UC Academic Workers Push to Continue Strike Against Tentative Agreement

UC Academic Workers Push to Continue Strike Against Tentative Agreement

This piece was submitted by Naomi Friedland. Friedland is a freelance journalist attending UC Santa Cruz. Her article is part of our ongoing coverage of the 2022 academic workers’ strike. To learn more, please visit Fair UC Now.

On Friday, Dec. 16, UAW 2865 and UAW SRU, the two union bargaining teams representing academic workers across all 10 University of California campuses, voted to tentatively agree to a contract offered by the UC. UC academic workers represented by UAW have until Friday, Dec. 23 at 5 p.m. to cast their votes to decide whether or not to ratify the agreement. With time ticking, graduate students wanting to continue the strike in pursuit of fairer compensation are strategizing a plan to push for a majority “no” vote. 

Members of the UAW 2865 bargaining team, representing teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, tutors, and readers, voted 11-8, and UAW SRU representing student researchers voted 13-7 with one abstention. 

Shortly after the vote to accept the tentative agreement, 19 bargaining team members signed a letter urging their fellow academic workers on strike to vote “no” on ratifying the agreement. They wrote: “We are BT [bargaining team] members and alternates who voted against this agreement based on our belief that the UC’s mediated proposals fail to deliver on the major demands of the strike. More importantly, our assessment is that our strike remains very strong, and has unfulfilled potential to extract a better offer from the UC.” 

Fifth-year computer science doctorate student worker Carlos Diaz Alvarenga has been hard at work all week to achieve a strong majority “no ” vote amongst the roughly 800 other graduate students at UC Merced.

When asked about the tentative agreement, Diaz Alvarenga said he “truly believes that there is more to win and we are leaving a lot on the table. If we are able to withhold labor for the rest of the year, we will see some significant movement.” 

Diaz Alvarenga said that it “does more or less nothing for me” if the agreement is ratified. 

“When we set out to organize the strike in September, we had a set of core demands that we were fighting for. Among those were lifting graduate students out of rent burden, promoting disability justice, and achieving full NRST remissions. Most, if not all of those demands have been greatly reduced,” he continued. 

The wage increases offered are negligible with the first raise of 7.5% occurring in three months, amounting to just $150 a month. 

“Contrary to the official UAW narrative, I am skeptical that these raises will keep up with inflation let alone rental market,” Diaz Alvarenga added. 

According to the Wages section of the UAW Proposal, created pre-strike in late September, strikers initially demanded a pay rate of at least $54,084 annually to eliminate rent burden for ASEs UC-wide.” However, the tentative contract would offer a base wage of less than half of that. For all UC workers 90 days from contract ratification, they will have an increase in base pay to $25,000, and not until the 2024-2025 academic year will UC academic workers from Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will make at least $36,486.84 annually and ASEs from the other UCs will make $34,000. Under the tentative agreement, the average rent burden across all UC campuses will only go down 1.77%  for ASEs living in studio apartments from 2018 to 2024. Utilizing the definition of rent burden as paying over 30% of one’s income towards rent, the majority of graduate students will remain rent burdened if this agreement passes.

Despite some’s perception that the agreement does not offer tangible change, the majority of UC bargaining team members voted “yes” on the tentative agreement. The BTs who voted “yes” argued in their letter that academic workers should accept the hard-fought historic wins, highlighting the benefits that the agreement will offer, but failing to put these “wins” into context with the high cost of living. 

Diaz Alvarenga believes that the biggest reasons why BT members may have voted or will vote “yes” on ratifying the agreement are due to misinformation on the agreement and fear of an endless strike. He says there is some legitimacy to a fear of a long-haul strike, but he hopes the strike will end this academic year, once more demands are met. He is confident that continuing to strike will reap a more fruitful contract that will provide tangible justice for graduate students. 

Anticipating a “yes” vote campaign after the tentative agreement was made on Dec. 16, Diaz Alvarenga and others who organized the picket line got together to form a counter-campaign. Through phone banking with others in the “no” vote campaign, he realized that simply aiding colleagues in a closer reading of the agreement easily convinced them to vote “no.” 

UCLA political science graduate student Rachel Forgash reflected on the course of labor struggles in recent history to make sense of the doubt many ASEs hold in continuing the strike. 

“I think it is because of the way in which capitalism, neoliberalism, and the employer has permitted a scarcity mindset that many see accepting the agreement as the best we are going to get,” Forgash said. “People have lost hope in the labor movement which is part of the reason I am committed to promoting the ‘no’ vote. I’ve talked to a lot of people who want to vote ‘no,’ but decide not to because they believe the contract will be ratified or it will be too hard to get more.” 

Regarding the tentative agreement’s salary plan, another cause of concern is the tiered salary system where academic workers from the more prestigious UC campuses, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and UC Los Angeles will receive a higher salary than ASEs at other UCs.

 A tweet thread from UC Santa Barbara labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein writes: “The UAW has secured a large wage increase in its negotiations with UC. But the wage differential —amounting to more than $2,500 additional per year — at UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UCSF will create resentment and rancor for years if it is allowed to stand.”

In comments made at a UC-wide Zoom meeting on Dec. 20 titled “Divided We Beg: Against Tiered Pay at UC,” UC Berkeley graduate student instructor and researcher Alexandra Michaud made an argument for why academic workers should not accept the tentative agreement, highlighting the many faults with the two-tiered pay system. 

“The pay discrepancies in this contract do not account for the cost of living,” Michaud said. “…Instructors at Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will be paid more than instructors at the other six teaching campuses simply because they work at the ‘flagship’ campuses. …[In fact,] living expenses in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and San Diego are similar to those at the higher-tier campuses.” 

Another crucial point made by Michaud and the two other speakers at the meeting —  Lichtenstein and labor organizer Colleen Donovon — is the way two-tier systems weaken unions. 

Providing historical context, Lichtenstein, a labor historian, observes that in the past two-tier contracts required an almost endless fight.

 “During the anti-union era inaugurated by President Ronald Reagan, many employers forced unions to accept concessionary collective bargaining agreements, many of which contained two-tier provisions that allowed companies to hire new workers at lower pay than that enjoyed by veteran workers,” Lichtenstein said. “…The whole idea of solidarity is subverted by these two-tier contracts.” 

UC Santa Cruz sociology and legal studies professor Hiroshi Fukurai also agrees that the fight is nowhere near over. Fukurai, who has been at the UC since 1979 and has taught at UCSC for over 30 years, argues that we need to widen the struggles to create tangible, long-term change in graduate student compensation at the UC and beyond. He refers to the 2012 Quebec student protests as a strategic example that the UC strikers should emulate. 

The Quebec Student Strike was the longest student strike in Quebec and Canadian history, lasting from Feb. 13 to Sept. 7 of 2012. In response to a hike in university tuition fees, students began protesting to eliminate tuition. Fukurai emphasizes that the key to the strikers’ success is their strategy to involve the greater community outside of the university in their struggle. 

“Parents got involved, then communities” Fukurai explained. “They widened the struggles, they began to ask professors and students in the U.S. to get involved. By widening the struggle, the Canadian government retreated, and still today they have not imposed tuition.”

In the next year, Fukurai would like to see the strike expand outside of the university to greater communities. Forgash shares similar hopes in regard to the strike and says that academic workers on her campus have already started building solidarity with other workers by disrupting deliveries, and making ties with delivery workers who also contribute to the functioning of the UC. 

Forgash further discussed the role of the UC academic strike as it exists among a larger labor movement.

“One of my main motivations is that this is not just about workers at the UC, but about the need for a more robust rank and file, ground-up labor movement at large,” Forgash said. “I see our fight as a larger part of the labor movement to combat the business unionism that has pervaded the landscape of labor in recent U.S. history.” 

Forgash and other UC academic workers and supporters who wish to continue the strike believe that the strike must go on to see real justice in academic worker compensation nationwide and workers’ rights as a whole.

Photo by Sophie Nourbakhsh for The UCSD Guardian.

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