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University of California Workers Organize For Salaries That Keep Pace With Cost Of Living

In the months before the coronavirus pandemic abruptly halted the United States economy in March 2020, graduate student workers and faculty members in the University of California system aggressively pushed for cost-of-living salary adjustments through strikes, protests, and rallies on campuses.

Though COVID-19 shutdowns and transitions to remote learning disrupted these organizing efforts ahead of a potential vote for a system-wide strike, workers in the UC system adapted organizing efforts to be conducted remotely, recently securing enough union authorization cards to represent over 17,000 student researchers at all ten campuses in the UC system and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

They joined post-doctoral students, academic researchers, tutors, teaching assistants in the UC system, who are already represented by UAW affiliated unions. 

Student researchers were initially classified as students rather than employees, exempting them from other bargaining units at UC campuses, until 2017 when the California State Legislature amended the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act of 1979 to classify student researchers as employees, paving the way for the formation of a union

On May 24, student researchers organizing with the United Auto Workers submitted 10,441 signed union authorization cards to the California Public Employees Relations Board in Oakland, California. They await the certification of the signatures and next steps forward.

The card campaign began in Fall 2020 after a statewide organizing committee planned out strategies to organize remotely and form campus-wide committees to lead organizing efforts at each UC campus. 

“It’s kind of incredible how organized we were and how so many people are working toward this,” said Donghyung Lee (or K-Dan), a graduate student researcher studying neurobiology at University of California, San Diego. 

Lee explained the widespread labor organizing efforts in the UCsystem are a microcosm of the socioeconomic inequities rampant in California, as workers in the UC system often work for low wages in cities with high costs of living, and these economic issues contribute to the lack of diversity in these programs, which exacerbates the risk of harassment, discrimination, and unfair dismissals.

According to Lee, the universities receive millions of dollars in funding from grants earned by student researchers, while administrators such as UC President Michael Drake receive an annual salary of $890,000. 

“We have this publicly funded institution that should be doing research for the greater good that doesn’t treat its workers or pay its workers with the same kind of respect,” Lee added. “We deserve to be paid more than $20,000 to $30,000 a year to live in California.”

“At the very least, we have to establish a firm baseline for everyone working as a student researcher to be guaranteed things like sick days and vacation days. I think that’s the bare minimum that needs to be in an enforceable contract,” Lee contended.

Student researchers turn in union authorization signatures (Courtesy of SRU-UAW)

The high cost of living in California compared to wages for workers in the University of California system were a driving factor in a graduate workers’ strike at UC Santa Cruz that lasted from late 2019 to early 2020 and spread to other UC campuses before the pandemic.

Workers on strike said large portions of their low wages go toward high rents required to live near campus.

UC Santa Cruz fired dozens of graduate workers, who participated in the wildcat strikes before reinstating them after months of protests and disciplinary hearings. The campaign across the UC system took credit for several wage increases and summer and housing stipends that were enacted on nearly every UC campus following the strikes and protests. 

The movement for a cost-of-living adjustment wage increase for workers in the University of California system has continued through the pandemic, the new union of student researchers intends to focus on the issue amidst a worsening housing crisis in California. 

“The cost of living is a huge, huge issue we really want to tackle to make sure every graduate student can afford housing and live comfortably, because if we’re not happy in our living situation, if we’re not getting a good night’s sleep or able to take care of ourselves very well, that turns into mistakes in the lab and poor quality of work,” said Kate Augspurger, a graduate student researcher at UC San Francisco. “We as graduate students don’t have a whole lot of control over our employment right now. Bringing in a democratic voice in the workplace to make these changes so they are as helpful as possible to us is really important.”

A spokesperson for the University of California system said, “The University of California values its graduate student researchers and their many contributions to the University. UC neither encourages nor discourages unionization. UC supports employees’ right to make an informed decision and choose for themselves.”

Shortly after student researchers at the University of California turned in their union authorization cards, around 2,000 non-tenured lecturers represented by the University Council-American Federation of Teachers voted overwhelmingly in favor to authorize a strike amidst new union contract negotiations, which have drawn out since April 2019.

“UC continues to negotiate with UC-AFT on a new multi-year collective bargaining agreement on wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment for UC lecturers,” a UC system spokesperson claimed. “In the latest round of negotiations, UC made significant movement toward compromises with union leaders on key union priorities including compensation, appointments, and leave policy.”

Lecturers cited low-pay and job security as prevailing points of contention in contract negotiations. The median salary for lecturers at the University of California is $19,067 and the union claims UC has not introduced proposals on evaluating and rehiring processes or offered lecturers contract renewals. 

Dr. Caroline Luce, a lecturer for six years at UCLA, explained lecturers currently are not compensated for duties that fall outside of their classroom time, such as mentoring and advising students or writing recommendation letters.

The low pay forces lecturers to cobble together gigs at different universities and colleges, find additional sources of employment, or rely on a spouse’s income in order to make ends meet, which contributes to the high attrition for lecturers (who also frequently do not receive contract renewals after a year or so with no explanation or review). 

“We’ve become like gig workers,” said Luce. “These jobs are advertised and held out as a bridge to tenured employment or tenured track positions. But it’s effectively a bridge to nowhere these days, because the job market is so bad.”

“What we want to do is try to make these bad jobs into better, more stable careers for people so that they can plan their lives and establish roots in the communities near campus.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1