The ongoing University of California strike of 36,000 academic student employees (such as teaching assistants) and graduate student researchers continued on Thursday, with the strike now directly affecting students’ finals and their grades for the semester.
The strike began nearly a month ago on November 14th. Months of negotiations between the University system and the United Auto Workers (UAW), who represents the four different academic bargaining units, including postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, academic student employees (such as teaching assistants) and graduate student researchers, fell flat going into that weekend. Issues such as better pay to find affordable housing nearby campus, better benefits such as childcare subsidies, expanded healthcare for dependents, and receiving public transportation passes for work, as well as lowered tuition costs for international students and better accessibility for the disabled all went unresolved.
The ensuing strike significantly hurt UC campuses from San Diego to Berkeley. Class attendance fell, grading slowed, and prep for finals was thrown into a disarray with so much support staff out on strike. The strike has also polarized campuses, with many divided over the reasons for the strike. Initially, the majority of professors and students sided with the strikers, but as the weeks have worn down both students and faculty, more and more have been stepping away from supporting the strikers.
During this time, negotiations were started back up with the UAW and the different bargaining groups. Talks with the group of employees tied in the closest to the 10 UC campuses, the postdoctoral employees and academic researchers group representing 12,000 workers, advanced the quickest, with a tentative agreement being reached in late November for pay hikes of up to 29%, increased family leave, more childcare subsidies, and lengthened appointments to ensure job security.
However, the bargaining units representing the other 36,000 workers still have not reached an agreement with the University of California. The largest sticking point, a $43,000 minimum salary for graduate student workers, has fiercely divided the two sides, as that amount would nearly double the salary of many current grad student workers and TAs. With both sides at an impasse, the union is using finals season and the high level of grading needed to get grades out as attempted leverage in negotiations.
“We’re in a critical moment right now. UC can either make a serious offer to reach fair agreements, or they can scramble to mitigate the effects of a strike going on through the grading period,” said Rafael Jaime, president of UAW local 2865. “We want our students to be able to finish the term with our support, but we won’t go back to work until we can do so with dignified pay and working conditions.”
However, that resolve has had many affects in recent days. On Tuesday, several workers were arrested at a sit-in at a UC office building in Sacramento. More dire for the union, however, has been a growing shift of students opposing the strike, as the delay on grades has put their academic futures in question now.
Strike continues on UC Campuses
“I would say that the majority of students and faculty were on their side in the first few weeks,” Annabelle, a UC Irvine student, told the Globe on Thursday. “When we passed by them striking, we would shout words of support, honk horns, ring bikes, and even bring out food and water bottles out to them. We thought it would be over in a few weeks.”
“But, as finals became closer and closer, and they were still out there, we began asking ‘Hey, what about us?’ You know, they’re supposed to be the teachers. Why don’t you care about your students? Why are you ruining the futures of all these students? Do you even care about us?”
“When that one group agreed and the others didn’t, that’s what really did it for a lot of us. Before that, you know, they were negotiating. Now, it seems like they don’t care who falls as long as they get their way. The crazy thing is, last semester I took a class and it showed all the good unions have done throughout the years, especially during the industrial revolution. But, after this, it has made me question them. A lot of us always wondered why unions were dying when they seemed to be doing so much good. Well, this has been an education within itself.”
Despite many campuses and professors scrambling to make changes for finals, such as switching finals papers over to group projects and other less grade-intensive assignments or extending submission deadlines, the University of California noted this week that the vast majority of classes have continued without incident. They also noted that while finals have been disrupted, faculty have made the necessary changes so as to not endanger students.
“They have significant flexibility regarding finals, as long as changes are applied consistently, and they are communicated clearly to students,” said UC spokesman Ryan King in a statement. “The faculty are well aware that students can be negatively affected if they do not receive final grades, including disrupting undergraduate students’ progress toward major requirements or federal financial aid status.”
Academic experts also noted that if UC makes it past finals with all grades in, the UAW will have significantly less leverage going into the Spring semester.
“UC needs to get past finals,” explained John Waithe, a Chicago-based higher education researcher, to the Globe on Thursday. “They get past that hump, and they get to enter the next round of negotiations knowing that all of these strikers will have no real leverage for months, and many can’t hold out that long.”
“If they are struggling to pay rent, then there may be a real grievance there. But they are earning no goodwill by threatening the futures of students that they claim to care about. And if this is still happening in January, the union may have to take what they can get. We have seen this tactic tried so many times at other schools and fail. High schools on strike always go for SAT and ACT season. But the students and schools always seem to find a way around, and the community end up really not liking those teachers.”
“They have a strong teachers union culture in California and sheer numbers. That’s it. In all likelihood this will be settled in the next few months for way less than they asked, but then the union coming out and saying that it’s a victory. In the end, the story is always the same. They say the school is at fault and say it is about the school, but wind up hurting students instead.”
The UC strike is expected to continue for at least the next few weeks, with no deals currently on the table.
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