University of California scholars threaten new strike action

Just months after ending largest-ever walkout among teaching staff, workers at 10-campus public system complain about unfulfilled promises and arrests

July 12, 2023
University of California San Diego
Source: iStock

Seven months after settling the biggest-ever industrial action in US higher education, teaching and research staff in the University of California system are talking about starting it up again.

Amid a decades-high level of work stoppages across all of US academia, 48,000 graduate student workers at the 10-campus California system spent nearly six weeks on strike late last year.

Union leaders are now threatening another walkout, saying the system isn’t complying with promises it made in the agreement or is exploiting loopholes in contract to pay the workers less. The union members also are angered by the arrest last week of three of their members, who were alleged to have used chalk and washable markers to write protest slogans on a building at the University of California, San Diego campus.

“UC is trying to avoid following the contracts that they agreed to fair and square,” Neal Sweeney, a postdoctoral scholar in molecular biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who serves as president of UAW 5810, which represents more than 11,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers in the California system, told a rally this week at the San Diego campus.

“They are stealing wages from low-paid academic workers who do the majority of teaching and research at the University of California, and they’re cracking down on workers who dare to speak up,” Dr Sweeney told the chanting rally of about 100 protesters.

He was joined by Jessica Ng, a postdoctoral researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at San Diego, one of those arrested in relation to the written protest slogans, accused by university officials of felony vandalism.

Dr Ng accused the California system of failing to fully fund positions such as summer employment jobs, saying: “The UC has made it clear they would rather arrest their own workers than honour the contract they signed last year.”

To cheers from her fellow workers, she said: “We believe a strike may be necessary to move the UC from its unlawful retaliation – arrests, student conduct charges, threats of expulsion, bad grades for striking – to fulfilling our contracts instead.”

A spokesman for the California system said the system has been implementing the contract “in good-faith”, but declined to address the details set out by the unions.

The University of California, San Diego issued its own statement addressing the arrests, saying it supported peaceful protest but that the markings on the campus’s new Marine Conservation and Technology Facility caused damage exceeding $12,000 (£9,000), because the writing seeped into the concrete used on the exterior that was “specially treated to withstand the marine environment”.

The contract agreement reached in late December with the striking workers provided wage hikes of up to 80 per cent for some of the lowest-paid workers, who were paid as little as $24,000 a year in high-cost California cities such as Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Diego. It also promised new benefits for childcare and healthcare, and aid for international students.

Union leaders also complained about the pay increase given earlier this year to the San Diego chancellor, Pradeep Khosla – a jump of $500,000 to more than $1.1 million in annual base pay – in what the California system’s board of regents described as a bid to keep him from taking the presidency of a private university.

At least 15 US colleges and universities were hit last year by strikes by their academic or research staff, the most in at least 15 years, in what experts described as part of a wider job market turmoil in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles