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‘Shut it down!’ UC strike could mean major disruptions to classes, research

UAW 5810 organizes a union strike at UCSF Parnassus branch hospital and medical school, where hundreds protest for better wages, benefits and contracts on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The strike is part of a nationwide effort of approximately 50,000 grad students, TAs and researchers to gain living wages. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The largest labor action in the country this year is targeting the University of California, with tens of thousands of academic workers manning picket lines and accusing the university system of unfair labor practices. 

The work stoppage and associated actions—which ranks as the largest higher education strike in the country’s history—have the potential to cripple the regular operations of the university system, which relies on its academic workforce for critical teaching, grading and research functions. 

At the UCSF Parnassus campus on Monday, dozens of workers marched, carrying picket signs and chanting, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” 

UC academic workers are under the umbrella of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents some 48,000 postdocs, teacher’s assistants, academic student employees and student researchers across four bargaining units. Earlier this month, a strike authorization vote overwhelmingly passed.

Supervisor Dean Preston speaks to union organizers, grad students, TA’s, researchers during the strike at UCSF Parnassus branch hospital and medical school, where hundreds protest for better wages, benefits, and contracts, on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Striking academic workers described living hand-to-mouth, given their low pay and the sky-high costs of living in the Bay Area. 

Rebecca Lee, a UCSF postdoctoral fellow and union organizer, said the current wage issues means the university and academia writ large are losing out on talented scientists and thinkers.

Lee said that the work stoppage could throw a wrench in research funding, with many research labs getting ready to submit federal grant requests that make up a large portion of their funding. She said that the strike could mean halted experiments and stagnant cell cultures. 

“I think the university is shooting themselves in the foot because we’re going to be the ones that are generating the revenue and income for them,” Lee said.

The academic workers are demanding a minimum salary of $54,000 a year for all graduate students and $70,000 for postdocs, along with an annual cost-of-living adjustments and other concessions. The workers called a strike after the union filed complaints to the California Public Employment Relations Board alleging unfair practices by the university. 

Last-minute emergency bargaining sessions couldn’t bridge the gap between the union and the UC, and the strike began at 9 a.m. Monday morning. Picket lines are expected 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday at all 10 UC campuses, in addition to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

The UC says that it continues to “negotiate in good faith” and is trying to mitigate the impacts of strike actions on student learning.

“Our campuses have been preparing to mitigate the impact of any strike activity on our students by ensuring, to the extent possible, continuity of instruction and research. This includes encouraging departmental and academic units to provide additional support and resources to students for learning,”a UC spokesman said in a statement. “Additionally, campuses will be prepared for contingencies should a strike interfere with the conclusion of the academic term.”

UCSF sent a safety bulletin out to students and staff saying it is “anticipating picketing activity and possible impacts to research” across its two campuses in Mission Bay and Parnassus. 

The memo said that the length of the strike is currently unknown and that the UCSF Police Department plans to have an increased police and security presence during the labor stoppage. 

In a notice about strike impacts to UCSF, the university said services like deliveries of laboratory chemicals may be delayed and increased pedestrian and car traffic are expected. 

Elina Wells, a union representative with UAW 5810, leads chants at UCSF Parnassus branch hospital and medical school, while approximately 50 thousand grad students, TA’s, and researchers protest for for better wages, benefits, and contracts, on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The strike is kicking off a few days before the UC Board of Regents plan to meet at UCSF Mission Bay on Nov. 16-17. 

UC Berkeley sent its own message to students and staff that if the strike continues, “instruction as well as research activities may be affected.” The memo said that faculty is working to ensure the least amount of disruption possible to instruction and grading and said some instructors may record lectures or other classroom materials and share them online. 

Campus officials said many research groups will be short-staffed because of the labor stoppage. 

Union officials said that the strike is open-ended and has no scheduled end date, but could be halted if membership votes to end it. The union’s bargaining committee could call a vote to end the strike if a tentative agreement is reached with the UC.

Jason Rabinowitz, the president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, said his union has tangled with the university system in the past during negotiations for the roughly 14,000 union members who work at the UC in clerical, administrative and skilled trade roles. The Teamsters have encouraged their members to join picket actions and rallies in support of the academic workers. 

The state’s two major Teamsters joint councils have also officially sanctioned the strike, meaning that any Teamster member or driver that is allowed to honor a picket line in their contract and can refuse deliveries in solidarity with the striking workers. That includes roughly 50,000 UPS delivery workers, in addition to grocery, linen and waste drivers, according to Rabinowitz.

“UC should get back to the table to fairly bargain with this group. How are they going to grade the final papers and get them out to the students without the people who are doing the grading?” Rabinowitz said. 

Tobias Higbie, a professor of labor studies and a director of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor & Employment, linked the strike to a pattern of disinvestment from public education and a revived labor movement led by younger workers.

“These people have always been underpaid, with the idea that you’re going to suffer through this for a while before you get your degree, but the cost of living is now way over the wages they are making. Housing in particular is very difficult,” Higbie said, pointing to one of his grad students who was forced to live out of his car for a year.

Higbie has spent the day fielding phone calls and emails from colleagues figuring out how to deal with the impacts of the strike, which he said has the potential to create major disruptions.

He said some faculty members have canceled classes in solidarity with the striking workers and some have brought students to the picket line as an educational experience. 

“This is a really important moment for the state of California, and people around the world are clearly watching,” Higbie said.