About 48,000 union workers at the 10 University of California campuses — which conduct most of the teaching and research in the state’s main higher education system — resigned Monday morning, demanding better wages and benefits.
The system-wide strike includes teaching assistants, postdoctoral scientists, graduate student researchers, faculty and fellows, as well as Lawrence Berkeley National Lab employees, and it has already caused multiple disruptions to scheduled classes just weeks before final exams.
Union leaders say the strike, which began Monday, will be the largest at an academic institution in history. UCLA employees joined the picket line at 8 a.m. and demonstrated with signs, T-shirts and chants in multiple locations on campus, as did groups at UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced.
UC Irvine strikers began demonstrating on campus at 8:30 a.m., while strikes were scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on some other campuses, including UC Davis and UC San Francisco. The 48,000 workers, represented by four UAW bargaining units, have demanded salaries of $54,000, a wage increase that would more than double their average current wages of about $24,000 a year.
UC has offered a pay scale increase of 7% in the first year and 3% in each subsequent year, but employees say that is not enough.
“We’re overworked and underpaid, and we’re fed up,” said Jamie Mondello, a 27-year-old psychology student at UCLA and a member of UAW Local 2865 and Student Researchers United. “Our proposals bring everyone to a living wage. We as a whole just ask to be treated with dignity. We really keep the UC running.”
Mondello said she earns about $37,000 a year as a fellow and plans to add a teaching assistantship next quarter to supplement her income. She was on the picket line at UCLA Monday morning along with hundreds of other academic staff, many with signs reading “UAW on strike.” Unfair labor practices.”
“Forty-eight thousand strong,” they chanted. “We can fight all day.”
Lavanya Nott, 30, a third-year graduate student in the geography department and a student researcher, said she earns $24,000 a year from her job and about $2,000 a year from her second job as an on-campus grader for teaching assistants who don’t do t speak English as their first language.
“It’s almost impossible to live in LA or most cities in California,” she said. “Many of us have second or third jobs.”
Nott called her income “poverty-level wages” and said 92% of graduate students suffer from rent burdens, meaning they spend 30% or more of their income on rent. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment offered by UC Housing, with her partner paying $1,500 a month combined. Although she doesn’t have a child, she knows that parents are really struggling because the childcare grants UC provides aren’t enough to send their kids to childcare on UC campuses.
“We’re always thinking about how little money we have and how limited we are financially, and I think it would give us some peace of mind and freedom to focus on our work and have some dignity,” Nott said. “We just want to be lifted out of poverty.”
Rafael Jaime, president of UAW Local 2865, which represents 19,000 of the 48,000 workers, was out at UC San Diego early Monday with fellow union members on strike, and he said energy was high.
“We’ll stay here as long as it takes,” Jaime said. He said the union continues to negotiate “around the clock” and while some progress has been made towards stronger protections against bullying and abuse in the workplace, he said the two sides “still remain far apart on many of the issues UC a more equitable university.”
In addition to wage increases, workers are pushing for childcare subsidies, improved health care for dependents, transit cards, lower tuition fees for international scientists, and better accessibility for employees with disabilities.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many classes, labs or scheduled academic activities were interrupted Monday, but UCLA students reported some classes were cancelled.
Ebony Morris, 21, a fourth-year art student, said the discussion group meeting for one of her classes has been canceled until the strike is over.
“TAs make a class,” she said. “It’s a smaller way of getting everything you’re supposed to get in class.”
Morris said assignment and test grading will most likely also be affected by the strike.
“I think UCLA should pay the people who work here,” she said. “If they have to strike, they have to strike. I feel it is a human right to be able to pay for your life.”
Breanna Reyes, 20, and Vanessa Salgado, 20, are both third-year college students and Spanish majors.
Reyes said one of her classes has been canceled indefinitely and another has been put online until the strike is over. Salgado said some of her classes and discussion groups have been cancelled.
“Of course there are disruptions in the assessment and classes, but I think the idea is to create disruption and make staff aware of the issues that are going on, so I don’t mind,” Salgado said.
Reyes said some students were thinking about joining the strike in solidarity.
“During big lectures, we don’t get that individual attention and don’t get to ask so many questions,” Reyes said. “In our discussion groups, we can express ourselves more, ask questions about homework, get feedback, and it improves our overall grade, so I think missing that homework will hamper our first quarter experience.”
Mondello, the psychology graduate student at UCLA, said she appreciates that many students understand that the strike is not an attempt to punish them and the faculty, but is necessary for academic staff.
“We’re really here because we want to improve academia,” Mondello said. “No one wants a strike, and we are forced to be in this position just to get fair working conditions and a fair contract.”
She said it is especially concerning because union leaders have on multiple occasions accused the university of illegal bargaining tactics, such as negotiating table circumvention and intimidation tactics, and have filed 23 claims of unfair labor practices with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board. In three cases, the board has lodged a complaint.
A group of 33 state legislators sent a letter in support of the graduate student workers urging UC President Michael Drake to negotiate in good faith.
“UC is one of the best public university systems and research institutions in the world, not least because of its ability to attract the most talented scientists from a wide variety of backgrounds,” the letter reads. “But the UC system cannot live up to its mission and reputation if its own employees don’t feel respected.”
Last November, the university system narrowly avoided a strike planned by about 6,500 teachers after they reached a last-minute deal that improved their job security and included pay increases.
Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.