For his Intro to Sociology course for 300 freshmen at UC Berkeley, Professor Michael Burawoy relies on the assistance of seven GSIs in addition to himself.
All of them, however, have been missing from the campus since the 14th of November, when they joined the 48,000 other students, postdocs, and staff researchers at the University of California in the largest academic walkout in American history, demanding higher pay and better benefits.
There are thousands of ungraded or unassigned student essays and exams. None of the seminars and seminars with graduate students as teachers exist anymore.
Even though GSIs across the country have traditionally carried the bulk of academic workloads, many classrooms and labs at UC campuses across the state remain unoccupied.
Why Are Academic Workers Striking?
A union survey found that the majority of UC graduate students spent more than a third of their income on rent, which, at around $24,000 per year, is not nearly enough to get by in expensive areas like Berkeley, Los Angeles, or San Diego.
Protesters are calling for a 14% raise in pay for academic researchers, as well as an annual minimum salary of $54,000 for graduate students and $70,000 for postdoctoral researchers to account for the rising cost of living in the state.
Furthermore, the union is demanding that UC provide financial aid for child care, improved health insurance for dependents, free or discounted public transportation passes for all employees, improved accessibility for workers with disabilities, and reduced tuition for international scholars.
Postdoctoral researcher and current president of UAW 5810, molecular biologist Neal Sweeney, is based at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Sweeney said that he and his family were barely getting by while he worked 50-60 hours per week before he got his union job.
“The salary was so low that every month I really had to think about whether I would make it through that month,” Sweeney said on KQED Forum. “Buying a cup of coffee required careful consideration of every dollar I would spend. Both of my kids were infants. He or she was a full-time student, like my companion. We used the campus food bank on a regular basis because we were living in family housing on campus and were therefore responsible for providing our own food.”
This Is Fine With Burawoy
He could be angry that strikers made a mess for him to clean up, but instead, he’s joined the picket line and shown his full support for the protesters.
The gray-haired professor with a mild British accent said, “I’ve stopped teaching.” He informed his undergraduates that he would not be grading any of their papers until the strike ended, which could be as late as December 31 (the new deadline UC Berkeley has given its overworked faculty members) or much earlier.
Hundreds of professors across the system are signing petitions and walking picket lines in support of their graduate students and other striking workers, and Burawoy’s statement echoes the sentiment of these professors.
“Unless the UAW (United Auto Workers union representing the strikers) tells me otherwise, I will not do the work of the GSIs,” Burawoy said.
Why Do The Striking UC Faculty And Staff Actually Deserve A Raise
This strike is the largest in the history of American higher education, involving as many as 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system.
Workers in the United Auto Workers union who are postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, and graduate students are currently on strike. Their demands include increased paid time off and other perks like subsidies for childcare and health insurance for dependents.
It takes a community effort to keep up one of the best state school systems in the country. Without the striking workers’ efforts, UC would not be able to function. Their workers should be paid a fair wage.
The hard work of these communities is crucial to UC’s success. They are crucial to the success of our academic department.
Many striking workers teach classes, help with grading, and facilitate large-group discussions involving hundreds of students. Tenure-track faculty members like myself rely on their research assistance greatly because it helps us get ahead professionally.
Supporting students with escalating mental health needs has added emotional labor to already heavy administrative and service loads across all of higher education as a result of the pandemic. The academic workforce is more important than ever before as universities strive to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of their students.
Without this help, I wouldn’t have been able to update a course as I was pulling myself out of a dark depression.
The high cost of living in California, combined with the state’s lack of affordable housing, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to find and sustain employment with the University of California. It’s more difficult to recruit students when funding is scarce, and my department has lost accepted doctoral candidates to institutions with more generous fellowships.
Workers are on strike because they are demanding a living wage that will allow them to pay for housing, food, transportation, and child care. Those who work in academia don’t count on making a fortune, but they also don’t count on going hungry while earning their master’s or doctorate.
It’s Part Of A Bigger Issue
The strike is bringing attention to a persistent issue in the academic world: As a result of budget cuts and other financial pressures, universities today employ a smaller share of tenured, full-time faculty than they did 50 years ago.
Activist and unionization expert Tim Cain, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, notes a “tremendous” increase in the number of “other” university employees, who have less job security and lower pay.
“There is such stratification between the tenured full professor and a graduate student employee or a postdoc or a tutor,” Cain says. Teachers “are doing a great deal of the work,” and their duties in the classroom are “often very similar to the work that is being done by others who are getting paid substantially more.”
Though not unprecedented, experts have noted that the current strike at the University of California is unique in comparison to other academic labor movements.
Associate professor of labor studies and president of the union representing graduate students and faculty at Rutgers University, Rebecca Givan, states, “To have this many workers on strike is really something new in higher education.
” The fact that these employees are willing to shut down their campuses shows that the current higher education model is unsustainable and that the system is built on extremely underpaid labor.
What Employees Want
Workers in one of the states with the highest costs of living in the country are on strike because they say their salaries make it difficult to find affordable housing near their universities. The Ph.D. candidate, Jaime, claims he earns $27,000 annually as a teaching fellow and spends $1,200 monthly on the apartment he shares with two roommates.
(According to Realtor.com, the typical monthly rent in the greater Los Angeles area is $3,000.) To paraphrase, “We are the ones who do the majority of teaching and research,” he says. However, the university does not pay us enough to allow us to live in the area where we work.
Graduate students should be guaranteed a starting salary of at least $54,000 per year, and postdoctoral researchers should be guaranteed a salary of at least $70,000 per year, with both positions eligible for annual cost-of-living increases.
In addition, they demand that the university not charge international students the higher out-of-state tuition rate, which the university argues would put in-state California students at a “significant financial disadvantage” due to the state’s support of the university.
Graduate students are only allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week, as emphasized by university administration so that they can focus on their studies. The university has proposed a new minimum salary structure with graduate student researchers earning $28,275, postdoctoral scholars receiving $60,000, and teaching fellows and teaching assistants receiving $24,874.
Over the course of the next week, the UC and the union will likely continue their negotiations. According to Logan, a student worker at SF State, the university will likely increase their offer in the future.
He predicted that the university administration would face “terrible pressure from a whole variety of quarters” to “get serious” and “resume bargaining in good faith” in order to reach an agreement that would be satisfactory to both sides. “They’re at an impasse right now, but they need these workers to keep going. Unfortunately, I don’t see them coming together to resolve this. Graduate student employees are likely to win at least some of their demands.”