I swarm of striking students underneath and around UC Berkeley's Sather Gate with signs that say "UAW on strike, unfair labor practice." In the background a large banner reads "end rent burden"
Nearly 5,000 students gathered at UC Berkeley on November 14 to begin the strike which comprises 48,000 student workers across all UC campuses. (Ian Castro)

Across the prestigious University of California system, tens of thousands of workers walked off the job last week for the nation’s largest strike of 2022, and the largest strike of academic workers in U.S. history.The energy was palpable as nearly 5,000 academic workers gathered at UC Berkeley’s campus November 14 to launch our strike. Any last-minute worries dissolved as I stepped onto campus and heard my colleagues, strike captains, undergraduate students, and community members chanting, “48,000 workers strong, we can fight all day long!”

Over the first week of our strike we shut down classes and lab operations, and felt the solidarity from Teamsters drivers and building trades workers who honored our 5 a.m. pickets, marched with our students to the university president’s mansion, and showed the UC just how organized we are—and how ready we are to win big.

From UC Davis down to UC San Diego, our four bargaining units—teaching assistants, student researchers, postdoctoral scholars, and academic researchers—are demanding that the UC bargain in good faith.

In the midst of record high inflation and a statewide housing crisis, we are demanding a living wage, sustainable transit benefits, job security, and increased support for working parents and international scholars.

Housing eats half our income

What has led us to this powerful moment, where so many academic workers are striking together against rampant exploitation and inequity?

According to United Auto Workers (UAW) membership surveys, 92 percent of graduate workers and 61 percent of postdocs report being rent-burdened. That is, they are paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent. In fact, the average graduate worker is spending more than half their gross income on housing costs.

How would you make ends meet in this situation? Take out loans? Sell your blood plasma? At all 10 UC campuses, the stories are commonplace—workers are living out of cars, couch-surfing, or forced to commute from hours away. Our demand here is straightforward: pay us enough to live where we work!

The housing crisis in California has only accelerated over the last few years, and the growing mismatch between our stipends and living costs gave rise to a mid-contract wildcat strike that began at UC Santa Cruz in 2020, aimed at winning a cost-of-living adjustment.

Our demand for a living wage, while simple, would represent a sea change in how the university treats the workers who perform the bulk of the research and teaching duties.

Teaching assistants meet with students, provide mentorship, grade exams, and lead the majority of instruction. Researchers write grants that bring in millions of dollars of research funding, and do the bulk of the day-to-day research tasks.

A striking student wearing a sunhat and holding a UAW protest sign and plays the tambourine.
(Ian Castro)
two striking students hold home-made protest signs that say "not gay as in happy, queer as in pay me," and "fuck you, pay me." The signs are written in elaborate black cursive.
At Cal, students have gotten creative on the picket line, holding salsa dance classes, Cacerolazos, and bike pickets around campus. (Ian Castro)

UC is not unique in this. Institutions of higher education and research have historically depended on the exploitation of legions of academic workers. Workers who don’t have access to generational wealth must rely on crowded living arrangements, credit card debt, or second and third jobs to make ends meet.

As a public university, the UC system should be training the diverse academic workforce we need to tackle the enormous challenges of our generation.

Instead, the severe financial constraints mean that many people are effectively driven out of higher education and careers in academia—especially scholars from marginalized groups, like workers of color, workers with disabilities, and single parents.

Organizing got us here

Teaching assistants at the UC first formed a union with UAW in the 1990s. Over the next 20 years they

were joined first by postdocs (2008), then by academic researchers (2018), and finally last year by the 17,000-worker-strong Student Researchers United (SRU). Over the past couple decades, our contracts dramatically raised standards for ourselves and academic workers across the country.In many ways, the 2021 fight for recognition of SRU was a trial run for this strike. The SRU campaign began modestly with the creation of departmental organizing committees in the first days of the pandemic. We built supermajority support for unionization and ultimately won recognition—over the university’s bitter objections—through a supermajority strike authorization vote.

The success of the mass strike threat showed how we could escalate on the issues common to academic workers across all the campuses.

Over the past year, our unions have become a force to be reckoned with. During months of UC’s unlawful and bad faith bargaining, we spent hours mapping campus departments and labs, identifying and training workplace leaders, creating organizing committees in every department, and training our co-workers on how to have organizing conversations and how to mobilize on a large scale. Together, we achieved overwhelmingly successful strike authorization votes in four bargaining units simultaneously. Altogether, 36,000 workers voted and 98 percent voted to strike. And since September, we have trained hundreds of strike captains, picket shift leaders, and strike assistance counselors at each campus.

Progress at the table

Bargaining has been underway for nine months for three of the striking bargaining units, and well over a year for the fourth, postdocs. Already we have made some incredible gains: we’ve reached tentative agreements across our units on groundbreaking protections against harassment and discrimination along with workplace bullying.

But progress has been faster since our strike began; the pressure of our massive actions across the state is creating palpable shifts in the tenor of negotiations. In just the last week, we’ve reached tentative agreements on workload protections for teaching assistants, a new immigration rights article for postdocs, a first-of-its-kind agreement on work-incurred injury and illness for student researchers, and more! 

The university will undoubtedly continue to object to our central demands. But with the four bargaining units aligned, our power has never been greater. You can support our movement through our hardship fund at here, and find more here.

This story was originally published by Labor Notes. 

Kenzo Esquivel is a head steward of UAW Local 2865 and a graduate student researcher in the department of environmental science, policy, and management at UC Berkeley.