Six takeaways for Californians after the UC graduate student strike
The largest higher-education strike in U.S. history—courtesy of 36,000 disgruntled graduate student workers and 12,000 other academic employees at the University of California—wrapped up Dec. 23, and depending on one’s perspective, it was either a historic win or a colossal letdown.
Workers got some of what they wanted, and while the UC system hasn’t said how it’s going to afford it, it’s now on the hook to do so. These deals aren’t evergreen—the graduate student contracts last until 2025—and negotiations on successor deals will likely begin in late 2024.
The graduate union members did get multiple raises through 2024 and roughly 50% increases in base pay, plus promises of transit passes, some dependent child healthcare and other benefits. They did not get extra money to afford sky-high California rents. Out-of-state graduate students still have to pay extra tuition fees, and the child care subsidies are below what they wanted. This has led to dissent in the ranks.
Here are six things to know.
1. Dissent in the ranks is fine and good.
About a third of graduate union members voted to oppose the tentative agreement, fueled by an intra-union campaign to sink the deal. Members of UAW 2865, the union representing teaching assistants, tutors and instructors, overwhelmingly rejected the deal at three campuses. The rank-and-file of the slightly smaller union of student researchers, UAW-SRU, also clobbered the deal at two campuses.
At least one history professor who specializes in labor movements says this dynamic of moderate disagreement within a union is healthy and normal.
“I would say that it is not unusual to have that high a vote against an agreement,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara. “We are unfamiliar with what successful strikes look like … all those really great strikes of 50 years ago that were successful, they always had opposition.”
The president of the 19,000-strong UAW 2865, Rafael Jaime, agrees. “If we have no dissent and no disagreement, then you know, it’s very likely that we wouldn’t be that strong,” he said.
Still, the dissent puts pressure on union leadership to take the frustrations of the rank-and-file seriously, especially since the contracts are set to expire in less than three years.
2. The workers still have trouble affording California living.
Janna Haider spends $1,150 a month on rent and utilities for her Santa Barbara studio—about 49% of her income through her work as a history doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara, she said. When the first round of raises come through sometime in the next three months, 41% of her pay will go to rent, “which is still rent-burden,” she said, referring to a federal term describing someone who’s spending more than 30% of their pay on housing.
She was one of the 15 union negotiators, out of 40 total, who voted no on the tentative agreement with the UC and then helped lead a failing campaign to oppose the contract among the rank-and-file. Haider wanted a five-year housing guarantee for graduate students and housing stipends until the UC built new homes for them, a union demand that got yanked early in the negotiations, she said.
She’ll instead join her graduate student colleagues at UCSB in pressuring the campus to provide annual housing stipends of $2,500—the same amount UC Santa Cruz began offering graduate students as part of a deal to end an unsanctioned “wildcat” strike in 2020.
Even with the strike over, graduate workers have leverage, she said (she ruled out a “wildcat” strike, saying that’s illegal and everyone’s too tired anyway). If the university doesn’t promise them stipends, graduate workers can boycott the annual season of enticing admitted graduate students to commit to the campus, she said. “If we refuse to participate in recruitment season, and we refuse to tell the incoming class that it’s a good idea for them to come here, that matters.”
3. Out-of-state students are still hosed.
The graduate student workers demanded that the UC stop charging international and other out-of-state students an additional enrollment fee, typically around $15,000 annually. Instead, the UC only put in writing that graduate students who reach PhD candidacy will have their fees waived for three years—codifying an existing practice.
Jaime, who supported the overall agreement, wished graduate workers fully sank the fee. “No graduate student workers should have to pay out of pocket to work at the university,” he said.
He said he’s in the early stages of proposing a bill to a state lawmaker to kill the fee. That’s expensive since the UC relies on higher out-of-state tuition and fees for its revenues.
4. The UC will pay more for child care, but less than what the workers wanted.
Though the new contract promises larger child care stipends to graduate workers who are parents, it falls well short of what the unions originally demanded.
The UC agreed to increases of 27% in child care subsidies, which will hit $1,400 a quarter and $2,100 a semester in 2024. Union leaders sought $6,000 a quarter. Child care costs for each toddler are about $1,400 a month in California, a left-leaning national nonprofit calculated.
Jaime said the UC should develop more slots at campus child care centers, while the state should fund more child care centers. Despite recent expansion, child care advocates say California needs to do more.
5. Some students still need grades.
Because of the strike, some undergraduate students still haven’t received course grades. As recently as Tuesday, UC Riverside was still missing 7% of undergraduate grades. UC Berkeley extended its grade deadline by 10 days, but as of Tuesday 13% of grades remained unsubmitted. UC Irvine extended its fall-term grading deadline from Dec. 16 to Jan. 19.
Haider said that she’s heard that some faculty members just submitted A’s for all of the undergraduate students whose teaching assistants were on strike.
It’s not clear who’s doing the grading for the remaining grades. Some campus spokespersons wouldn’t say—or didn’t know—whether graduate workers who were on strike are now back to grading assignments. However, a UC Berkeley spokesperson said some “graduate student instructors voluntarily came back in the last days of December to assist with grading.”
6. Will UC dock the pay of striking workers? Unclear!
Workers continued to collect their normal wages while they were striking. “We are still waiting for systemwide guidance from UCOP on compensation issues,” UC Irvine spokesperson Sheri Ledbetter said.
Ryan King, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, wouldn’t give a direct answer last Wednesday evening, instead writing that UC “has a range of obligations related to compensation that we must comply with when using federal grant dollars and state funds.”
He cited two in particular, a federal guidance on using government contracts and the policy of the UC Regents, the governing board that oversees the UC system.
The federal guidance, roughly 160 pages, includes a passage that states charges to federal awards for employee pay “must be based on records that accurately reflect the work performed.” Because many of the graduate workers are paid by university research grants from the federal government, this suggests the UC may have to claw back the pay of graduate workers who struck. Still, the system could use non-federal grant sources to pay the wages for the time workers were on strike.
The UC Regents’ policy is more direct: “No compensation shall be paid to any employee of the University unless actively engaged in the service of the University.”
Because not every graduate student employee walked off their job, the UC will have to determine which graduate workers continued working. King wrote that the UC will issue “guidance regarding recording time and leave for salaried employees” in the next week.