Citing what they call unfair labor practices by the University of California system throughout the bargaining process that have slowed their proposals for better pay and job security, some 48,000 unionized academic employees throughout the UC system — including around 2,000 at UC Santa Cruz — hit the picket lines Monday morning.
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.
UC Santa Cruz graduate student workers hit the picket lines Monday, slowing traffic around the main entrance to the UCSC campus as part of what union leaders are calling the largest job action by any academic institution in history.
More than 2,000 UC Santa Cruz students are among 48,000 unionized academic workers on strike across the University of California’s 10 campuses calling for better pay and benefits; they’re represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.
The striking workers include four UAW bargaining units representing postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, graduate students and academic student employees — teaching assistants, readers and tutors. Combined, they perform the majority of teaching and research at the state’s higher education system. The job action comes at an important time in the academic quarter, with only a few weeks of classes left.
At UCSC, more than 70 workers held signs and marched around the west entrance to campus Monday morning. Striking workers also gathered at the Empire Grade entrance.
A speaker blasted music loudly as people danced, others played fetch with dogs and many held signs reading “UAW on strike unfair labor practice.” The picketers let cars, many honking in support, pass and go into campus.
UAW unit chair Jack Davies said he was feeling great and happy about the turnout. “People are excited, people are happy,” he said, in his red “UAW on strike” shirt. “I’m feeling like we’ve got a lot of strength.”
Despite the job action, many of the campus services were running as scheduled, UCSC said in a statement on its website. Campus shuttles were operating on a “modified loop” from the West Remote Parking Lot to the Cook House lot. Santa Cruz Metro buses were running to only the base of campus. Bike shuttles and a Westside Connector shuttle were not running.
Services including dining halls, libraries, and health and early education services were operating normally.
UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said the school is providing support and resources to department chairs and instructors to allow students to continue their studies during the strike. That included using replacement instructors or assignments in lieu of in-person instruction, he said.
“Students will be participating in instructional activities as determined by their instructor of record,” he said in a statement to Lookout. “Department chairs and faculty will work together to ensure the least amount of disruption to the delivery of instruction and grading, as well as research.”
Hernandez-Jason did not respond to questions about the number of classes that had been canceled. But he said the university was starting to hear from students that some classes were not meeting as expected and that some instructors were providing assignments in lieu of live meetings.
Several striking workers said they expected the classes they teach to be canceled.
Veronica Hamilton, a sixth-year psychology student, usually teaches a class at 8 a.m. on Mondays. Davies, who is part of the academic student employees bargaining unit, teaches 60 students in a “History of Capitalism” lecture Tuesday and Thursday, while a teaching assistant runs sections Wednesday and Friday.
Davies said that if the strike continues, the lecture and those sections won’t happen. As of Monday morning, Davies said he wasn’t aware of upcoming scheduled bargaining sessions just yet, but he was expecting some will be scheduled soon.
At around noon, union members said that four out of UCSC’s six research facilities had been shut down. Managers of the facilities, who support the strike, decided to close down the Chemical Screening Center, the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility, the Life Microscopy Center and the Biomolecular Cryo-Electron Microscopy Facility.
A handful of students were walking around the main campus at the end of the 9:05-10:20 a.m. class period. All said their classes had been canceled.
Faculty member Steve McKay, who’s also co-chair of the UCSC Faculty Association, said faculty have been supportive of the strike, but he wasn’t sure how many classes had been canceled.
The school’s faculty union encouraged solidarity with the striking grad students and some departments were asking faculty members to cancel classes in support of the strike.
“It’s been quiet up on campus, I live on campus. There’s no buses coming up,” said McKay, who visited the picket line Monday morning with about 100 other faculty members. “All you can hear is some chants in the distance and some honking. It seems pretty shut down on campus.”
UCLA workers joined the picket line at 8 a.m. Monday at multiple locations across campus, the Los Angeles Times reported, as did groups at UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz and UC Merced.
UC Irvine strikers planned to begin demonstrating on campus at 8:30 a.m., while some other universities were set for 9 a.m., including UC Davis and UC San Francisco.
The issues being negotiated
The UC has been in negotiation for months for better pay, increased child care stipends, more job stability through guaranteed multiyear appointments and eliminating extra tuition fees for international workers.
The two sides said they made some progress in negotiations over the weekend, including agreeing to stronger protections against workplace bullying and abuse.
But they remain far apart on key issues. As the four units have different duties and responsibilities, the UC says its proposals vary among the different groups.
Workers often switch between titles, which have different responsibilities. Postdocs and academic researchers are full-time employees whose pay comes primarily from external grant funds. Academic student employees (ASEs) are teaching assistants, readers and tutors who work about 20 hours a week in addition to earning their graduate or doctoral degree. Graduate student researchers (GSRs) are similar to ASEs in workload and are paid primarily from external grant funds.
For postdocs, the UC proposed a new salary scale that boosts the minimum salary by 7.5%. The administration proposed a scale increase of 7% for all salaried ASEs in the first year of a new contract, followed by annual 3% increases.
For GSRs, 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.
For academic researchers, the UC proposes a 4% increase in year one of the contract in addition to annual 3% increases each subsequent year.
The union is also asking the UC for a $2,000 monthly child care subsidy, while the UC is offering $4,050 for ASRs and graduate student employees annually and a new program for postdocs for up to $2,500 annually.
UCSC said in a statement Monday that UC system leaders were working hard to reach agreements with all four bargaining units across the statewide system.
“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,” the statement said.
Union members say it’s not enough.
Nicholas Scarsdale, a graduate student in the astronomy department, joined about 16 others who marched back and forth across the street with unfair labor practice signs at the campus’ Empire Grade entrance around 8:30 a.m.
“There’s always going to be more people at the front, so we’re here to keep numbers up,” he said.
Scarsdale, who said that he makes about $48,000, believes that he is fortunate.
“Our department always has summer funding, and many in other departments can’t say the same thing,” he said. “I’m mostly here in solidarity with those people.”
He 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,” said Scarsdale, 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.”
First-year linguistics graduate student Yaḡmur Kiper echoed those thoughts, saying the $2,500 monthly fellowship stipend she receives barely covers her basic expenses.
Originally from Ankara, Turkey, Kiper pays about 65% of her income on rent alone. She said the high cost of living in the area — plus the internationally circulated news about a 2019 wildcat strike by teaching assistants centered at UCSC — almost led her to not attend the campus.
“I saw one news story on the Guardian about UCSC — how people were striking — and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t apply there, because I’m going to starve,’” Kiper said. “But UCSC’s linguistics department is so good, maybe the best in some fields, so I decided to apply there and then hope there will be some kind of a raise.”
Paul Mattern, a UCSC ocean sciences researcher who was at the picket line Monday, said his unit was striking in solidarity with the graduate students. Though researchers generally make more money than graduate students, he said, they all face the same affordability issues living in Santa Cruz.
“I don’t have much sympathy for the university because they’re not building,” Mattern said. “They’re, I think, partially responsible for rents going up because they haven’t been building enough student housing.”
Pete Brook, a second-year student in the Environmental Art and Social Practice master’s program, said this was his first strike and he’s excited for it.
“I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “But I’m here for everything.”
Max Chun, Thomas Sawano and The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.