By DON McINTOSH
The biggest U.S. strike of 2022—also the biggest higher ed strike in U.S. history—has been under way since Nov. 15, when 48,000 grad student employees walked off the job at all 10 campuses of the University of California system.
Grad student workers serve as teaching assistants and tutors and lead discussion sections of classes. They also read term papers and proctor and grade exams. Their labor is indispensable to the university, but their average annual salary is $24,000, far below the cost of living in California’s pricey housing market. Through their union, United Auto Workers, they’re seeking a minimum annual base salary of $43,000.
The UC system hasn’t come anywhere near that, and that’s why workers are striking. The strike comes amid inflation and a severe housing shortage.
The strike has led to cancelled classes and exams for more than 230,000 undergraduate students, but students have been largely supportive of strikers, and joining pickets in large numbers.
Strikers aren’t just withholding their labor. They’ve also occupied school buildings, picketed outside chancellors’ homes, and occupyied offices of wealthy university regents. On Dec. 5, 17 striking workers were arrested on trespassing charges during a protest outside the University of California’s administrative office in Sacramento, and another 10 in Los Angeles.
Most of the faculty members they work for are continuing to teach and do research, but about 300 faculty have stopped teaching and grading in solidarity.
The California Labor Federation granted statewide strike sanction, meaning that union workers can refuse to cross picket lines without facing discipline for it, if their collective bargaining agreement allows that. Teamsters Locals up and down the state also sanctioned the strike, with the result that UPS drivers and others aren’t delivering to UC campuses.
Strikers are actually part of four separate bargaining units, and on Nov. 28, two of them reached tentative agreements with the University of California that will raise pay up to 29%, increase child care subsidies, and mandate longer academic appointments. Members of the units of academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars ratified the agreements in voting that concluded Dec. 9, and returned to work Dec. 12. Approximately 36,000 student researchers and academic student employees remain on strike.