By COLIN STAUB
A nearly six-week strike that started with 48,000 student workers walking off the job across California ended in December with historic gains for workers.
The strike at all 10 University of California campuses included graduate student workers who serve as teaching assistants, tutors and researchers. The workers are in four bargaining units represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW). For a bargaining unit of student researchers, it was their first contract negotiation since unionizing at the end of 2021.
Nine months into bargaining in 2022, management wasn’t presenting a wage offer workers could accept. Graduate workers’ average salary was just $24,000.
The strike—reportedly the largest higher education strike in history—began Nov. 15 and ran for four weeks before units of academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars reached agreements that provided 29% raises, higher childcare subsidies, and longer academic appointments. Workers ratified those contracts in votes ending Dec. 9, and they were back to work by Dec. 12.
But the two far larger units of academic student employees and student researchers—totaling 36,000 workers—remained on strike for another two weeks before they reached agreements and ratified contracts Dec. 23. They won wage increases of 55% to 80% for academic student employees over the next two years, and raises of 25% to 80% for student researchers by 2024. According to UAW, those are the largest-ever increases for unionized higher education workers anywhere. Each contract runs through May 2025.
All told, the strike lasted 40 days, and it had major impacts on the university system in the final weeks of 2022, impacts that are still rippling as the new academic term begins. Classes, and then final exams, were canceled. Research labs shut down. Without graduate assistants to work on grading, some instructors have yet to give students grades for the fall term. Many campuses have entire “strike recovery” sections on their websites now.
While the UC strike is over, headlines from national publications in recent weeks suggest the momentum is just getting going. “UC strike energizes unprecedented national surge of union organizing by academic workers,” declared the Los Angeles Times Jan. 2. “Historic US research strike ends — but energizes a movement,” announced the British scientific journal Nature. “University of California strike could change higher education,” heralded TIME Magazine.
Education publication EdSource recently reported that 11,000 California State University teaching assistants are entering bargaining and workers have said they’re ready to follow the UC workers’ example and strike if necessary.