Largest academic strike in U.S. history set to end pending union vote

Photo courtesy of Genaro Molina

On Nov. 14, around 48,000 teaching assistants, postdoctoral workers, researchers and graders at the forefront of teaching and research at 10 separate University of California campuses, went on strike in what is the largest academic strike in U.S. history. 17 academic workers were arrested on Dec. 6 after staging a sit-in in the lobby of the UC president’s Sacramento office. 

On Nov. 28, two weeks into the historic strike, around 12,000 assistant researchers and post doctoral workers reached a tentative agreement that delivers their highest wage increase to date, a 20% raise for postdoctoral workers, among other benefits. On Dec. 9, workers voted to ratify their new contracts by margins of 79.5% of assistant researchers and 89.4% of postdocs, returning them to work.

A month into the strike, Dec. 16, the remaining 36,000 workers reached a tentative agreement with the university, potentially ending the historic strike. The deal still needs to be ratified by the workers before becoming official. 

The deal includes healthcare benefits, childcare benefits, paid leave, guaranteed transit, and wage increases in 2023 and 2024. 55-80% of the wage increases for academic student employees and 25-80% increases for graduate student researchers by 2024.

Despite being the largest academic strike in U.S. history with large gains for student workers, the mainstream cable news coverage has been minimal to nonexistent. Media critic Adam Johnson tallied the amount of T.V. coverage of the strike compared to recent visits from British royalty to the U.S.

Johnson found that with the exception of a one minute, 40 second segment on ABC’s Good Morning America on the first day of the strike, mainstream T.V. news (which he defines as CNN, ABC News, NBC News and CBS News) haven’t covered the strike once, compared to the recent separate visits by Prince Harry and Prince William last week, which received a total of 34 individual segments amounting to 1 hour and 36 minutes of coverage.

Johnson also notes that ABC News, CBS News and CNN all have a dedicated “royal expert,” “royal correspondent” or “royal commentator.” Yet none of these outlets have a dedicated “labor expert” or labor reporter. NBC News’s Eli Rosenburg is tasked with covering labor and tech, but hasn’t covered the University of California strike once.

[Academic workers walk the picket line Nov. 16 at UCLA, amid the strike of 48,000 University of California employees.]
Photo courtesy of Genaro Molina

Since the start of their strike, the workers at the University of California requested a minimum annual salary of $54,000, increased child-care benefits, disability benefits and public transit options, among other proposals. 

Saying they don’t earn enough to afford the cost of living, the workers also accuse the university of breaking the law by not bargaining in good faith with their union, the United Auto Workers. In a union survey, 92% of graduate student workers said housing took more than a third of their income, with 40% saying it was more than half, according to The New York Times.

“We’re the ones who perform the majority of the teaching, and we’re the ones who perform the majority of the research,” Rafael Jaime, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and president of U.A.W. Local 2865, told The New York Times.

The U.A.W. Local 2865 represents around 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other classroom workers. Jaime said in a union press release that many of the workers make less than $24,000 a year.

In the early days of the strike, University professors expressed solidarity with the workers. Their statement read, “We will be exercising our legally protected right under HEERA as Senate faculty both to honor the picket line in full and not to replace struck labor.”

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