UC strike victory: Capitalist academic machinery no match for workers’ power

University of California academic workers went on strike and won a major victory.

The strike by academic workers at University of California has ended. 

For more than a year the bargaining teams from United Auto Workers Locals 2865 and 5810 tried to negotiate for better wages, an improvement in child care benefits and a slew of other important demands for the 48,000 teaching assistants, postdoctoral student workers, researchers and graders. It took the longest UC strike ever and the largest strike of 2022 to finally force UC negotiators to understand that they were up against real union power.

Twelve thousand of the original 48,000 strikers, mostly postdoctoral workers and researchers, had settled and returned to work on Dec. 11 after winning stronger benefits and wage gains of 20%. This second settlement, reached Dec. 23, is for the remaining 36,000 strikers. 

This group has been incredibly underpaid, with some receiving salaries of less than $24,000 a year. Yet they also had a good deal of leverage in this strike because of their important role in grading papers and serving as teaching assistants. 

The new contract includes wage gains between 55% and 80%. Some salaries will be boosted to $36,000 over a two-year period. 

Rafael Jaime, president of Local 2865 told the Los Angeles Times that, although the agreement didn’t win every demand, the wage increases “would help alleviate the staggering rent burdens faced by many graduate students.” 

The new contract also has added more funding for child care, more parental leave and health care for dependents, as well as supplemental tuition for up to three years for international students.

Because of high California rents, many UC workers had plowed through their savings, taken out bank loans and in some cases even resorted to living in their cars. Even the new pay scale won’t solve all financial difficulties for many, and that was reflected in a substantial number of the bargaining team and the rank-and-file opting to hold out for more and for less delay in the pay increase. 

Still, combined with the important benefit increases that address issues particular to this diverse group of workers, the agreement is an historic workers’ victory in this longest and largest UC strike ever. 

Although not listed in the contract, near the top of the list of gains secured by the strike are dignity and respect.

UC bosses underestimated strikers

The bureaucracy of the most well-funded university system in the country underestimated the resolve and pent-up anger of this important workforce. During the strike, the wide frustration was transformed into a terrific example of skilled and determined collective organizing. 

Strikers disrupted a meeting of the Board of Regents at the UCLA campus, held a sit-in at the university president’s office, sat-in at a Sacramento UC administrative office and picketed the UC chancellor’s home in Riverside County. Dozens of arrests over the course of the strike failed to halt the momentum. 

The optics of this well-funded public university paying poverty wages drew a lot of sympathy and solidarity. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame performed at a major strike rally in Los Angeles. Construction workers from three different unions halted work on a building at a San Francisco campus, while both UPS Teamsters drivers and FedEx drivers stopped deliveries. 

FedEx drivers are not unionized, and this act of solidarity is noteworthy, given the recent rise in union organizing drives. Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post seemed to be sounding the alarm for the bosses over the acts of solidarity when it wrote: “The strike arrives amid a wave of increased labor activity … Workers have scored historic union victories at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple this year. Minnesota recently faced the largest private-sector strike in the nursing industry in U.S. history.”

Regents’ dirty deals

Without an understanding of the class character of those who control the purse strings at UC, one might wonder why the university held out for so long. By the time the university negotiators finally came up with a reasonable offer, the strike had forced the cancellation of all lectures and some classes. Some final exams had to be modified and grades were delayed.

It is the 26-member Board of Regents that makes budget decisions for UC and thereby decides on wage levels of UC workers. Their average salary is a whopping $3,242,909, or $1,559 per hour. 

Their biographies on the UC website point to mostly academic careers – seemingly benign. But whatever the intentions of the individual Regents are at the time they are appointed by the California governor, their conduct has shown them to be repeatedly feeding at the capitalist pig trough. 

In 2017 their four to six lavish dinner parties every year were exposed in the media, forcing the UC president to stop reimbursing them for good. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a $17,600 reimbursement for a dinner held the night before they voted to raise students’ tuition. 

A Wikipedia article provides links to some other significant episodes of greed and self-enrichment over the years. These include direct investment of more than $10 million of university money into a petroleum company owned by one of the Regents. 

A $50 million contract was funded by the BP oil company, giving them ownership of all clean-energy research at UC Berkeley and ownership of one-third of all patents based on UC workers’ research. BP also gained hiring and firing privileges over and above professors in the clean-energy research department. 

During his tenure as a Regent, Richard Blum, the multimillionaire husband of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, steered tens of millions of UC funds into companies in which he had a stake. 

The Blum scandal, the oil company investment and BP takeover of clean-energy research were just a few examples in a pattern of Regents redirecting hundreds of millions of university dollars into investments with ties to their own personal business activities.

Over the decades, while all of this has been going on, wages for many UC workers have been kept just above the poverty level, high rents have devoured their meager incomes, while the cost of attending a UC campus has been steadily going up. 

But the UC workers’ victory will be remembered for a long time, along with the other organizing victories of 2022. Union power will win!

Join the Struggle-La Lucha Telegram channel