Research at the University of California (UC) has ground to a halt as tens of thousands of postdocs, graduate students and academic staff went on strike.
Since Nov. 14, some 48,000 academic staffers across UC — which has 10 campuses and nearly 300,000 students — have halted their research and joined protests demanding higher wages and better working conditions in what they say is the largest strike in higher education in of the history of the USA is .
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They are aiming for a higher minimum salary, adjusted annually to match the cost of living, as well as subsidies for childcare and transportation, and more job security. Negotiations are ongoing and the union and UC are close to an agreement on stronger protections against harassment and health benefits. But UC and the four bargaining units that represent academic workers continue to argue over compensation.
“I’ve seen brilliant researchers spend so much time fretting about finances,” says Raymundo Miranda, a neuroscience graduate student at UC San Diego, who is on strike. “That shouldn’t be happening at one of the best research universities in the country.”
The strike comes amid growing dissatisfaction among university staff that wages and working conditions are failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living.
For example, according to a survey this year, salaries for graduate students in life sciences are below the cost of living at almost every institution in the United States. Over the past five years, this frustration has led to a wave of graduate and undergraduate unions at various universities, prompting many researchers to seek non-academic jobs.
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California cities have notoriously high rents, and rising inflation has only widened the gap between salaries and the cost of living. “I’ll graduate in my 30s and I won’t have any savings to think about a family,” said Nadia Ayad, a bioengineering student at UC San Francisco who has joined the strikes. Ayad spent more than half of her salary on rent in the last five years of her studies.
Miranda says some of his friends, who are also UC students, have experienced homelessness or had to live in their cars.
Academic workers across UC are calling for minimum wage increases from an average of $24,000 (according to union data) to $54,000 for graduate students and from an average of $60,000 to $70,000 for postdocs, along with annual adjustments to accommodate the cost of housing increases .
The university has offered a more modest salary increase of less than 10% for the first year and a fixed 3% increase in each subsequent year that is not directly linked to the cost of living and has no set minimum salary.
Part of the pay gap is that graduate students are classified as part-time workers, working only 20 hours a week on paper and dedicating the rest of the time to their studies. But for many, this is not the reality. Ayad says she only had classes as part of her program for the first two years and has been doing research full-time for the last three years. Ro Sandoval, a UC San Diego graduate student in neuroscience, says every single graduate student they know works more than 40 hours a week.
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On Nov. 15, UC Provost Michael Brown said in a letter to UC Chancellors that he respected the workers’ decision to strike and recognized the “significant challenge” of high housing costs in California. But the union’s call for compensation to be linked to housing costs “could have an overwhelming financial impact on the university,” he added.
Protesters claim that the UC system used unfair negotiation tactics. The union has filed at least 30 unfair practice charges against UC with the California Public Employment Relations Board, alleging that it circumvented the formal negotiation process, withheld information needed for negotiations, and intimidated union members. In 14 cases, the Board issued complaints. UC officials have publicly denied those allegations, and a university spokesperson said the system “remains committed to pursuing its good faith efforts to reach settlements… as quickly as possible.”
Without academic staff, research across the UC system has largely ground to a halt, and many courses have been canceled as the university nears its final exams phase.
The fight for a fairer UC is important, says Stephanie Wankowicz, a graduate student in structural biology at UC San Francisco, but she worries the strike could delay her graduation, currently scheduled for the spring.
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Miranda began breeding a cohort of laboratory mice a few weeks before the strikes began. “If the strike goes on any longer, I won’t have to use all the animals I’ve prepared, and that will probably set me back two months,” he says. “We all have to sacrifice our experimental schedules, but people are striking because they feel what we’re doing here is important.”
The strikes have also created more work for faculty members as they try to keep classes and labs running despite staff absences. “Obviously I’m worried about my lab,” said Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez, a professor of biology at UC Davis, who joined the Nov. 18 protests with her children and one of her graduate students in solidarity with the protesters. “But I’m more concerned about an environment of integrity in my lab.” She adds that the strikes will have implications for future generations of scientists. “By not providing students here with a living wage, we threaten to significantly lose diversity in the UC system.”
“I see the strike not only as a help for us personally, but as a necessary course correction for science,” says Wankowicz. “I miss my scientific research a lot, but at the end of the day, hopefully this movement creates better science.”