As many as 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system have participated in the largest higher education strike in American history. Striking employees include postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers and graduate students represented by the United Auto Workers union. They’re calling for better pay and benefits such as childcare support, dependent healthcare remission and expanded paid family leave.
Sustaining one of the finest state educational systems in the country requires a team effort. UC simply cannot function without the labor of striking workers. Their employees deserve a living wage.
UC’s excellence is derived from the essential labor of these groups. They make our work as faculty possible. Many of the workers who are striking teach courses, assist with grading and host discussions with hundreds of students at a time. They provide crucial research assistance to support the advancement of tenure-track professors like me.
The pandemic has stretched all of higher education thin, escalating administrative and service work and the emotional labor of supporting students with cascading mental health needs. More than ever, universities are depending on academic workers to meet these relentless demands.
I would have been unable to update a course without such assistance as I climbed out of a severe depression.
For many people, California’s lack of affordable housing, combined with the high cost of living, makes working for the UC system near-impossible. Financial barriers make it harder to attract students, and my department has lost accepted doctoral candidates to universities with more competitive funding.
Striking workers demand sufficient pay to cover the basics: shelter, food, transportation and childcare. People who work in higher education don’t expect exorbitant salaries, but they also don’t expect food insecurity while pursuing a graduate degree.
Financial struggles are especially unsustainable for disadvantaged student workers who often come from underrepresented backgrounds or are the first in their families to attend college. It is unconscionable to allow such hardship within a university system that claims to prioritize increasing diversity among workers to serve an increasingly diverse student body.
Under a postdoctoral program seven years ago, I earned about $44,500. This program increases diversity among the UC professoriate and has funded faculty hires like my own. But I scraped by financially, and my progress suffered at time as I bounced around precarious housing situations to save money. I only found a stable home because I moved in with my romantic partner.
Students in their peak earning and childbearing years often have financial and caregiving obligations, too. Many are highly qualified with graduate degrees and prior work experience, but the hourly pay is comparable to places such as Albany, NY, an area with a much lower cost of living. Many students string together research assistant jobs or work an outside job because they can’t survive on UC wages.
California often sets course for the rest of the country. The UC system is a critical economic engine, cultivating human capital and technology for important industries. The state’s science and technology leadership rests on the strength of its university system, and core issues at the heart of the UC strike threaten California’s future innovation.
The decision to withhold labor is never taken lightly. As a child, my father’s union held a 12-day strike that felt more like 12 weeks for our struggling family. But our family’s sacrifices and the union’s negotiations provided him with sick leave, better health benefits and a pension.
A new generation of struggling academic workers face hard choices amid escalating economic burdens and soaring inflation. I recently visited friends and students picketing for the same things my working-class, immigrant father fought for 30 years ago. They have educational credentials he scarcely imagined but they still need to eat.
As a sign on the picket line succinctly put it, “passion doesn’t pay rent.”
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at the UC San Francisco School of Nursing. The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.