UC Santa Cruz students, faculty prepare for systemwide strike

Members of the United Auto Worker union at UC Santa Cruz
Members of the United Auto Worker union at UC Santa Cruz offer members strike force pay, on campus, on Nov. 10, 2022. They offer union members money in case the university withholds their pay during the strike, which is planned to start on Monday, Nov. 14.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Research labs will be empty and classes will be canceled if the UC and the union representing 48,000 graduate student workers don’t reach an agreement by Monday. UCSC students and faculty told Lookout about the strike preparations.

More than 2,000 UC Santa Cruz graduate student workers are preparing to go on strike on Monday as part of a UC system-wide job action that union organizers say could shut down research labs, cancel classes and suspend student grading.

“There’s a lot of collective power throughout the UC’s. Not just UCSC, but throughout California,” said Francisco Mendez Diaz, a UCSC 7th-year molecular cell and developmental biology PhD candidate. “We’re going to have this great force out there. I hope that shows the UC that we’re powerful in numbers and we’re ready to put pressure on them.”

Citing unfair labor practices by the UC throughout the bargaining process that have slowed their proposals for better pay and job security, United Auto Workers (UAW) announced on Nov. 2 that 98% of 36,558 votes approved authorizing the strike. The UC denies any bad faith bargaining, adding that it has reached tentative agreements on workplace safety and health.

If an agreement is not reached before Monday, workers at UCSC and across the UC system say they will be stationed at different prominent entrances to the campuses, holding signs and hosting rallies. They say they plan to stop conducting research in labs, grading papers and teaching sections.

“The power of strikes is disruption,” said Steve McKay, UCSC Associate Professor of Sociology and Center for Labor Studies Director. “That means people have to adjust. The power of withdrawing labor is to show how essential the work of one particular group is.”

The last strike on UCSC’s campus was the grad student’s 2019 wildcat strike – a strike that wasn’t authorized – when hundreds went on strike to demand better pay.

In a message to the campus community about the strike, UCSC Campus Provost Lori Kletzer said the university doesn’t know exactly how the strike will impact campus operations. For example, strike activities could block access to entrances. Still, UCSC’s Campus Shuttles will be running.

“We support the right of these employees to strike, and the campus is also taking steps to sustain the continuity of its research and instructional operations in the event a strike cannot be avoided,” she wrote.

She also expressed support for the efforts of the UC Office of the President – who works with the system-wide union representatives to come to an agreement on the contract.

“These are systemwide contracts, and the UC Office of the President has worked hard to try to reach agreements with the union’s leadership for all four bargaining units,” she said in the campus message. “UC’s latest proposals, which reflect genuine responsiveness to union concerns related to compensation and benefits, show the university to be bargaining in good faith and working to address the most important issues raised during negotiations.”

Why the strike is happening now

The UC has been in negotiation for months with four different UAW bargaining units including postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, academic student employees (teaching assistants/readers/tutors), and graduate student researchers.

Students like Mendez Diaz often switch back and forth between the roles of researcher and TA – which have different duties and varying incomes. Included in their proposals of across-the-board better pay to address rent burden, union members say pay should be more equitable among the different units.

Throughout months of bargaining for better pay, increased childcare stipends, better job stability through guaranteed multi-year appointments and eliminating extra tuition fees for international workers, UAW says the UC has committed several unlawful actions.

“We’re striking because the UC has committed unfair labor practices – engaging in direct dealings and refusing to fill out our requests for information,” UCSC’s UAW unit chair Jack Davies told Lookout.

The union filed more than 25 charges against the UC with the Public Employment Relations Board, according to an online tracker of their complaints. In addition to charges Davies mentioned, the union also accuses the UC of making changes to their working conditions without negotiating with the union and obstructing the bargaining process.

The union’s proposals

UAW members say that over 70% of UC academic workers are rent burdened – meaning that over 30% of their income goes toward paying rent. They estimate that a starting pay of $54,000 for all graduate workers would alleviate that and they’ve made that demand a top priority.

McKay, the UCSC sociology professor, said that the cost of a 2-bedroom increased 67% between 2019 and today in Santa Cruz – from $1,900 up to $3,200. Part of his research with a team of students focuses on housing costs in Santa Cruz County.

“We found that a single graduate student splitting a two bedroom apartment with a car but no kids would require about $54,000 to basically live in Santa Cruz,” he said, adding their research was done independently of the union.

The UC acknowledged the union’s request for pay that would address this rent burden.

“Affordable housing remains an issue for individuals and families throughout California, including for many UC students, faculty, and staff, and increasing access to affordable student housing is a top UC priority,” officials wrote in a statement in response. “On average, UC rents systemwide are 20-25% below market rates, with some campuses providing even deeper discounts. UC has offered wage increases for all UAW members which would further help them meet their housing needs.”

Mendez Diaz, the PhD candidate, said he receives a higher pay than many because of his department and his standing. Still, he currently earns about $36,000 and lives with his wife and 4-year-old daughter in UCSC Family Student Housing. Rent there costs $1,800 and they receive a subsidy to send their daughter to the Early Education Services located at the housing complex.

“One of the biggest struggles for me is low wages here,” he said. “Even as a graduate student researcher, the amount of money we get paid is just simply not enough to live comfortably here in Santa Cruz.”

Without child care from the university while his daughter was an infant, he and his wife had to drop their daughter off in the Bay Area with his family because they couldn’t afford the $1,700 to $2,000 a month in childcare costs.

“We missed a lot of time with her – a lot of bonding time with her because of the financial struggles and struggling to find daycare,” he said.

The union is asking the UC for a $2,000 monthly childcare subsidy, while the UC is offering $4,050 for ASRs and GSEs annually and a new program for postdocs for up to $2,500 annually.

Because the four units have different duties and responsibilities, the UC says its proposals vary among the different groups.

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“UC believes its offers are generous, responsive to union priorities, and recognize the many valuable contributions of these employees,” officials wrote in a statement. “UC’s proposals include pay increases, expanded paid leaves, increased family support and child care benefits for postdoctoral scholars, [academic student employees and graduate student researchers], and full coverage of all campus fees for eligible ASEs and GSRs.”

For postdocs, the UC proposed a new salary scale which it says creates a minimum 7.5% increase above the current scale. Meanwhile, the UC proposed a salary scale increase of 7% for all salaried academic student employees in year one of the contract followed by a 3% increase for each subsequent year.

For graduate student researchers, the UC proposes eliminating the bottom two salary points on the salary scale, and increasing the current minimum salary scale by 6%.

“The majority of the bargaining unit would see 9-10% increases in year one of the contract, with a 3% increase in each subsequent year,” according to the UC.

Finally, for academic researchers, the UC proposes a 4% increase in year one of the contract in addition to annual 3% increases each subsequent year.

“Ultimately, differences must be resolved at the bargaining table, with both sides being flexible and willing to compromise,” officials wrote in a statement. “UC believes its proposals have been fair, reasonable, and responsive to the union’s priorities, and looks forward to continuing negotiations with the UAW and settling these contracts as quickly as possible.”

Third-year politics major Amanda Safi said she’s in support of the strike.

“I think there is strong intention behind this strike and it is absolutely necessary,” she told Lookout. “Historically, strikes have been instrumental in bringing about structural change when there have been poor working conditions and this time is no different.”

Safi, like other students who will be impacted if the strike happens, will likely have her grades withheld for the quarter. But she said it’s not too much of an inconvenience.

“For the specific classes I’m taking, I can also personally estimate what my grade will be based on the effort and time I put into my assignments,” she said. “I think that grades being withheld is unfortunate but also a really strong incentive for the UC to take action.”

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