The largest strike in the US since 2019 is currently underway across University of California campuses. 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, researchers and graders on the front lines of teaching and research at California’s prestigious public university system are seeking a minimum annual salary of $54,000 and increased child-care benefits, saying they do not earn enough to live in the state. They also accuse the university of breaking the law and not bargaining in good faith with their union, the United Auto Workers. UAW Local 2865 president and UCLA English PhD candidate Rafael Jaime joins TRNN editor-in-chief Maximillian Alvarez to discuss the historic strike. This interview was recorded on Monday, Nov. 12.
Studio: Maximillian Alvarez
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us.
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We are recording this on Monday, Nov. 14, and as we speak, the largest workers’ strike that has taken place in the United States since 2019 is underway at campuses across the University of California system. As Lauren Gurley reports at the Washington Post:
“Some 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, researchers, and graders on the front lines of teaching and research at California’s prestigious public university system are seeking a minimum annual salary of $54,000 and increased childcare benefits, saying they do not earn enough to live in the state. They also accuse the university of not bargaining in good faith with their union, the United Auto Workers.
“The University of California strike is also the largest academic strike in higher education in US history, according to the UAW. The bargaining units that represent UC academic workers said university leadership has illegally made changes to pay and transit benefits without consulting the union. They also alleged that the university has refused to provide necessary information about who is in the bargaining unit and has otherwise obstructed the bargaining process. Negotiations have been underway for more than a year. University officials denied allegations that their negotiators had broken any law during bargaining. They said they have made good faith efforts to bargain as shown by a number of tentative agreements the parties have already reached.”
To talk about this historic strike, why it’s important, and what viewers and listeners can do to show solidarity with academic workers, we have a Real News exclusive for y’all today. Straight from the picket line, I’m honored to be joined by Rafael Jaime, a PhD candidate in English at UCLA and the president of UAW Local 2865, the union of 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and readers at the UC system.
Rafael, thank you so much for joining us today at The Real News.
Rafael Jaime: Thank you so much for having me.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I know you’ve got a lot going on right now, and so we really, really appreciate you taking time to chat with us, and I promise I won’t keep you long. But, I was wondering if you could start by building off of that brief introduction that I gave and give viewers and listeners a sense of what led to this truly massive and historic strike that has brought y’all out on the picket line today across the UC system.
Rafael Jaime: Yeah, sure. So, right now we’re talking about 48,000 workers across the 10 UC campuses plus Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. So, these 48,000 workers, that’s teaching assistants, students, and readers, 19,000 of them, 12,000 postdocs and academic researchers, and 17,000 student researchers. And these are the workers that really are the backbone of the university. They’re the ones who conduct the majority of teaching at the university and the ones who do the majority of research, bringing in billions of dollars and grants to the university, and making it, really, the number one public institution in the country, and one of the top research institutions in the entire world.
But despite the many contributions that we make to the university, the university really has not been valuing the work that we bring to the university. In a survey that we did recently, we found that 92% of all graduate workers are rent burdened, meaning that we pay more than a third of our salary towards rent, and many times right back to the university. With postdocs that’s 60% of them are rent burdened. And even more troubling, we found that over 40% of all graduate workers pay more than half of their income in rent. And again, many times directly back to the university.
So we’re really talking about a university that knows exactly how much we pay, and then takes half of it back right into their own pockets. And so we’ve been bargaining, in some cases for over a year, and making some really transformative demands that address the crisis that is at hand here, a crisis that pushes many people out of academia, which prevents the University of California from being a truly public institution that serves California.
And despite making these demands that could make university a much more inclusive and equitable workplace, the university has been dragging its feet and bargaining and even breaking the law, engaging in direct dealing, refusing to provide us information that we need in order to bargain. And so workers have grown frustrated with the bargaining process. And just a couple weeks ago, decided to take a strike authorization vote in which over 36,000 workers across the entire UC system voted to authorize the strike. And of those over 36,000, 98% voted in favor of going on strike.
And so this really shows the frustration that workers are feeling for the ongoing process. And so now we are out here on strike to compel the university to cease these unlawful actions and actually come to the bargaining table and make real proposals that can actually address the issues that we face.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and I was a graduate student worker for a number of years at the University of Michigan, and I know all too well the poverty conditions that graduate workers already live and work in. I know that in terms of the broader labor movement, we may not always get the most sympathy from people who think, oh, academic workers aren’t workers, and yada yada yada. And we don’t have time to get into all that crap.
Hopefully everyone watching and listening understands what Raphael is saying, that it is the graduate student workers, student workers, and contingent faculty who make these university systems run. Without all of the labor that they do to grade, to teach classes, to do research, to run labs and all that stuff, the universities would not exist. They would not function. So I’m asking you all watching and listening to please at least put your prejudices aside for a moment and think about the living and working conditions that the people who make these universities run, what they actually are, and what they mean for the people who work there.
And Rafael, I was wondering if you could just pick up on that and say a little bit more about what the day-to-day reality has been for you and your fellow workers across the UC system. Because I mean, you’re at UCLA. LA is already a very expensive place to live, and now we have this cost of living crisis that is making it untenable for people to pay rent, to buy groceries, and stuff like that. So I was wondering if you could say a little more for viewers and listeners about the conditions that graduate student workers are striking against right now and what the response from the university has been when you’ve raised these issues.
Rafael Jaime: Yeah, sure. So again, the average graduate worker at the University of California earns $24,000 a year. $24,000 a year, when rent and university owned housing itself is $1,600 for a studio. So we’re talking well more than a half of the salary that we earn from the university, the university charges $1600. $1600. And so, many workers are pushed to live farther and farther away from the university, to live 15, 20 miles away from the university in LA. For those of you who are familiar with LA, we’re talking about hour, hour and a half, two hour commutes to get to campus. And oftentimes in public transportation that is deteriorating, that is underfunded. And we have to do this in order to be able to go to the university. Most of us cannot afford to live where we work.
And this is driving many people out of academia. I have plenty of coworkers who have been driven to homelessness, who have had to live out of their car because of the poverty wages the university pays us. Meanwhile, the chancellors, just a few months ago, the chancellors got raises that in some cases were over $100,000. The raises alone were over $100,000. Many of them lived in publicly funded mansions. And meanwhile, the graduate workers that make up the majority of instruction, who bring billions of dollars in research, get paid poverty wages.
And so it’s become a really untenable situation for more workers, for most workers at the university who are unable to really conduct, provide the quality education that they want to provide to their students, who are unable to provide the kind of research that really makes the university such an important institution of research across the world. And we are growing more and more frustrated. And again, the university, rather than actually addressing these issues, has been bargaining in bad faith. And so this is why we’re out here today, because we need to force the university to actually stop breaking the law and bargain in good faith with us so we can actually make the university a truly equitable institution.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. And I want to ask if you could give people a sense of the scope and scale of this strike. Because folks may forget, California’s a very big state, and each UC on its own is a very big university. So we’re talking about a massive public university system that spans the entire state. And you have 48,000 workers. As I said, the largest strike in the US since 2019, where around the same number of workers at General Motors went on strike. And this is purported to be the largest academic strike, or higher education strike in US history. So we’re talking about a really big strike right now.
Rafael, I was wondering if you could say a little bit, for folks who aren’t there, give them a sense of the mobilization that’s happening here, what folks are doing, what it’s looking like over there at the UCLA picket line, and what it looks like across the state.
Rafael Jaime: Yeah. So yeah, again, 48,000 workers. This is the largest action in higher ed that we’ve ever seen. The University of California is the largest university system in the United States. And it’s also one of the largest employers in the state of California. So really, this is massive, and it really has the potential to transform public higher education across the entire country. The centers that we set in our contracts are going to have an impact across all their contracts, bargains in other universities. So really do have a potential here to transform higher education.
And right now, picket lines start at 8:00 in the morning. They are really high energy. They’re across all UC campuses including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And people are really energized. They’re energized because they really want to see change in their working conditions and are tired of the university’s inaction in face of the crisis that we’re facing across the University of California.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and on that note, like I said, I know I got to let you go so you can get back to the picket line. And I just wanted to end, as we always do here at The Real News, by asking you what folks watching and listening in California and outside of California, what folks can do to show solidarity with you and your fellow workers across the UC system right now?
Rafael Jaime: Yeah. So workers are going to be out here as long as it takes to force the university to stop breaking the law and bargain with us in good faith. And so really, they’re going to need support on the picket line. If folks want to support, we encourage them to go to the fairucnow.org website. There, they can find other ways to support the picket line, whether it’s donating to our strike support and hardship fund, whether it’s going to the picket, finding a picket line location so they can join the picket line itself. And then just sending letters to support. People in the picket line could really benefit from hearing from other folks around the country, hearing their support and that they’re behind us. Because again, this is a fight not just for our better working conditions, but for the future of public higher education.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Raphael Jaime, a PhD candidate in English at UCLA and the president of UAW Local 2865, the union of 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors, and readers at the UC system. Rafael, thank you so much for joining us today on The Real News.
Rafael Jaime: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez. Again, before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.