By Huey Collette
CALIFORNIA – On Wednesday November 2, a total of 36,558 votes were cast, authorizing the largest strike ever by academic workers in the United States. Graduate student instructors (GSIs), postdoctoral researchers, and academic student employees are prepared to take part in a statewide effort to put pressure on the resistant UC system. The strike also includes undergraduates employed by the institution. The combined membership of the three unions totals 48,000 student workers.
The previous contract between academic workers and the UC system has ended as of October 31, with the strike planned as soon as November 14.
Typically, when contracts end, there are negotiations between both parties that govern the new working conditions, wages, and benefits. However, the UC system has unilaterally been steadfast on its decisions during these negotiations. “We are taking this step because the university’s unlawful bargaining practices are preventing us from reaching agreements on fair pay, affordable housing, and workplace equity for international scholars and working parents,” said Connor Jackson to The Daily Cal, a campus doctoral student and head of UC Academic Workers Union (UAW) 2865.
The chief concern of the union is fair compensation. UCB pays GSIs around $22,000 a year, and as of now, the offer on the table is a 7% pay increase with a subsequent 3% annual increase. Certain departments, especially those in STEAM, will receive what is called a “top up” or bump in pay, creating an unequal disparity in pay between disciplines. This failure to keep up with current inflation is effectively a pay cut, leading to many graduates having to work multiple jobs to contend with Berkeley’s 56.8% higher cost of living than the national average. The current demand is $54,000 a year, which would match peer UC institutions.
In general, “a considerable gap remains between UC’s average net stipend and growing living costs in California,” states UWA 2865.
Specific issues incorporating equitable measures for a diverse workforce are included in the list of demands by the union. For example, international students deal with a non-residential fee that is tied to their status as American citizens. Most people become residents of California within one year of state residency, but international students who lack federal citizenship cannot be naturalized Thus, they are required to pay non resident tuition during their attendance as a graduate. Many departments are unwilling to cover this fee, forcing the international students to pay out of pocket.
Other examples of issues at stake during the negotiations are conditions regarding transit and climate justice, childcare, job security, disability justice, and protections against abusive conduct. The full list of initial bargaining demands can be found here.
GSIs hold a crucial space in the classroom. Being a part-time position with the integral role of supporting the professor, “most of the work goes well beyond what’s said on paper,” stated Cristina Violante, a UCB law studies GSI. “A GSI’s responsibility will often range from holding discussion sessions, office hours, grading, fielding student issues, and making sure that students understand what’s going on in class, giving them the kind of feedback that they should be getting on their work,” she added.
If the UC system continues to be unwavering in their bargaining stance, a strike on this scale could significantly disrupt class schedules statewide during the imperative end of the semester. A petition and an email template can also be found here.
Huey is currently a junior majoring in English and pursuing a minor in philosophy at UC Berkeley. He transferred from San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, CA but bounced around different parts of the bay area throughout his childhood. When not feverishly reading or writing, he enjoys producing music, fencing, and horror films. He is a writer for Vanguard at Berkeley’s social justice desk.