UCSB academic workers strike | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom (file)

The largest strike in the history of higher education is over. 

Forty days after 48,000 student employees across all 10 University of California campuses began their statewide strike for better wages and working conditions, the end came with the ratification of new contract agreements for 36,000 graduate student workers, including 17,000 graduate student researchers (GSR) and more than 19,000 academic student employees (ASE) such as teaching assistants and tutors. 

The tentative agreements followed soon after the university and bargaining teams representing graduate student workers entered into voluntary mediation on December 9.  Despite controversy between union members, the two bargaining teams representing graduate student researchers (SRU-UAW) and academic student employees (UAW 2865) reached tentative agreements with the university on December 16; the vote was then passed on to union membership for ratification of the contracts, which involved a weeklong voting process that concluded on Friday, December 23.

“The University of California welcomes the ratification of these agreements with our valued graduate student employees,” said Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations. “The University believed that the assistance of a third-party mediator would help the parties reach agreement, which is why we are so grateful that the union accepted our invitation to mediation and partnered with us in selecting Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to serve as the mediator.”

She continued, “As a result of this collaboration, the parties were ultimately able to reach tentative agreements on the contracts as a whole in just a few days following months of negotiations.”

Unionized through the United Auto Workers (UAW), all four union bargaining teams — representing postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, graduate student researchers, and academic student employees — have now put down their picket signs and ratified new contracts with the University of California. With the strike officially over, many student employees will be returning to their teaching and research once they are back from winter break. 

“The university now is finally going to shift its priorities in a real way toward supporting a diverse workforce, which improves the quality of research at the university, and improves the quality of education,” said Michael Dean, a graduate student researcher at UCLA, at a press conference Saturday. “All these contracts are going to improve quality of life for academic workers, they’re going to make a stronger university in the long run, and they’re going to make it so that these institutions are inclusive of people who don’t don’t come from positions of privilege have generational wealth, that more people can can pursue higher education in the UC system.”

The terms of the contracts guarantee raises for all graduate student workers, “and up to 80 percent for some of the lowest paid,” according to union representatives. According to the UC, “within 90 days of ratification, [teaching assistants] will receive 7.5 percent increases.” Teaching fellows will receive 8.9 percent increases in that time, hourly ASEs will receive 5-8 percent increases, and all ASEs, the UC says, “will be eligible for experience-based increases over the duration of the contracts. … By Oct. 1, 2024, the minimum nine-month salary for TAs with a 50 percent time appointment will be $34,000.”

On the other hand, graduate student researchers “will see 10 percent increases in the first year of the contract, with 6.4 percent increases in each subsequent year (GSRs on the lowest three salary points will see an especially significant increase in the first year due to conversion to a new salary scale.). By Oct. 1, 2024, the first step on the new, six-point GSR salary scale will be set at $34,564.50 for a 50 percent time appointment.”

The agreements also include improvements in childcare and dependent health care coverage, significant anti-bullying measures, and guarantees that three years of remission of non-resident student tuition will now be codified, “meaning that international workers will be able to enforce this right and UC will not be able to take it away.” 

The 2.5 year contracts go into effect immediately and will be in place through May 31, 2025. The tentative agreement was ultimately ratified with an overall 62 percent yes, 38 percent no split for UAW 2865,and a 68 percent yes, 32 percent no split for SRU-UAW. 

UAW executive leadership called the gains “historic.” But attitudes and narratives between the yes and no voters differ considerably. 

The vote was contested between union members. At UCSB, membership of UAW 2865 only had a 35 percent yes vote, with 922 no votes versus only 505 yes votes. For SRU-UAW at UCSB, the vote was close, with 450 no votes versus 595 yes votes. 

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The Strike to Win campaign, led by union members against the contracts to kill the original tentative agreement, mobilized 7,097 UAW 2865 academic workers and 4,640 SRU-UAW student researchers to vote no on ratification. According to union representatives who supported the campaign, “Rank and file members quickly reacted to the results and questioned the legitimacy of the union’s democratic process,” referencing unequal private funding between universities, differences in campuses’ total number of GSR and TA positions, and differences in wages between positions. They also said, “Throughout the week of the vote, rank and file members called out the UAW leadership for undemocratic processes, which included using official union communications channels to promote a yes vote.”

Those union members are disappointed with certain aspects of the contracts, saying, for example, the contract provides “no substantial raises until fall 2023, no cost-of-living adjustments, [and] no year-round funding guarantees.”

“It is disappointing and upsetting that we have enshrined systemic inequity in a union contract. We will respect the results provided the ballots were counted honestly, and rank and file workers will continue to fight for a real cost of living adjustment, for an end to police violence, and for a more just UC and UAW,” said Janna Haider, UAW 2865 Recording Secretary from UCSB. 

However, many UAW members expressed pride about achieving the agreements. Dean said, “The fact is that we won more in this contract than any other group of unionized higher education workers has ever won in any contract before. There’s still a lot more for us to win, of course, but this contract puts us in a really strong position to do that because we’ll be able to begin renegotiating to make further improvements in a couple of years,” he continued. “Some people are frustrated that we didn’t win all of our demands, and because many of us are struggling financially, I certainly understand that frustration … some people would have preferred to continue striking, but that wouldn’t have guaranteed us a better offer. So on the bargaining teams, we made the assessment to put the agreement that we’d reached through mediation to members and I think members have spoken pretty clearly and resoundingly that they are happy with these contracts, and they want to return to work and continue fighting in the future.”

The union spent six weeks fighting for agreements that would address their demands, and although the mediated contract for graduate student employees does not meet all their initial demands — such as wages that meet inflation and eliminate rent burden for all workers — UAW members, including at UCSB, said that the agreements will still benefit their living and working conditions. 

Emily Weintraut, a graduate student researcher at UC Davis, said she will now “likely not need other jobs over the summer,” and for her and her friends, the increased anti-bullying protections will “ensure their safety a lot more now,” including protections for grievances she said they plan on filing in the near future.  

Michael Dean said he won’t be working under the contracts for long, but when he started working in the UC system in 2016, he lived in campus housing, and “made $22,000 as a teaching assistant” paying “69 percent of his income back to the university in the form of rent.” 

“So more than two-thirds of my income went back to my employer just to have a roof over my head,” Dean said. “And I think with the wage gains that my colleagues will see, this year, next year, and the year after that, it means they’ll be able to live with a lot more dignity. They’ll have more money in their pockets to do the things that everybody wants to be able to do, that all working people should be able to do … I’m just really proud of what we’ve accomplished together and happy that people’s lives will change in such a positive way as a result of this.”

With the contract ratification and the end of the strike, all Unfair Labor Practices filed against the university for their allegedly unlawful behavior during bargaining will be cured, and related legal disputes between the two parties will be resolved. 

Although all contracts have been ratified — including those for the two other bargaining teams, postdocs and academic researchers, which were ratified on December 9 — that does not mean the union’s “work is done,” according to Weintraut. 

“We’re gonna keep organizing,” Weintraut said. “I mean, we saw a huge turnout in the vote. And I think that’s something that we’re all really proud of. … And I think that’s something that we really are looking forward to just getting stronger. And as a union growing our power to continue, we might not have gotten every single thing that we might have asked for, but this is still a huge historic contract. And we’re just going to keep fighting until we make sure that we get every single thing that we can, because I mean, our power can only grow at this point. And I’m very excited to be part of the organizing effort to continue to grow that power.”

Joe Costello, a graduate student researcher at UCSB, said he is “really happy with the contract.” 

“I think it’s a significant win, especially for student researchers,” Costello said. “People in my position will be making $50k per year in October 2024. This doesn’t eliminate the rent burden or solve every problem that we as graduate students at Santa Barbara have, but it does represent a significant step forward, with really unprecedented raises and protections against bullying. I’m confident that these wins will lead to more wins in 2.5 years when the contract expires. I am especially excited for the young group of organizers who helped organize the strike and will be around for the next round of bargaining.”

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