UC strike could stretch on despite tentative deal

Striking UC academic workers picket on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles
Striking UC academic workers picket on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on Nov. 14.
(Pablo Unzueta / CalMatters)

A tentative deal reached Friday between the University of California and unions representing some 36,000 striking academic workers could be on thin ice as some members of the bargaining team are urging union members to vote against it.

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Striking academic workers across the University of California are facing a high-stakes game of “Deal or No Deal.”

Friday evening, the University of California and the negotiating team representing 36,000 striking academic workers approved a tentative agreement to end the five-week work stoppage — thought to be the largest-ever labor action by U.S. university employees — that disrupted classes, grading and research at the nation’s premier public university system.

Said Nick Geiser, one of the graduate student union negotiators who studies physics at UCLA: “I think this represents one of the most successful collective bargaining agreements in academic history and certainly in modern American labor history.”

But 15 of the 40 members of the bargaining team voted no on the tentative deal. They’re now leading a campaign to persuade the rank-and-file members, who are spread across two unions, to reject the proposed agreement in ratification votes set to begin Monday and continue through Friday evening. All of the 12 bargaining members representing three campuses — UC Santa Cruz, UC Merced and UC Santa Barbara — shot down the proposal.

Mark Woodall, one of the 15 dissenting union negotiators and a physics graduate student at UC Merced, said in a Saturday interview: “I do not believe that this is what our members came to us to do.”

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On Sunday, more than 470 rank-and-file union members gathered on Zoom, with others watching on Twitch, for a meeting organized by some of the dissenting union negotiators. Those who spoke during the more than two-hour call seemed largely in favor of voting down the tentative deal, arguing that it didn’t do enough to support parents and student workers with disabilities and that the proposed wage increases would be almost entirely eaten up by inflation. At the two-hour mark, more than 185 people remained on the Zoom call.

The strike will continue during the ratification votes this week. The tentative deal will go through if approved by a simple majority of each union’s membership. A no vote would mean the strike continues indefinitely, potentially jeopardizing the start to winter classes across the UC.

A key yes vote? Rafael Jaime. The president of the larger of the two unions, which represents 19,000 workers, said in a text message Saturday afternoon he’ll “absolutely” vote for the deal.

The strike has already taken a significant toll on the UC, as graduate workers provide much of the teaching and research labor at the vaunted 10-campus system. Many undergraduates had their grades withheld and finals canceled or altered. Some graduate workers, fed up with the slow pace of negotiations, risked getting handcuffed and arrested through acts of civil disobedience targeting UC leaders.

A letter from the deal’s opponents: “Our assessment is that our strike remains very strong, and has unfulfilled potential to extract a better offer from the UC.”

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Like anything academic, the devil’s in the details — and there are a lot of them. The tentative agreement for each union exceeds 100 pages and covers topics including increased wages and benefits, child care subsidies, transit passes and workplace protections.

For the dissenting members, the central points of contention include wages (the original ask was $54,000 base pay that dropped to $43,000 and again in this deal) and tying future wage increases to typical home rental prices (which got cut partway through negotiations).

The tentative agreement would push starting pay for graduate student researchers, represented by Student Researchers United, from roughly $22,000 for 12 months of work to about $34,500 by October 2024, increasing partially each year.

Starting wages for teaching assistants, represented by United Auto Workers 2865, would rise gradually from about $23,000 to $34,000 by October 2024. That pay is based on 9 months of work, given the length of the academic year. Members from both unions in higher pay tiers would also get raises.

Opponents of the deal note it doesn’t guarantee summer academic jobs for UAW 2865 members — though many graduate teachers receive summer appointments already — to push them past the previous demand of $43,000. Another critical analysis argues existing departmental pay bumps may disappear.

Woodall also faulted the plan for providing most of the raises in years two and three rather than upfront, given the huge impact high inflation has had on prices and rents.

Also core to the demands of Woodall and other dissenters was that the UC stop charging academic workers who weren’t originally California residents an additional non-resident tuition fee to earn their graduate degrees.

The current tentative agreement officially waives the fee for three years for non-residents who’ve completed their first three years of studies. That codifies existing de-facto policy; Woodall said it doesn’t go far enough. While about 18% of undergraduates are from out-of-state, about 40% of doctoral students at the UC aren’t residents. The UC covers base tuition for all graduate workers in most cases.

So how will the rank-and-file vote?

“I do expect a large majority of folks to vote yes,” said Geiser, who supports the deal.

But Woodall said there’s a “very live possibility” of a no vote among members. “People are really mad,” he said.

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