In its fourth week, the massive academic workers strike has led to canceled finals, delayed grades and growing angst among students across the University of California’s 10 campuses.
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When 48,000 University of California academic workers went on strike in mid-November, Stacy Fahrenthold joined them on the picket line. The associate professor of history at UC Davis canceled lectures and will not read final papers or record grades until the walkout is settled.
“We don’t have the grading labor to do it,” said Fahrenthold, who would normally rely on a graduate student worker to score assignments.
Such disruption has unfolded throughout the UC system’s 10 campuses, including at UC Santa Cruz. As the massive strike by teaching assistants, tutors, graduate student researchers and postdoctoral scholars drags into its fourth week, the walkout has reached a pivotal moment, exacting its harshest toll yet on students, faculty and picketers during the all-important finals week in California’s premier higher education system.
The striking workers’ absence from classrooms and offices this week has limited the scope of final assessments, providing the greatest show yet of the crucial contributions they make to UC’s reputation for excellence. These are the workers who conduct study sessions, offer crunch-time tutoring, read term papers, and proctor and grade exams.
A tally from the Council of UC Faculty Associations estimates faculty will withhold at least 34,000 grades across the system. Faculty have pared down final assessments, shortened length requirements for essays or are omitting material from exams that was not covered because of the strike.
Michael Chwe, a professor of political science at UCLA, said he could not on his own grade assessments for the 240 students in his class on game theory — even if he wanted to.
Each student in his class is expected to submit a 15-minute video explaining how they would solve various problems for their final assessment. Chwe would normally rely on his four TAs, who work more closely with students than he does, to help with grading, and seek input from them on students’ performance to inform final grades.
“I couldn’t physically do it,” Chwe said. “If TAs [aren’t] grading because they’re on strike, I cannot go forward with the final grade assessment.”
At UCLA on Tuesday, Meia Schram, a second-year student studying applied math, said two of her finals were changed to include material only from the weeks before the strike. It was a good compromise, she felt, but still a more stressful time than usual. It was less clear what assignments were due and how finals would work because TAs were not around.
“For the first week or two I was like, what am I supposed to be doing?” Schram said. “It was really confusing, especially when you’re not getting emails from people you usually get consistent emails from.”
The UC system reached a tentative agreement last week with postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers. Those workers said they will not cross the picket line for the 36,000 academic workers who have yet to reach an agreement.
The remaining academic employees, represented by the United Auto Workers, remain far apart on wages with UC administrators. The union has proposed a $43,000 minimum salary for graduate student workers, which the UC has not come close to matching.
Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, a union that represents 19,000 teaching assistants, readers and graders, highlighted the significance of this week.
“We’re in a critical moment right now. UC can either make a serious offer to reach fair agreements, or they can scramble to mitigate the effects of a strike going on through the grading period,” Jaime said. “We want our students to be able to finish the term with our support, but we won’t go back to work until we can do so with dignified pay and working conditions.”
Union leadership at UC Santa Cruz discussed strategy in a meeting Tuesday that brought together more than 500 participants from across the UC system.
UAW 2865 unit chair Jack Davies and several organizers said while it’s taking longer than most thought to get results from the strike, it’s not a reason to panic.
“As the strike is entering the fourth week, it’s proven beyond doubt that we cannot make the UC fold in quick time by the sheer threat of our numbers,” he said. “But this is not something to despair about. It’s just a simple consequence of the peculiarities of our workplace. So we think what is needed right now is resolve, and steadiness and deepening of the long-haul strike — not panic.”
Winter break for students begins after finals, which end this week or next, depending on the campus.
In a statement, Ryan King, a spokesperson for the UC system, said the “vast majority of classes have continued without incident.”
He added that the system recognizes the strike has created challenges for instruction, and said that faculty have latitude in how they administer final assessments. That includes modifying exams by changing the content or format, administering take-home tests or issuing no-fault exams where a final cannot negatively affect students’ grades. Administrators at several campuses have extended deadlines for faculty to submit final grades.
“They have significant flexibility regarding finals, as long as changes are applied consistently, and they are communicated clearly to students,” King said in a statement.
King added that faculty are “well aware” that students can be “negatively affected” if they do not receive final grades, including disrupting undergraduate students’ progress toward major requirements or federal financial aid status.
Administrators from at least one campus, UC Davis, reassured students they would not have their financial aid status, GPA or other benefits adversely affected if they do not receive grades at the end of the term. In a message posted online, Provost Mary Croughan said academic advisors would work closely with students who have fallen behind because of the strike.
At UC Santa Cruz, Elyssa Venerable, a third-year anthropology major, said she’s worried about a paper she turned in more than three weeks ago — and still hasn’t gotten the grade back.
Since the strike, her professors canceled her classes outright in solidarity with workers, which she respects. But she said it’s still been challenging to pivot.
“We knew that we had all these assignments due and we were unsure who was going to grade them,” the 20-year-old said. She said that one midsemester paper could now make or break her final grade in a class, without the opportunity to turn in the final paper.
One of her professors has scheduled a Zoom-proctored final exam for Thursday, Venerable said, but she’s pretty sure it won’t actually happen. She said a teaching assistant who is on strike wrote the exam and was supposed to grade it.
“We’re still uncertain how that’s actually working and if that’s going to happen, even though it’s literally tomorrow,” she said.
She called the reactions among many undergrads a “coin toss.” Some are upset if they needed a strong final to boost a grade. Others celebrated the break.
Ramneet Sandhu, a UCLA psychobiology student, said her professors have taken a mixed approach to handling finals.
Some have made the final optional, allowing students who feel it could improve their grades an opportunity to take it. One professor shifted classes online after the strike started and another did not make any changes to his class.
Sandhu said studying has been a challenge.
“Honestly, it was kind of difficult because the TAs aren’t around to answer questions,” she said.
Some professors are offering more office hours, Sandhu said, but are not capable of answering questions to the extent the TAs would, or don’t have the ability to assist hundreds of students looking for help.
Mark Roche, a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student at UC Irvine, said his classes depend on teaching assistants. Finals this quarter were altered from tests to group projects, which has resulted in less stress for Roche.
“Honestly, I thought it was a win,” he said.
But Iliana Rosas, 21, was disappointed this week when the professor for her sociology, race and ethnicity class canceled their final exam. She was looking forward to testing her knowledge. But without a teaching assistant to grade the test, the professor decided to eliminate it.
“I did well on the midterm and I was hoping to take the final because it’s my last sociology class before I graduate,” the sociology and Chicano studies major said.
Professors at UC Irvine were also given additional time — until the third week of January — to submit student grades for the quarter. This means if a student fails a class, they won’t know until the next quarter has already started and they’ll be behind if they need to immediately retake it, Rosas said.
Despite the uncertainty that undergraduate students have faced in the last month, Rosas said she “completely supports” the academic workers on strike.
“I’m rooting for the TAs because they deserve a lot more than they get,” she said. “I hope to be in that position one day and I’m glad they’re bringing attention to the hardships they’re facing.”
Academic workers have had a visible and vocal presence on campuses throughout the strike. On Tuesday at UC Irvine, academic workers gathered near Aldrich Hall chanting, “Workers united will never be divided” to a drum beat provided by people pounding on overturned buckets with wooden kitchen utensils.
Jackie Ku, 25, a political science Ph.D. student and teaching assistant, said surviving on a $23,000 salary means commuting from Chino because he can’t afford to live closer.
While Ku pays $600 a month in rent, he said, many of his colleagues are spending more than $1,000 a month — roughly half their income — to live near the school. Many regularly use the food bank on campus for meals, he said.
He said the UC system is to blame for the tumult during finals.
“The UC is putting us in a position where we have to have this conversation in this way and what’s happened is the undergrads are suffering,” Ku said. “Professors are facing a finals season completely overmatched by the sheer size of the system.”
Times staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this story.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.