UCSB academic workers strike. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

On Monday, 12,000 of the 48,000 striking academic workers across University of California campuses returned to work after ratifying their new contracts, partially ending the largest higher education strike in U.S. history. But the thousands who remain on strike for better pay and benefits include those who teach undergrads and assign their grades, leaving many UC students in an uncertain spot as they head into winter break. 

On Friday evening following a weeklong voting process, 89 percent of postdoctoral scholars and 79 percent of academic researchers at UC voted to ratify their new contracts. Their new agreements include salary increases that address the cost of living, as well as eight weeks of fully paid family and parental leave, and industry-standard-setting protections against bullying and abusive conduct. The agreements also include new rights for international scholars and for postdocs and academic researchers with disabilities.

The two bargaining units initially reached tentative agreements on November 29, the 15th day of the statewide strike. Ratification of the contracts came on the 25th day of the strike, which is still ongoing for graduate student researchers and academic student employees, including teaching assistants and tutors. 

“I am humbled by what it took to get to this moment,” said Evan Plunkett, the UC Santa Barbara representative on the postdoc bargaining team. “This new contract is a substantial improvement to the working conditions of postdoctoral scholars in the UC system and was won through years of effort and a historic strike by academic workers to protect our collective rights. While our contracts do have language preventing us from declaring a sympathy strike as an entire union, our members are ready to continue providing the support we can to academic workers still on strike; our fight for a better, more inclusive academia does not stop here and certainly not without the rest of the academic workers who share in this struggle.”

United Auto Workers union bargaining teams representing the 36,000 workers still on strike recently voted in favor of moving to voluntary mediation for continuing negotiations with the UC. On Monday, the UC announced that Darrell Steinberg, the former senate pro tem and current mayor of Sacramento, will be taking on the role of mediator, as a result of mutual agreement between the UC and the union. 

Mayor of Sacramento Darrel Steinberg will act as mediator for contract negotiations between the UC and union. | Credit: Wikipedia

Joe Costello, a striking graduate student researcher in UCSB’s Physics Department and a rank-and-file union member, said he is “hopeful that mediation can help find some middle ground on the remaining issues.”

“The UC has been extremely intransigent and seems more interested in breaking the union than educating students or performing research. UC runs a real risk that if the underlying material problems that graduate students face aren’t addressed, labor unrest like strikes will keep happening,” Costello said. “UC has a real opportunity to change the way graduate students live and work with us to forge a truly inclusive and fair workplace, but they do not seem willing to do so. Hopefully our mediator Mayor Steinburg will help with that.”

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In Monday’s announcement, UC President Michael V. Drake welcomed Steinberg’s selection as mediator, describing him as “a fair-minded public servant and skilled negotiator who brings people together” and is “uniquely positioned to help facilitate a fair and reasonable contract that allows us to support our students as they work towards their degrees. Our faculty, students, and staff have shouldered the burden of a strike for far too long. We all know the tremendous impact our graduate student employees make, and it is my hope that with the mayor’s help we can quickly secure a fair deal that honors those contributions.”

Steinberg is also a former UAW member. He said it is his hope “that both parties will enter this mediation with an open mind, a spirit of goodwill, and a focus on compromise.”

“I will do everything I can to help the parties resolve this dispute fairly for each side,” Steinberg said. “In one weekend, I already see numerous paths to reach a principled compromise that respects both parties and allows work to resume with fair contracts and a stronger university.”

In the meantime, striking workers at UCSB will pause picketing but continue to withhold labor until a contract is agreed upon. 

According to an email sent out to UCSB undergraduates by UCSB Student Affairs, some students may see a “no grade” on their transcripts for classes impacted by the strike, but it is a temporary placeholder. Any “no grade” markers will be replaced with a credit-holding grade before winter quarter ends, the email says, as long as students have completed the work outlined in their course schedules. UCSB is also “working proactively” with offices across campuses to meet the needs of students who have specific grading-needs, such as for financial aid, degree completion, or athletic eligibility.

This Tuesday marked the 30th day of what has been the nation’s largest strike of the year. Protesters from multiple UC campuses will gather outside the UC Regents meeting on Wednesday at the UC Los Angeles Luskin Center, where Tom Morello, the lead guitarist from Rage Against the Machine, will perform to kick off a rally “to demand UC President Michael Drake settle a fair contract and guarantee that UC remains equitable for all,” according to Union representatives.

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