After almost six weeks of striking, the University of California graduate students and academic workers have agreed to negotiations with the UC system and have signed a new contract. The strike which disrupted most undergraduate curriculum across the nine UC campuses, and was described as “the biggest work stoppage ever at a U.S. institution of higher education,” has ended, yet not all union members are pleased with the new agreement. During the course of the strike, the UC system lost credibility amongst its students and widespread disapproval of the new contract has only weakened the United Auto Worker union, which represents the graduate students and academic workers, in future negotiations.
At UC Merced, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara, teaching assistants and academic workers largely rejected the proposal claiming it divides the campuses by providing more compensations to schools who have a more “prestigious” reputation like UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles. The new agreement will increase the current salary of these students from about $24,000 to $36,000, although initial negotiations had aimed to nearly double the current salary and were asking for it to be increased to $54,000. Other big wins for the union were improved child-care subsidies, paid leaves and protection against discrimination. The rate at Berkeley, San Francisco and UCLA, however, will be increased to $36,500 — substantially more than the $34,000 that other campuses are receiving.
This variation in the pay increase is claimed to be caused by higher cost of living in the surrounding areas of these three campuses, but the discrepancy will cause the other campuses, who are often underfunded in comparison, to fall behind in relation to these UCs and will pit them against each other. At UC Santa Cruz, the contract was only approved by about 20% of graduate students. In a statement from the campus’s union, they stated that while some members who voted no may be compelled to revoke the UAW and join other unions, that they should not and that students “must resist this urge, and instead redouble [their] commitment to the organizing that has taken [them] this far.”
The statement from UC Santa Cruz also suggests that by accepting these terms and not holding out the strike longer, the union has lost their power and is left with unfilled potential. Future renegotiations will now be more difficult to complete with the UC system aware of what tactics work and how long the union is truly willing to be on strike. While this strike was monumental and showed great mobilization, with all nine campuses coordinating together, it is unclear if a strike of this size is possible to occur again or can happen at a larger scale.
The six week strike only proved how valuable the academic workers are with undergraduate instruction unable to be completed in most instances without them. While some professors canceled classes in solidarity, the few that continued struggled to do so without TA’s and graders. With the start of winter instruction, many students still have GD, grade delays, for their fall grades bringing feelings of uncertainty after an already stressful academic session. The extensive headlines that graduate students made through their protests by halting undergraduate instruction, blocking intersections and even getting arrested in some cases appears to have succeeded in garnering a pay increase, but it is one that was not worth the time and effort that these students put into their work and the strike.
The handling of the strike by the UC system has also hurt its credibility and the perception that undergraduate students had of it. Some students already feel more like a customer than a valued student and the mistreatment of the graduate workers has shown the undergrads how little they mean to the UC. While some never trusted the institution, others are now realizing that their campus is run more like a business instead of a place for higher learning. After the strike, undergrad students are reevaluating their decision to pursue graduate school or are looking to alternative campuses outside of the UC. Those who’s classes remained in session had to teach themselves if their TA was on strike and the grade delays have left students that need their grades for study abroad, prerequisites, jobs or applications confused with how to move forward.
While the new contract is a win for the UAW, the mobilization of the nine campuses and recognition they received has proven to be the true win. The strike has hurt the UC’s reputation to its students that were affected most and did not receive the education they should have this past fall. An unfavorable perception of the UC system has been created, beginning a new era for the institution. The momentum of the strike should continue and not die down in coming years, although most fear that the union’s power will only dwindle from here. The graduate students and academic workers have proven what a force they can be and should not give up their fight for better compensation and recognition.