UC strike: Postdoctoral scholars, researchers reach tentative deal

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The University of California and its postdoctoral scientists and academic researchers reached a tentative deal Tuesday that would raise their pay to one of the highest in the country — but they won’t be returning to campus just yet in solidarity with some 36,000 graduate student workers who continue strike.

“We are proud to have reached agreements that address the rising cost of living and reflect the value of our contributions at UC,” Neal Sweeney, president of United Auto Workers 5810, said in a statement. “These agreements represent a new, best-in-class model that will improve the quality of life – and the quality of research – for scientists across the US”

The tentative deal involves two smaller negotiating units and doesn’t settle for the uncertainty campuses across the system are harboring about how to handle grading and final exams as fall terms draw to a close. That’s because the workers who do such hands-on work with students make up the vast majority of strikers — graduate student assistants and researchers in two major units, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW. They remain far apart on wage proposals.

At a news conference Tuesday, Sweeney said the tentative deal would put UC postdoctoral scientists at higher median pay levels than even the pioneering Stanford. Union members have yet to ratify the agreement, but once it does, they are contractually obligated to return to work – even if others are still on strike.

UC applauded the agreement and thanked the faculty and students of the 10-campus system for their “flexibility and patience” during the strike.

“Our dedicated colleagues are essential to UC’s research activities and we are very pleased to have reached agreements that honor their many important contributions,” Letitia Silas, executive director of system-wide labor relations, said in a statement. “These agreements also continue our tradition of supporting these employees with compensation and benefits packages that are among the best in the country.”

The postdoctoral fellows and academic researchers make up some 12,000 of the 48,000 union members who launched the largest-ever strike by academic workers three weeks ago. They say the preliminary deal will significantly improve their quality of life by increasing the minimum annual salary for their full-time positions from approximately $55,000 to $70,000 or higher with various adjustments by the end of the five-year contract – including a $12,000 increase by October next year.

“This will be quite transformative for me,” said Adam Caparco, a postdoctoral researcher at UC San Diego who studies how to create environmentally friendly pesticides, develop drought-resistant plants, and improve waste management.

Caparco said he was lucky to have a reasonably priced apartment during the pandemic and only spends 30% of his $3,500 monthly take-home pay on rent. But he still lives paycheck to paycheck, he said, because he relied on credit cards for unforeseen expenses, such as a $1,200 car repair earlier this year.

The pay increases in the preliminary agreement, which Caparco said he wants to ratify, would give him more financial security — and breathing space to think about saving for a new car or getting a gym membership.

Faculty members say they value their academic staff and want them to earn enough for a secure life. But many worry about where the money will come from to pay for the higher wages and benefits.

The postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers are largely supported by scholarships obtained by the faculty. Federal grants have remained the same for years and often limit the portion that can be paid in salaries or how the funds can be spent. It’s not clear, the faculty said, whether funding agencies would allow grants to be used for childcare, e-bikes or public transportation grants — some of the new benefits included in the tentative deal. They also wondered what would happen if they had no funding for another provision in the agreement, extend the appointment from one to two years.

“We want people who work for us to be supported, but we worry that it’s on our shoulders and we don’t have the resources,” said a faculty member.

Sweeney, the union leader, stressed that UC needs to double down on reaching a deal with graduate student assistants and researchers.

“We think the university can and should make serious proposals to the other two units and they should come to an agreement as soon as possible, even this week,” he said.

But UC and graduate students remain far apart on pay proposals. The university has asked for a neutral mediator, which the union opposes.

While the postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers agreed to a 21% increase in annual minimum salary — from $54,480 to $66,000 — the graduate students are demanding a 145% increase from $22,000 to $54,000.

George Blumenthal, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, said graduate student workers needed and deserved more support, but such a wage demand was “far from within the realm of possibility,” given UC’s budget and wage agreements with other employee groups. He said the postdoctoral scientists and academic researchers also had a compelling reason to settle because their contracts are generally only for a few years and they have to show productivity to secure renewal or their next job.

Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, said it was up to his union bargaining team to decide whether to bring back an offer to members with lower wage demands. But they need much higher pay to survive and continue the critical education and research they provide UC, he said.

“The kind of pay graduate students earn makes it very difficult to continue in academia,” he said. “All we ask is that UC appreciates the work we do and pays us a decent wage.”

For postdoctoral researchers, the preliminary agreement includes:

—A salary increase of 20%-23% (up to $12,000) by October 2023 for most union members. The current lowest postgraduate worker would get a 57% raise in five years.
—Annual increases of 7.2% for postdocs at scale and 3% for those above scale for 2024-2027.
—An increase from four weeks to eight weeks of paid parental and family leave.
-Childcare grants starting at $2,500 per year and going up to $2,800 per year – their first such grant.
— Longer tenures for more job security, better protection against bullying and for employees with disabilities.
—Transport benefits, including a commitment to free public transport passes within three years and a 15% e-bike discount.

For academic researchers, the agreement includes an average salary increase of 29% over the five-year contract. They will also receive eight weeks of paid family leave, longer tenures for greater job security, improved transportation benefits, and increased protection against bullying and for employees with disabilities.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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