Graduate Student Workers in University of California System Launch Statewide Strike

Some 4,000 student workers strike at UC Berkeley on Monday Nov. 14, 2022, the first day of a systemwide strike. (Source: @uaw2865/Twitter)

On Monday, November 14th, about 48,000 unionized academic workers across the University of California’s 10 campuses went on strike. The student workers, who are employed at the 10 UC campuses across the state and are organized in both the United Auto Workers (UAW) union and Student Researchers Union (SRU), have begun this strike in order to win a variety of demands aimed at improving their living standard in the face of rising rental costs and inflation. 

In addition to increased pay, student workers are demanding child-care subsidies to ease the burden of having children while in graduate school, enhanced healthcare benefits for dependents, longer family leave policies, public transit passes, and lower tuition costs, as well as greater support for international students navigating the immigration process to live in the United States. There are also other demands such as enhancing anti-bullying and harassment clauses in their contract to protect student workers against professors and supervisors who create a hostile work environment. 

Despite performing most of the work to teach students and grade exams in classes, as well as playing a significant role in the research output of the UC system, most of the 48,000 unionized graduate student employees working in the system are often forced to live a precarious existence due to low pay. The current average base salary for student workers is about $24,000 per year. The striking student workers are demanding that the average base salary be increased to $54,000 per year — a wage they could more easily get by on.

In a survey before beginning bargaining with the UC system around these issues, the UAW union found that over 90% of graduate workers are “rent burdened,” which is defined as spending more than 30% of one’s income on rent. On top of this, they found that graduate workers throughout the UC system actually spend an average of 52% of their monthly income on rent.

In the face of this, the UC system and the political elites of California are claiming that they don’t have the money to meet the demands of student workers, arguing that their salary proposals up to this point are competitive with elite private universities such as Harvard and MIT. 

When considering the wealth and power that exists in California, we see this is not the case. For example, the UC system currently manages a portfolio of assets worth approximately $152 billion after growing their assets by over $100 billion dollars due to financial investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of this, California is home to some of the wealthiest corporations in the world which could be taxed at higher rates to reinvest in sectors such as education. 

The wealth exists to meet the demands of graduate students, but it is not a priority of the rich and powerful to do this. These student workers did not choose to go on strike lightly. They knew the impact their strike could have on students, on their own work, their research, and their overall academic progress. But the university has pushed them to this point by refusing to accept most of their demands. But together these student workers have an advantage because the work of the university cannot function without them.