Academic workers win historical strike, but worries stream as the unpredictable future unfolds.
On Nov. 14, almost 48,000 academic workers across all nine campuses initiated the largest strike at an academic institution in history.
Academic workers (UAW 2865) and student researchers (SRU-UAW) were striking for a contract that included needs such as higher wages, job security, anti-bullying protections, dependent healthcare coverage, and other union rights. Postdoctoral academic researchers (UAW 5810) were striking for compensation to leverage and address needs including the increased cost of living, work environment protections, and disability accommodations, and more.
On Dec. 18, a tentative contract agreement between the UC and the union, with 62% of UAW 2865 members, 68% of SRU-UAW members, and 89.4% of UAW 5810 members voted yes to ratify the negotiation contract.
Although initially excited with the major wins from the new contracts, some union members weren’t completely satisfied with how the strike was conducted and felt that more could have been earned in the tentative contracts.
In an interview with Jake Orbison, a member of UAW 2865 at UC Berkeley, the rank-and-file strategy was described as the focus theory, which some dissatisfied members were advocating for. A strategy that prioritizes a powerful membership body rather than a leadership council.
“It’s not about taking over power [rather it’s] making sure that the union performs democratically and fights for what the membership needs,”Orbison said.
In the context of the strike, the rank-and-file strategic theory highlights the structural constraints on unions that withhold the possible role which union leaders could serve in constructing a strong fighting capacity among membership.
Orbison emphasized this theory as he explained UC Berkeley’s union leaders’ failure to create a proper flow of communication from membership to leadership. According to him, union leaders at Berkeley didn’t reach out to its members to address concerns over withholding labor and possibilities of improving the strike.
Like Orbison, many members who are sympathetic to the rank-and-file strategy view leadership and paid staff as facilitators of the members’ wills. Paid staffers at the union are separate from union members, as they are paid two to three times more and are a part of a separate union.
“Our contract is our contract. We are the highest authority [to judge] what it should look like and how we should fight for it”, Orbison said.
Concerns are also brewing among union members for what’s in store for academic workers post-strike.
These concerns have already been present among members, but they’ve become more intense after the strike, as described by graduate researcher and lead TA organizer in his department, Zach Goldberg.
“The university finds new and creative ways all the time to violate almost every article of the contract in one way or another,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg added that some graduate students went three to seven weeks without a paycheck because of an error made by the university through UCPath.
According to Goldberg, missing or incorrect paychecks is a common error with the UC payroll system. With the new contract, graduate students are now able to file grievances, which place legal pressure on the university to pay their employees on time and correctly.
Goldberg also described instances of verbal abuse within most departments both before and during the strike.
“Often, there are advisors and PIs that are just straight up abusive and are bullies and don’t treat their graduate student workers with respect or dignity,” Goldberg said. “We deal with that all the time.”
Goldberg detailed past incidents of harassment in the academic workspace, from a student being told they were “worthless” to a student being threatened that their hair would be cut off if they failed to come up with “brilliant ideas.”
Further, he expressed his concerns over this treatment continuing, evident by the responses of certain professors and administration when the strike began. According to Goldberg, PIs and instructors were telling their students that they risked the loss of their academic standing or graduation date if they chose to strike.
“We have countless examples of worker intimidation. All of these things are completely illegal under the state labor law. And yet, it happened over and over and over in every department at every campus throughout this strike,” he said.
Union member Ximena Garcia-Arceo described a similar rhetoric.
According to Garcia-Arceo, emails with false information were sent out by UC San Diego administrators, such as from the Executive Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Simmons, to students throughout the strike, such as the claim that international students’ visas would be jeopardized if they chose to participate in the strike.
Garcia-Arceo broke down how nonfactual rhetoric said from the top of administration can bleed down to the bottom.
“I’m sure that [the chairs of departments] are not fully convinced because they are hearing things to the contrary of what the contract or table talk says from folks who are very high up in administrative positions,” Garcia-Arceo said.
Garcia-Arceo also described how her coworkers have received or heard talk about program chairmen not being “fully convinced” of the new contract.
The spread of emails containing misleading or false information about the strike was a “classic union-busting” tactic, as Goldberg described it.
He referred to UCSD attempting to portray the union as a third party when the majority of the union are workers at the universities themselves.
The doubt that the higher administration is placing in the minds of TAs, students, and academic researchers is yet to hinder hope among UC academics, as Garcia-Arceo describes it.
With the next contract negotiation scheduled for 2025, UC academics are indulging in the winnings of now but are preparing for the future to come.
“The key in going forward [is to] mend bridges with folks who were unsatisfied. The most important thing is unity and strength within the union. Now, we’re going to have to get this contract enforced together”, Garcia-Arceo said.
Photo by Kathleen Shiroma for The UCSD Guardian.