California reaches tentative deal with striking graduate staff

Agreement on pay hikes and better benefits for graduate student instructors would end biggest-ever job action in US higher education, although many workers dissent

December 19, 2022
Source: Ian Castro | UAW 2865
Strikers at UC-Berkeley

The University of California system and its striking academic workers announced a tentative agreement on a new labour contract that would end the biggest-ever job action in US higher education.

The settlement, reached through a mediator after a 32-day walkout, would raise minimum wages by as much as 80 per cent for 36,000 graduate student teachers at the 10-campus system, as well as providing gains in areas that include healthcare, childcare, transport and support for international students.

“These agreements will place our graduate student employees among the best supported in public higher education,” Michael Drake, president of the University of California system, said in announcing the breakthrough.

Ratification by the striking workers, however, was not guaranteed, as significant numbers of union leaders expressed their opposition, noting that the settlement takes nearly two years to go into effect and does not directly fulfil a main objective of the strike – relieving extreme affordability pressures tied to the high cost of housing around many of the California system’s campuses.

The worker bargaining units representing the California campuses at Merced, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz fully opposed the agreement, and the teams from several other campuses were divided on the matter, with some members promising to lobby against ratification.

The agreement would cover 19,000 teaching assistants and 17,000 graduate student researchers across the 300,000-student system. Ratification requires their majority approval, with voting scheduled to take place throughout the week heading into Christmas.

The settlement was reached just a week after both sides agreed to work with an outside mediator, Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento and a former leader of the state senate.

Those eager to vote in favour of the agreement included Nathan Hoffmann, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This contract isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than anything I’d expected we’d get,” Mr Hoffmann said on Twitter. “An extra $1,000 [£800] a month starting in the fall will be life-changing for me and many others.”

The walkout against the California system began on 14 November, accompanied by two other units, covering 7,000 postdoctoral scholars and 5,000 academic researchers. Those units reached a settlement at the end of November and later ratified it.

The strike disrupted classes, tutoring and grading system-wide during the final weeks of the autumn semester.

It came at a moment of escalating confrontation between graduate student workers and colleges and universities around the US, reflecting their relatively low pay compared with other teaching staff. Institutions gaining graduate worker unions this year include Fordham University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New Mexico State University and Washington State University.

The pending contract with the University of California system would begin in October 2024. It would provide a minimum nine-month salary for teaching assistants of $34,000 for half-time work, and $36,500 at the Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles campuses. The salary scale for the graduate student researchers would begin at $34,565 for half-time work.

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