UC says strikers’ demand to tie pay to housing costs could have ‘overwhelming’ cost impacts

Striking graduate students picketing at the entrance to the UC Santa Cruz campus
Signs near the picket line at the entrance to the UC Santa Cruz campus Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Tying workers’ pay to their housing costs could have “overwhelming financial impacts” for the University of California, a system provost warned amid a strike that stretched into its third day across the UC’s 10 campuses.

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Pay and housing demands by University of California academic workers — who launched a massive strike across the system this week, including at UC Santa Cruz — could amount to several hundred million dollars annually, an “overwhelming” financial impact, a UC senior leader says.

In a letter released Wednesday, UC Provost Michael T. Brown told the system’s 10 chancellors and other top leaders that California housing costs are a “significant challenge” and pledged to “work diligently” to support students. But he drew attention to the impact of two union demands in particular — tying compensation to housing costs and waiving out-of-state tuition for international scholars.

Brown said the state’s subsidy for UC students only funds Californians, so the university must rely on other means — including supplemental tuition — to cover costs for international and out-of-state students.

Citing what they call unfair labor practices by the University of California system throughout the bargaining process...

“If we were to provide remission of out-of state supplemental tuition, non-California student employees would in effect receive a larger compensation package than California resident student employees for doing the same work,” Brown said.

Rafael Jaime, a UCLA doctoral candidate and president of United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other academic workers on strike, said union leaders have not yet seen Brown’s letter but that the provost’s cost estimates seemed “inflated.” He said the unions would be happy to bargain over the issue.

“If the university has a better proposal that seriously addresses the housing crisis, we’re ready and willing to hear it,” Jaime said.

Nearly 48,000 UC academic workers — including postdoctoral scholars, graduate teaching assistants and researchers, with around 2,000 at UCSC — walked off the job this week in a strike billed as the largest at any academic institution in history. The action by the workers, who perform much of the teaching and research at the state’s premier higher education system, triggered canceled classes, shuttered labs and other academic disruptions just weeks before final exams. The strike also included workers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The strike comes after more than 50 bargaining sessions starting a year ago, but graduate students at UC Santa Cruz first drew national attention to their financial hardships with a wildcat strike in 2019 and 2020. Then-UC President Janet Napolitano ordered them to stop withholding grades, as some had done, or face termination. Dozens were fired but most were eventually reinstated. This week, four UAW bargaining units banded together in a unified labor action.

The work stoppage aims to challenge long-held labor practices at the UC and other universities across the country, which have come under growing scrutiny for how graduate workers and academic employees are paid in an era of rising inflation and growing union activism.

The workers are demanding significant pay increases, childcare subsidies, enhanced health care for dependents, longer family leave, public transit passes and lower tuition costs for international scholars.

Union leaders say that housing costs on and near many UC campuses have continued to rise, making the majority of their members “rent-burdened,” or spending more than 30% of their income on rent. Two of the four unions — those representing student researchers and academic student employees who serve as teaching assistants and tutors — are asking that their pay be tied to increases in the local cost of living, including housing so that no one pays more than 30% of their salary toward housing costs.

Nicholas Scarsdale, a graduate student in UCSC’s astronomy department, said that some workers make in the $20,000s, a number he said is clearly inadequate.

“I’m not sure that you could find any decent place to live in Santa Cruz with that budget,” Scarsdale told Lookout on campus Monday, adding that the bargaining teams are pushing for a $54,000 minimum wage.

“They say they can’t afford that,” he added, “but if they can do things like give huge raises to the chancellor, then I think they can do this.”

As for the tuition remission for international students, Jaime said the university in one way or another already covers the higher fees for about 60% of international graduate student workers — so they just want to see a consistent policy.

“It’s very arbitrary and unpredictable” right now, Jaime said. “No one should have to pay to work at the University of California.”

Several academic workers spoke out at the UC Board of Regents meeting Wednesday in San Francisco, asking for support. Board chair Richard Leib said he empathized with the workers but that some of their demands could be difficult to accommodate.

“I’m sympathetic to the graduate students. I get the suffering they’re having,” Leib said Wednesday during a break in the meeting. But he said the cost of tying pay to housing “could be great and hard to manage.”

Brown noted that the academic student workers were part time and under UC’s proposals would be “among the highest compensated” among leading public universities and similar to what top private institutions offer.

UC has offered salary scale increases of 7% in the first year and 3% in each subsequent year for teaching assistants and tutors, and larger increases for postdoctoral scholars of 8% the first year, 5% the second year and 3% in subsequent years. UC said pay increases would amount to up to 17%, depending on the union.

UC also is proposing childcare subsidies and increased paid pregnancy and family leaves, with different proposals for different bargaining units.

The two sides have made some progress. They came to an agreement, for instance, on stronger protections against workplace bullying and abuse. But UC has asked for a neutral mediator to step in.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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