‘Shut it down!’: Picketers disrupt UC regents meeting as strike drags into fifth week

Musician and labor activist Tom Morello performs for striking academic workers and faculty gathered at UCLA
Musician and labor activist Tom Morello performs for striking University of California academic workers and faculty gathered at UCLA, where the UC board of regents met Wednesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

More than a month on strike from their jobs as teaching assistants and researchers, hundreds of academic employees rallied outside Wednesday’s meeting of the University of California regents at UCLA.

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Hundreds of striking University of California academic workers — whose massive five-week walkout has disrupted finals week and stirred angst among students and faculty about term grades — converged on the UCLA campus Wednesday shouting for better pay and benefits and a swift end to the contract dispute.

Tom Morello, former guitarist with Rage Against the Machine, stood on the flatbed of a truck and led the workers in songs that included lines like, “Sí se puede!” and “Hold the line!”

The striking workers rallied outside the Luskin Center at UCLA where UC regents were scheduled to meet Wednesday morning. The meeting was delayed as picketers shouted, “Shut it down.” It wasn’t immediately clear why the meeting did not start on time.

The strike is also affecting UC Santa Cruz, causing some student grades to be withheld. UCSC’s TAs and student researchers finished their last day of picketing last Friday ahead of the holidays, but had a holiday picketing event with a list of speakers planned for Wednesday at the base of campus.

Morgaine Mandigo-Stoba, a third-year doctoral student in the physics department at UCLA, stood among the crowd. She said she was energized by the demonstration and by what she feels are insufficient contract proposals from the UC.

“We are not ready to go home,” she said. “Their proposals — their refusal to give us a serious offer — has definitely lit a fire under people.”

About 36,000 employees are still on strike, including student researchers and teaching assistants, the latter of whom grade papers, run discussion classes and proctor exams, playing key roles in the education of undergraduates. Last week, the two units of the United Auto Workers who represent those workers agreed to voluntary mediation as negotiations stalled over compensation.

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Gloria Bartolo, a second-year doctoral student studying molecular biology at UCLA, said the physical toll and time away from research is weighing on her. But she is holding steadfast to the strike’s goals.

“This isn’t the end game, to strike forever. We want this to end,” she said. “But we want this to end on a fair contract.”

The union has demanded significant pay increases so employees can afford housing in the high-cost areas where most UC campuses are located, calling the system’s current wages and benefits “unlivable” and detrimental to their mental health and capacity for teaching and conducting research.

While the UC has made offers that include salary increases, the raises have been far short of the demands from union leaders. However, the two sides have agreed tentatively to new anti-bullying protections, expanded paid parental leave and some new commuting support.

UC officials have repeatedly said it is making proposals that are “fair, reasonable and responsive to the union’s priorities.”

Bartolo makes $37,500 a year as a graduate student researcher, which she said is on the higher end of pay for her position.

To get by financially, Bartolo said she receives food stamps. She and other residents who live in her university-owned apartment building also used to run an informal food bank in the complex, where they traveled to food pantries on a weekly basis to gather produce and canned goods for one another.

“I grew up in poverty. I grew up qualifying for food stamps,” said Bartolo, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “It’s upsetting — I feel like I should have moved up.”

Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento and former leader of the state Senate, has stepped in to mediate the labor dispute. Steinberg helped broker an agreement earlier this year between Kaiser Permanente and roughly 2,000 mental health clinicians who had been on strike, and also was credited for a settlement with labor union leaders needed to advance the multi-million dollar Aggie Square project on UC Davis’ campus.

Last Friday, the same day both sides agreed to mediation, union leaders representing postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers — about 12,000 employees who had also been on strike — approved a new contract with the university. The new agreement included raises that moved the minimum annual pay for these full-time employees from about $55,000 to $70,000 or higher — including a $12,000 raise by next October.

The contract also required these employees to return to return to work Monday.

But about 75% of the the academic employees who first took to the picket line in mid-November are still on strike, with many ready to continue into winter quarter.

“On the 31st day of this strike, we are demonstrating to the Regents that we will not stop fighting until they ensure UC comes to the table with offers that fairly reflect our contributions,” said Kaija Gahm, a student researcher in the department of ecology at UCLA, in a statement. “We are demanding a UC that works for all of us — not just wealthy administrators.”

The UC’s 10 campuses are now on winter break, but the strike had big implications during finals week, with many exams canceled or modified, undergraduate grades withheld and ongoing research in labs stymied.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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