The historic strike by student workers in the University of California system just entered its fifth week. Jacobin spoke with striking workers about the state of the strike and how union members are feeling at this contentious and pivotal moment.
Academic workers and supporters picket during a strike at the University of California Los Angeles campus on November 21, 2022. (Jill Connelly / Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The authority of the University of California (UC) is being challenged at an unprecedented scale, as the largest academic worker strike in US history enters its fifth week. Systematic organizing by thousands of workers across the state has resulted in the widespread suspension of cutting-edge research projects and thousands of class cancellations and ungraded assessments.
After multiple volleys at the bargaining table, as well as in the streets, the UC continues to stonewall on all the major demands put forth by UAW Local 2865 and Student Researchers United–UAW (SRU-UAW), the unions representing graduate student workers and student researchers –– including a substantive wage increase, adequately expansive health care coverage, and the remission of both extra tuition paid by non-California residents and a xenophobic fee exacted from primarily international student workers. (Postdoctoral and academic researchers, represented by UAW Local 5810, ratified their own contracts on Friday, December 9, the end of the fourth week of the strike.)
Jacobin’s Cyn Huang spoke with striking workers at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz about the state of the strike, and how union members are feeling at this contentious and pivotal moment.
How are you and your coworkers feeling after week four of the strike?
Mixed feelings. Almost none of my coworkers and I have ever been on strike before, so we’re still excited to be participating in the largest academic strike in US history. Also, it’s great to see so many people emerging as leaders through this struggle, and the sense of pride we get after pulling off actions and other political interventions is really special.
It’s important to acknowledge workers’ anger and frustration as well –– anger toward the UC, particularly their latest proposal, which is crumbs, and also tensions in our own ranks around differing strategic visions and elected accountability. Being able to debate strategy in a productive, comradely way has had its own messy learning curve, but it is crucial to building the kind of union whose internal democracy is strong enough to win us the contract we deserve.
I am feeling really good right now. On Saturday, December 3, the UC passed a proposal to us just after midnight. The rank and file of UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW immediately intuited that it was bad and began organizing to ensure that the proposal did not come back as a tentative agreement (TA). Since then, there has been a level of rank-and-file activity that this union has never seen before. We’re grappling with questions of strategy on a mass scale in order to get the contract we deserve.
What developments have there been at the bargaining table?
We were originally asking for $54,000 a year for teaching assistants plus 7 percent yearly increases or a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) based on local rent markets, whichever is higher. We were also asking for –– and we still are asking for –– childcare, expansive health insurance coverage, and the remission of Nonresidential Supplemental Tuition (NRST). The UC didn’t want to agree to any of these points. They made an offer Saturday, December 3, that put us toward the end of $29,000 for a nine-month appointment, no remission of NRST, and minimal childcare subsidies.
The UC didn’t really budge in the first two weeks, and I think that caught some people off guard. Our bargaining team tried to signal serious willingness to bargain, first by revising our proposed wage structure from one based on a cost-of-living adjustment to fixed raises of 7 percent per year. That was a controversial move in the union, and it didn’t really produce movement from the UC.
A week and half ago now, in the middle of the third week of our strike, a narrow majority of the bargaining team voted to make major concessions, moving the base wage down from $54,000 to $43,000 for a twelve-month appointment, or about $32,000 for a nine-month appointment with summer funding, and made other concessions around the rate of wage increases, childcare, and so on. The hope again was that it would produce a lot of movement from the UC.
There has been a level of rank-and-file activity that this union has never seen before.
What we saw was very modest movement. The UC’s offer went up to a base wage of around $38,000 for a twelve-month appointment. So, there’s about a $5,000 difference between our base wage proposals right now. For a lot of people, that was evidence that we were probably going to need a longer strike. The tenor of strategic discussion has definitely shifted.
What developments have there been outside the bargaining table? How have you seen the commitment and political consciousness of your coworkers change over the course of the strike?
My department created a Signal chat for the purpose of this strike, and, at the end of the second week of the strike, someone in my department texted something to the effect of “Hey, do you guys know that there are these Alabama miners that have been on strike for twenty months? I want to organize a holiday card writing and send their kids gifts. Would other people be interested in this?” And it was just thumbs-up reaction after thumbs-up reaction. You don’t get that in a seminar; it’s only through being in struggle that people are moved to take these kinds of solidaristic actions.
In terms of leadership development, for the longest time, I’ve been the “union person” in my department. I’m usually the one getting the meeting together, making the agenda, facilitating the meeting, and so on. Now, all the sociology department union meetings are called, organized, and facilitated by people other than me. In our most recent meeting, I think I spoke a total of two times, just to clarify some things around grade withholding. The rapid way in which people are developing as leaders and taking ownership over this strike is what I live for.
I’m seeing similar things at UC Davis. One of my coworkers, who I’ve known for many years, came up to me last week and said:
At the beginning of the strike, I would have been happy settling for a much smaller number. I wasn’t aspiring to $54,000. But now, seeing how the UC has treated us, I’m going to ask for the full $54,000 and COLA.
This is a great example of how a strike can and should raise your expectations rather than make you feel small and convince you to accept less than you deserve.
The depth and range of leadership from rank-and-file workers is incredible. A group of workers coordinated a strike kitchen that has raised over $17,000 in donations and feeds hundreds of people per day. At the beginning of the strike, there wasn’t a plan to do outreach to faculty or undergrads, at least not one presented by formal union leadership. Workers quickly identified this gap, and have been flyering outside of introductory classes and making speeches to big lecture halls. These self-organized actions by the rank and file are so important. We’re not going to win without them.
A group of workers coordinated a strike kitchen that has raised over $17,000 in donations and feeds hundreds of people per day.
How have you guys countered the UC’s strike-busting tactics?
I think that the most powerful strike-busting tactic that the UC has is faculty retaliation, especially in the sciences. One of the things we’ve realized, in terms of straight sustainability, is the importance of getting entire labs to stop their work. If you’re the only one, or one of only a handful of people in your lab, striking, you’re much more likely to be pressured to go back to work because your coworkers who are scabbing are held up by your principal investigator as examples of people who, frankly, are going to get favors and continue to have a future in academia.
There’s been a lot of discussion and action around targeting specific people who are notorious bullies. We’ve held rallies and sit-ins, naming and shaming them. There’s another set of strikebreaking tactics, like trying to get undergrads to take up struck work such as proctoring for exams. Some workers and sympathetic students have countered that move by flooding the university’s forms and messing up their logistics as much as possible.
Another thing that’s been really invaluable is the role of other unions acting in solidarity with us. Here at Berkeley and across the UC, the Teamsters, for example, have agreed not to cross picket lines. Shutting off the delivery of critical research supplies to labs, including, most importantly, natural gas, has been enormously helpful. Garbage collectors have stopped pickups as well.
At UC Berkeley, there was incredible solidarity shown between strikers and construction workers at the university’s data science complex. A sympathetic construction worker instructed us when and how to show up to the picket line, so they could legally refuse work. Ultimately, they had to go back to work due to a court-ordered injunction. But they ended up shutting down the complex for about three days and costing the university millions.
Those are some of the highlights. The compounded effect of all these acts of solidarity has been very effective in getting the UC administration more spread out, trying to address all these different crises. It’s making it harder for them to divide and conquer workers.
Across the UC, the Teamsters have agreed not to cross picket lines. Shutting off the delivery of critical research supplies to labs has been enormously helpful.
What are the biggest challenges ahead for striking workers?
One thing we can obviously expect, and we’re already starting to see, is pressure and intimidation from our employer ratcheting up. Not only is it going to ratchet up on us, it’s also going to ratchet up on faculty. We learned that from the wildcat strike, which originated at UC Santa Cruz. Even faculty who were supportive in showing up to rallies and signing letters of nonretaliation were intimidated by the UC. The administration leaned heavily on department chairs to discipline their coworkers and undermine faculty solidarity. We should expect to see that again.
Another pressure that we should expect to face comes from students who are anxious about what this strike means for them. This was another significant factor during the wildcat. It can be hard for us, as educators, when our undergraduate students are clearly anxious and distressed. We feel for them. After all, one of the reasons we’re going on strike is to make their education better. But the administration does a really good job at spreading confusion and misinformation, so that undergraduate students internalize the idea that they are being harmed by the strike and that the people who are harming them are workers who are on strike.
One more challenge that we should anticipate is differences within our union about what we think is possible. There isn’t consensus around what’s acceptable in a forthcoming tentative agreement.
The last thing I’ll say is that all of this pressure will be applied at a time where we’re all leaving to go on winter break. We need to figure out how we can maintain our resolve and bonds of solidarity during this critical moment. It is going to be a challenge, but it’s possible.
How has the unions’ strategy evolved in the past couple of weeks? What different visions are there, both in terms of what victory looks like and what the path to victory is?
I think the thing to understand about strikes is that they always involve incomplete information. The UC is unsure about how long we’ll be able to go on strike for and thus the total cost to their bottom line. On our side, we’re unsure how much disruption we’re really causing the university and how much it would be willing to give us in exchange for avoiding further disruption.
Within the union, there are differing assessments of all these questions. One group, which includes the majority of the bargaining team, seems to think that the UC has had a pretty good understanding of our strike and its sustainability all along. And the reason this group is moving toward the UC at the table is because it doesn’t think we can go on for longer. From this group’s point of view, we overestimated the amount of cost that we can impose on the university, and the best we can get requires us to settle sooner.
Another group believes that it will take a long-haul strike for the UC to come to terms with the cost it’s going to have to pay. This group is saying, “Look, it was always going to take a long time for the UC to figure out how much a strike –– 48,000-strong –– was going to cost it, and so only by a longer sustained strike, which requires us to systematically organize ourselves not just to go on strike, but to hold the line and get creative in our disruption, can we show the UC that it actually stands to lose a lot more than it originally thought and that it can’t just wait us out.” The thinking is that it’s going to take a sustained work stoppage through points of leverage like grade withholding in order for the UC to realize that it’s going to want to settle for what we’re proposing rather than face further disruption.
Another point of healthy disagreement has been over how to assess the extent of our disruption, particularly whether picket-line attendance and public and political sympathy –– as opposed to work stoppage participation –– are the best indicators of the strength of our strike.
In recent weeks, there’s been a pivot toward direct actions and improving the public’s perception of our strike, mainly by those in formal union leadership. There was civil disobedience in Sacramento and an occupation of the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) and other actions of a similar nature.
At UC Santa Cruz, we’re power mapping our departments, figuring out who’s still on strike, who’s willing to recommit to the strike, and how many grades are intended to be withheld.
On my campus, UC Santa Cruz, we have a different strategy going into the grading deadline. We’re power mapping our departments, figuring out who’s still on strike, who’s willing to recommit to the strike, how many grades are intended to be withheld, and which faculty are prepared to honor the withholding of grades in solidarity with student workers.
We’ve also been thinking a lot about the material pressures on and the leverage of student researchers (SRs). Many SRs have been told that what matters most is picket-line numbers and that a strike means no work whatsoever, even work that is necessary to prevent permanent damage to research and their career prospects. We’re really trying to refine our analysis. We understand that researchers don’t have synchronous grading deadlines, like teaching assistants have. What they experience is uneven, asynchronous research and grant deadlines that do threaten the university’s bottom line if they’re missed. We’re working with researchers to map their labs, figure out when critical deadlines are, and find ways to support each other. Together, we’re thinking through what a long-haul strike looks like for SRs.