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The University of California (UC) system is the world’s leading public research university system. It has 10 campuses throughout the state of California with many of the campuses highly ranked in the country by U.S. News & World Report. According to the Daily Nexus, the state of California allocated $45 billion to each of the UC campuses for the 2022-23 academic year with roughly $200 million of that increase to be provided over the course of five years to support University costs. This budget is allocated to various aspects of what it takes to run and maintain bustling campus communities, but is it being allocated fairly? This question was put under the spotlight on Nov. 14th, 2022 when around 48,000 academic workers commenced the largest higher education strike in United States history against the UC system at all 10 campuses.
Graduate student workers, postdoctoral employees, academic researchers, and other academic employees engaged in a 32-day-long strike that left many classes without graduate student teachers and disrupted the daily operations of each of the campuses, and some community members even went as far as staging sit-ins at UC president Michael Drake’s office. According to the Los Angeles Times, the academic workers demanded fair compensation for their work, free public transit, support for parents and families, job security, and more.
The size and scale of this protest caught the attention of President Drake, and the negotiation process commenced. On Dec. 9, the contract was ratified, with some feeling satisfied with the results and others feeling more could be done. According to Politico, the new contract will increase the minimum starting salaries to approximately $35,000 for graduate student researchers and $34,000 for teaching assistants by the fall of 2024. The wage floor for teaching assistants will rise to $36,500, but this will only apply to UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Francisco. The contract also included childcare, transit, and longer-term appointments, which were all key parts of the original demands. This wage floor is still very low based on the cost of living in California, and it is possible these conversations and potential strikes pose a very real possibility for continued conversations in the future.
Though many were still not satisfied with the results of the strike, there was significant change that would not have occurred had it not been for the pressure that this historic strike placed on President Drake and the spotlight that this event placed on the UC system as a whole.
How can we learn from this strike, and what does it say about how we can improve conditions for all in this field? The importance of this strike shows the ability of people within the higher education system to unionize and garner a voice when they feel they are not being heard. Although this strike was historic, it was isolated to the UC system within the state of California. There is a real potential to see this type of strike happen across colleges and universities throughout the nation.
The strike was widely publicized on news outlets, social media, and other forms of media. Students and academic workers across the country saw the media attention and the way that UC workers became juggernauts as they fought for living wages and better conditions. They were applauded for their actions by unions across the country — both within the university system and beyond. These workers were also supported by other university members that were not on the academic side of the aisle. High-level administrators and executives used their voices to uplift academic workers which only emboldened them to become an even stronger force for change. This event was a paradigm shift because it was a landmark deal within the labor force that set a new standard for how change is enacted in the field of higher education. Not only did students and employees within the UC system provide their own salary transparency, but they also shed light on President Drake’s high salary and really put into perspective the disparity of wages in the hierarchy of higher education.
This operation should set a precedent and validate others who want better conditions at institutions across the country. It should empower them to use their voices and unionize. The transparency of salary and requests for better conditions outside of the classroom, like family care and transportation costs, shed light on the need for better conditions for workers who are often the backbone of learning and keeping daily operations running.
All eyes were on the UC system during this strike. No matter what the outcome was, there is no doubt that this event will change the way all those inside the walls of the higher education system use their voice for change.
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