Nearly 48,000 University of California academic workers went on strike for better pay and benefits late last year — earning a new contract in December. The loudest opposition to the contract was at UC Santa Cruz, reflecting, UAW unit chair Jack Davies says, that members “were ready and prepared to continue the fight.”
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Nearly 48,000 University of California academic workers went on strike for better pay and benefits late last year. The six-week job action, which ended in December, exposed deep divisions among UC campuses — a division that was exacerbated by graduate student workers and researchers at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UCLA winning higher pay packages than those at the system’s other campuses.
The loudest opposition to the contract was at UC Santa Cruz. Its graduate student workers and researchers came out most strongly against the deal — just 19% of UCSC’s student researchers unit and 20% of its graduate student employees unit voted to accept the contract. That compares to 69% of graduate student workers and 72% of student researchers at UC Berkeley who voted to accept it. Systemwide, 62% of graduate student workers and 68% of student researchers voted yes.
The UC Santa Cruz union leader leading the charge for a better deal was Jack Davies. He is the UCSC unit chair for United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, which represents graduate student employees.
While there are aspects to celebrate, Davies says the contracts and their consequences are disappointing.
“I think the strike as a whole, as well as the contract, taken as a moment in time, shows a massive upsurge in union activity, labor activity, among this huge public education sector,” he said. “It’s clear that the contract didn’t meet our demands and what people need, namely, to pay the rent.”
He says considering the many ways the contract didn’t meet their expectations, UCSC’s union members are discussing how to move forward and continue fighting.
A fifth-year history of consciousness doctoral student, Davies has worked as both a teaching assistant and a graduate student instructor. Originally from Australia, the 32-year-old was elected unit chair nearly two years ago. Prior to that, he served as a head steward.
He was one of 70 teaching assistants to be fired during the wildcat strikes when they withheld grades during the 2019-20 academic year. They were reinstated that summer.
Davies talked to Lookout about the strike’s resolution, the union’s next steps, why he thinks UCSC members voted the way they did, and how he feels about reports that the University of California is considering cutting graduate student admissions in order to afford the new contracts.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Lookout: Why do you think 81% of UC Santa Cruz members voted against the deal?
Jack Davies: I’m not sure it is obvious. [ Maybe] the rent here is high and the contract fell well short of our demands. No one could deny that. I think that’s a part of it ... I would enumerate the wages, the arrangement being nowhere near adequate to the cost of living in Santa Cruz, the child care stipend being extremely paltry.
And I would also add the introduction of a prestige tier in the wage system. So the campuses that UC would like to be flagship campuses — San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Angeles — now have a higher base wage in the contract.
This is the introduction of tiers into the contract for the first time. I consider it a major victory for management, the kind of thing that other UAW locals have been fighting against for 50 years. And we welcomed it at the last second. Those would be some of the major reasons people probably didn’t like the contracts.
But I think the deeper reason why you have a different vote at Santa Cruz, compared to other campuses, is the people here felt confident and coherent in our strike, and the level of our organizing, that they were ready and prepared to continue the fight.
It’s obvious that workers accept bad contracts all the time. That’s trivially obvious. That means the reason you would vote no is if you think you’re in a position to win more. The best way to understand the spread of votes across the campuses is by considering which campuses had workers who felt like their strike was deep enough and strong enough to continue fighting, compared to the campuses where workers did not feel that.
Lookout: UC officials have said they are considering cutting graduate student admissions to be able to afford the new costs of the new contracts. What are your thoughts on that?
Davies: This body of workers won raises in excess of what UC wanted to give us. Now, they are determined to transmit the cost of those raises on to anyone who is not the administrative layer and the investment layer of the UC’s model. So that means that they will take money out of things like graduate admissions, which, of course, undermines the mission — its own mission of the university as a research institution. You need graduate students for that.
It also means a smaller pool of teaching-assistant labor — for which grads make up a huge proportion in the UC — and therefore a willingness towards larger class sizes. This is coupled with the UC’s ambitious goals to increase enrollment by 2030. We’re talking about a smaller workforce for growing a number of students and also cutting department budgets, transmitting the cost of the raises to already austerity-hit department budgets.
We’ve seen some pretty enormous investment moves by the UC openly touted in the media, things like the Blackstone Inc. [investment]. It’s hard to believe that these are raises that they absolutely can’t afford.
(Blackstone Inc.: UC employees and housing advocates say the university’s $4 billion investment in the controversial private equity giant Blackstone Inc. will worsen the housing crisis. The UC says it will provide benefits to the UC community for years.)
I think they would like to paint it as though this irresponsible body of workers got greedy and forced them to do something that was not in the interest of the UC or public higher ed more broadly. But I think they’re very alone, in broad strokes. The faculty see the strike as legitimate. They see the raises as fair and legitimate. I’m generalizing, of course, but I don’t think people are seeing this the same way as administration.
I think a deeper truth of what is going on is that the administration is trying to offset the cost of paying its workers not even a living wage onto undergrads in the form of an inferior education and onto its faculty and research departments in the form of fewer resources, and fewer graduate students.
Lookout: Considering the strong vote against the contract at UCSC, how do you see next steps for the academic student workers there?
Davies: It is worth pointing out that more people voted no on this contract across the system than in total in the last ratification vote. When we see a vote that’s roughly 60%-40% at UCLA, that 40% is a lot of people. The way I would look at this is, there’s actually more people than ever who are engaged and who want to build on where it started and who want to take this in the kinds of directions that we [at UCSC] have, as well as on their own [campuses], of course.
I take the vote in that way, that we’re talking about a very large number of people who also thought that strike could have gone longer and they could have won more of what they needed in several areas. That’s how I would see that.
I think in the meantime, there is a massive struggle — it must be said, initiated by the UC admin — about … precisely this question we were just discussing, about who pays for these raises. Whether it’s faculty and students or whether it’s the UC.
This struggle over this question is something that I think at our campus we’re in a strong position to develop and to transmit elsewhere, potentially. We’re the only campus with the faculty union that is actually a union. We have great relationships with both the faculty union and the lecturers union here. We were a very cohesive campus through the strike. I think we’re in a really strong position to meet this challenge. I think the issues will be dealt with elsewhere as well. Perhaps people will see what’s going on here and seek to develop it elsewhere as well.
Lookout: What do you mean by that?
Davies: There are a few different ways one might respond to this question of the UC potentially slashing research and especially resources for research and for education. Some people might want to do things like write letters to the local congressman or they might want to march on Sacramento, which I would consider to be very ineffective and indirect ways to deal with the problem.
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I think that at Santa Cruz, we’re able to develop a different approach that will directly target our own administration who has been making these decisions. I think we’re in a position to do that and I think it may be the case [for] people on other campuses similarly.
Lookout: Is something planned or happening soon?
Davies: Not like a march or something like this, but we’re in conversations about it.
Lookout: What do you think about the strike as a whole, looking back now?
Davies: I think the strike as a whole, as well as the contract, taken as a moment in time, shows a massive upsurge in union activity, labor activity among this huge public education sector.
It’s clear that the contract didn’t meet our demands, and what people need, namely, to pay the rent. There are some significant wins and it’s not common to get raises to the extent that we did.
I’m not trying to declare some sort of final victory here because I think a lot of people feel disappointed and I understand that as well. But it is worthwhile to see how far we did take this. To see how much we did improve things and to attribute that to a willingness of many thousands of workers across the state to stick out this fight for a long haul.
I don’t think this is how the university was imagining this would play out. It may not even have been the expectations of UAW, but I think in these ways it was a resounding display of rank-and-file worker power. And I think that’s a really good and healthy thing in higher ed and public higher ed. So acknowledging that this wasn’t some sort of final, once-and-for-all victory where we got everything we wanted.
There’s definitely some additional disappointment in knowing that on our campus, we were prepared to go a lot further than we were able to. Putting in a longer arc back to the last contract and tracing our trajectory, I think there’s a lot that people should be proud of. We’re also seeing waves of campaigns in higher ed across the country right now and I think what workers in the UC did was make a very important contribution to that trend. I think it’s an urgent trend as well given the directions that higher ed is moving including in the UC.