contributing to a gender imbalance in academia, with disproportionately fewer women, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

The workers are demanding $2,000 monthly childcare reimbursements, full tuition subsidies at UC-affiliated childcare programs, full dependent healthcare and expanded paid parental and family leave.

UC is proposing a new childcare reimbursement program that would provide up to $2,500 for eligible postdocs and, for graduate students, an increase of $750 per academic year, from $3,300 to $4,050 with additional pay for those whose work summer sessions. The university is also offering to increase paid pregnancy and family leaves, with different proposals for different bargaining units.

The two sides have made some progress. They came to an agreement, for instance, on stronger protections against workplace bullying and abuse.

But the unions are alleging that UC has violated labor law by bypassing the bargaining system, and unilaterally changing working conditions for certain workers. They have filed 23 unfair labor practice charges with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board. The board has issued complaints in three of those cases.

UC denies any unlawful behavior and says differences should be worked out at the bargaining table, not at picket lines. “UC remains committed to continuing its good faith efforts to reach agreements with UAW as quickly as possible,” the university said in a statement.

Union members say they want the same thing.

“Most of us don’t want to bring the university to a standstill,” said Daniel Pierce, a UC Riverside doctoral candidate in evolutionary genomics. “But we feel strongly about this.”

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