‘It’s really stressful.’ UC Davis students worry about finals as academic worker strike continues

Final exams for UC Davis undergraduates start next week, and Giselle Ariza is terrified. Normally the first-year student would go to the the library and get help from one of the calculus tutors, but since most of them are on strike, she’s on her own.

“Honestly it’s really stressful, way more stressful than I thought it would be,” Ariza, 18, said of her first quarter on campus. “Yesterday I was bawling my eyes out.”

Nearly 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system have been on strike for 17 days over alleged unfair labor practices. Postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, represented by UAW Local 5810, came to an agreement with administrators early Tuesday morning. But teaching assistants, tutors, graders and student researchers are still bargaining. All workers say they’ll remain on strike until the contracts are ratified.

Wednesday wasn’t the first time one of Ariza’s classes was canceled after she’d arrived on campus. It’s happened so regularly over the last three weeks that she has started conferring with classmates the night before trying to figure out whether they think they’ll actually have class the next day. Why waste gas driving in for a class that isn’t happening, she reasons.

During the first week of the strike, demonstrators came into the library yelling, “Out of the library, into the streets!” as Ariza was studying for a calculus exam. During the midterm, she could hear and see the strikers outside her classroom window.

“I get why they’re on strike, but it also sucks for us,” Ariza said. “I wish the school would’ve done something before it got to this.”

Third-year Aniya Smith, 20, hopes the final exam in her philosophy class will be open book and on Zoom. She hasn’t had a lecture or discussion in three weeks since her professor is honoring the picket line and doesn’t fully understand material from the last unit.

“I’m anxious,” Smith said. “The hardest content we had to learn is when they went on strike.”

Smith worries about passing the class so she can make progress toward her communications degree. But she emphasized that she fully supports the striking workers and hopes the university will present them with fair contracts soon.

I want people to get paid what they deserve so they can live. It’s the least the college can do,” she said.

The strike has been particularly stressful for students in large lab-based classes, who say most of their learning happens in their discussion and lab sections led by the TAs.

“The lectures are so complicated, we learn most of the material in discussion,” said second-year Aidan Hymel, 19, of his introductory cell biology class. “I think we definitely feel their importance.”

Hymel, a neuroscience major, is taking four classes in the science and math departments, and all of his TAs are on strike. His last math midterm, which he took right before the strike, has yet to be graded. In his psychology class, the professor graded only the multiple choice section and five randomly selected short-answer responses.

“It’s not really fair, but it’s what they have to do,” Hymel said.

Hymel’s cell biology classmate Alex Kunz, 19, has relied on YouTube videos to help him understand concepts that he would’ve learned in their hands-on lab class. Both students strongly support the striking workers, and they hope the university comes up with a fair contract before finals begin. Their cell biology final exam is next Wednesday, and they’re feeling nervous.

“I wish UC would negotiate with the workers so we can get our TAs back,” said Kunz, a biological systems engineering major. “Make an agreement soon and help the students out!”

State officials last week said they had issued seven unfair labor practices complaints against the university system in its negotiations with the workers. The Public Employment Relations Board’s findings bolstered union allegations that the university withheld information from the bargaining teams and tried to make deals with different groups of workers outside of negotiations.

On Monday, academic senate faculty announced they would join the strike in solidarity with the academic workers. Faculty who signed on to the letter agreed to both honor the picket line and not take on work normally done by those on strike. That includes not teaching classes, advising students, administering exams or issuing grades until the strike concludes.

Prof. Seeta Chaganti, who has taught at UC Davis for 20 years, canceled her undergraduate English class on Chaucer when the strike started and has picked up shifts on the picket line. She’s tried to use the strike as a teachable moment, sending her students information about the strike and encouraging them to join the picket line.

“The issues that the grad students are striking over are issues that affect the entire student community,” Chaganti said. “They are not getting the same kind of education that they would be if the TAs were not in a position where they had to strike in order to actually secure acceptable living conditions for themselves.”

The students are working on their final papers, which will tie any Chaucer text they’ve read in the class to a current event. Some students might even connect their papers to the labor movement taking place on their campus now.

“Sometimes in a class, you learn what you thought you were going to learn,” Chaganti said. “And sometimes, you learn something else that might actually be even more important.”