UAW strike stuns University of California in 10 cities, heading into fourth week

The UAW, a labor union started in Detroit to represent the rights of autoworkers, is leading a strike 2,400 miles away involving some 48,000 academic workers in 10 University of California cities — including Berkeley, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

The strike, believed to be the biggest organized labor action in the U.S. this year and the biggest in history involving higher education, began early on Nov. 14 after contract talks stalled on improving wages, job security and workplace protections.

It exceeds the size of the widespread UAW strike on General Motors that involved 46,000 workers at 55 sites in 10 states just three years ago and it clashed with final exams, forced some classes to go from in-person to virtual, and stopped laboratory research.

And it shows the potential influence the UAW has on shaping worker benefits well beyond traditional autoworkers.

"This is one of the most striking examples of a resurgence of the labor movement that we’ve seen," said Harley Shaiken, an emeritus professor at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in labor and the global economy. "It's a bit like autoworkers sitting down at Flint 85 years ago, except on a college campus today. Workers then and student workers today, seeking to improve their lives through solidarity."

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The work these strikers do for the university and their impact is not trivial: “They perform experiments, write research grant proposals, and generate creative ideas that push the boundaries of their fields. Their hard work and dedication is a major reason why the school system received $3.7 billion in federal research contracts and grant revenue in fiscal year 2020," U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, said in a 2021 letter to the UC president expressing support for the academic workers.

UAW officials pointed to past court battles that reflect a long-term union investment in protecting rights on college campuses.

Ray Curry, president of the UAW, told the Free Press in a statement Friday: "Our union has been a part of the fight for academic workers to have the legal right to bargain since the 1980s. We have laid the groundwork to establish that right through numerous court cases and strategic campaigns. We will continue to lead in this sector as we bargain innovative contracts that set the standard for workers in higher education.”

UAW-represented academic workers from the University of California system and their supporters picket for higher wages Nov. 14, 2022 in Berkeley.
UAW-represented academic workers from the University of California system and their supporters picket for higher wages Nov. 14, 2022 in Berkeley.

The intensity of this fight cannot be overstated, said Shaiken, whose grandfather, a Russian immigrant, moved from Ohio to Detroit to earn $5 a day at Ford’s Highland Park plant and spent most of his 33 years on the line at The Rouge.

"When they had a strike vote, over 36,000 voted, which is very high as a percentage, and 98% voted to strike. That kind of an outpouring is very significant," Shaiken said of academic workers at UC. "We’re seeing history being made, given the size of this strike and its location ... that will leave a lasting mark."

Harley Shaiken with his grandpa, Philip Chapman, in Detroit circa 1940. Shaiken, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, is a national expert on labor and his grandfather worked for Ford.
Harley Shaiken with his grandpa, Philip Chapman, in Detroit circa 1940. Shaiken, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, is a national expert on labor and his grandfather worked for Ford.

After 15 days on strike, the UAW units representing about 12,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers reached tentative five-year agreements with the university. They vote whether to ratify Monday through Friday this week.

“We are proud to have reached agreements that address the soaring cost of living, and reflect the value of our contributions at UC,” said Neal Sweeney, 46, of Davis, who is president of UAW Local 5810.

Now, all eyes are on negotiations bargaining for 36,000 academic student employees and student researchers.

Lifeblood of the operation

The UAW-represented academic workers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Davis, Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Riverside, Irvine and Merced do much of the research and teaching at the University of California.

UC has more than 800 research centers, institutes, laboratories, and programs that include five medical centers and three Department of Energy National Laboratories. Areas of study range from human cognition and the development of machine learning to the creation of disease-resistant crops and mitigation strategies for climate change, according to the UC website.

The academic workers on strike over the past three weeks have been postdoctoral scholars who do professional research, teaching assistants, academic student employees, graduate student researchers, academic researchers, readers, tutors and others.

"We're all bargaining to make the university more fair and equitable," Sweeney told the Free Press. "This is about making the university welcoming for working parents with more paid leave, child care benefits, job security."

The UAW has taken great pride in bargaining as a united front despite having separate contracts because there's strength in numbers, he said. "Classes are being canceled. Labs are shut down," he said.

Neal Sweeney said Sept. 17, 2019 he was "proud" to pay UAW dues as a California-based academic worker who supported GM workers collecting strike pay. In recent weeks, University of California workers represented by the UAW have received strike pay. This photo was taken during a visit home to Shain Park in Birmingham, Michigan in 2015.
Neal Sweeney said Sept. 17, 2019 he was "proud" to pay UAW dues as a California-based academic worker who supported GM workers collecting strike pay. In recent weeks, University of California workers represented by the UAW have received strike pay. This photo was taken during a visit home to Shain Park in Birmingham, Michigan in 2015.

Sweeney, a Birmingham, Michigan, native whose father worked on a GM assembly line in college, is both a postdoctoral scholar and an academic researcher in Santa Cruz, studying how stem cells may be used in late-stage eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

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Until their tentative agreements are ratified, postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers plan to continue striking in support of the 36,000 other UAW-represented members still bargaining for a contract.

One ongoing snag is the short length of job appointments, which can create hardship for teaching assistants and tutors who need to sign housing leases but have a limited work commitment, said Kavitha Iyengar, 29, a Lansing native now living in Berkeley. She's a doctoral student in legal history who grades legal coursework while also serving as vice president of UAW Local 2865, which represents students who work as teaching assistants, tutors and readers.

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"This is really the minutes-before-midnight phenomenon, when the end of classes, grading and exams facilitate compromise between parties which want an agreement," said William Gould IV, emeritus professor of law at Stanford University.

"If the union is successful in negotiating what objectively could be seen as real improvements in the areas of wages and rent supplements, in particular, this undoubtedly is going to resonate with other workers who are similarly situated," he said. "Particularly in this part of the country and in other geographical locations where the cost of living is so high compared to the rest of the country."

Gould, who wrote "For Labor to Build Upon" (Cambridge University Press, spring 2022), finds a lasting legacy of the U.S. Civil War is that democracy in the workforce is an essential part of societal democracy. He looks in his writing at the world of low-paying, gig-economy jobs that lack union protection.

Casino workers, beermakers, scientists

For many, the UAW is closely associated with America's automobile industry. Its name is officially the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.

But things have changed drastically for the union founded in 1935. Just under half of the estimated 400,000 dues-paying members come from outside the auto industry.

About 52% are hourly and salaried workers affiliated with auto suppliers and the Detroit Three — Ford Motor Co., General Motors or Stellantis, which builds Jeeps, Ram Trucks and Chrysler vehicles, according to May 2021 UAW data.

The UAW represents members who work in everything from casino gaming to beer production to farm equipment — as well as academics.

"It's going to where the action is," Gould said. "The action is increasingly in this world of the unorganized and the more vulnerable."

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All members pay into the same strike fund, which gives the UAW leverage.

The UAW had nearly $841 million in strike funds, according to its Aug. 31, 2022, financial report. This is a pot of money, fed by member union dues, that pays a $400 stipend for workers going to the strike line instead of going to work.

Union leaders have compared the strike fund to having a strong military when preparing for war.

Not your father's labor union

Just two years ago, academic workers made up 20% of the UAW membership, or 80,000 of some 400,000 from public and private universities such as the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, the University of California, Harvard University, Brown University, Boston College, the University of Washington, New York University, University of Connecticut and the New School in New York.

The UAW added Columbia University postdoctoral researchers last year, many working to eradicate cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes and other diseases.

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A majority of academic workers in the UAW are based at the University of California, California State University and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which specializes in clean energy, supercomputing and atomic structure.

“Sometimes there’s a bit of an eyebrow raise when you say UAW. People ask, ‘United Auto Workers?’ But we chose the UAW because it represents the most academic workers of any union in the country. And it bargains great contracts,” David Parsons, then-president of UAW Local 4121, representing graduate and undergraduate students and researchers at the University of Washington, said in 2019.

Student workers represented by the UAW at the University of California, and their supporters, protest during contract talks on November 14, 2022.
Student workers represented by the UAW at the University of California, and their supporters, protest during contract talks on November 14, 2022.

Anke Schennink, then-president of UAW Local 5810, which represents postdoctoral researchers on University of California campuses, said in 2019, "The UAW provides us access to labor lawyers, professional negotiators and training."

Organizing the UC system and higher ed overall was considered critical to the national UAW strategy.

UC officials praise success on negotiations so far as talks continue on the final two contracts.

“Our dedicated colleagues are vital to UC’s research activities and we are very pleased to have reached agreements that honor their many important contributions,” Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations, said in a Nov. 29 news release from the UC Office of the President. “These agreements also uphold our tradition of supporting these employees with compensation and benefits packages that are among the best in the country.”

She noted that the other two UAW groups, graduate student researchers and academic student employees who work as teaching assistants and tutors and readers, remain in ongoing contact negotiations.

Supporting a family on $24,000

As a professor, Shaiken said he has seen tremendous sympathy for the striking workers. The average pay for graduate students in STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math at these prestigious California schools ranges from $38,000 to $45,000 a year while their peers in other fields earn about $24,000 annually on average, he noted.

"You cannot live on that," Shaiken said. "Here’s why we’re seeing ... 48,000 people paralyzing the university right now. Rents have skyrocketed in California. For these students, many don’t have a decent place to live or have to sacrifice other essentials. Costs have gone up and wages won’t cover it. That is something that has gotten a lot of good people angry."

Student workers from the University of California in 10 cities, represented by the UAW, strike for better wages on Nov. 28, 2022 in Berkeley.
Student workers from the University of California in 10 cities, represented by the UAW, strike for better wages on Nov. 28, 2022 in Berkeley.

Andy Ross, a literary agent based in Berkeley whose daughter attends college there, told the Free Press: "Students are back to taking classes on Zoom. Some professors are striking in solidarity. The other thing is that term papers and tests aren't being graded, which indicates how important these grad students are. Everything is falling apart without them.

"California is an expensive place to live. The grad students have been exploited for a long time."

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At issue for union activists and supporters is the rapid growth or "bloat" of administrators with significantly higher salaries while wages for hard-working classroom workers and researchers have remained static and outdated, Shaiken said. "That has contributed to a lot of concern about what’s going on," he said.

Support for the strike also comes from the California Labor Federation, which represents 1.2 million workers in manufacturing, retail, construction, health care, delivery and other industries. Many of their members have refused to cross academic worker picket lines.

23% salary increase

Negotiators reached a deal for postdoctoral scholars who will vote on whether to ratify this week.

"The agreement reached will include the vast majority of postdocs getting a 20% to 23% salary increase," Sweeney said in a Zoom call with reporters Nov. 29. "This was a significant movement from the university. … That’s really what got us over the finish line."

In addition, postdoctoral scholars will get two-year appointments rather than just one year. It helps with job security and stability as well as cost reduction for international researchers required to apply for visas. Postdoc scholars who currently earn $54,500 a year will see their wage increase by $12,000 a year to $66,000, Sweeney said.

"That's very significant," he said.

An entry-level academic researcher in a junior specialist position currently making $49,000 would see compensation increase by $5,549 to $54,549 by July, Sweeney said.

Contract highlights of tentative agreements

Two of four UAW-represented local unions in California will vote this week on proposed contracts.

Postdoctoral scholars, who do scientific research at the university, are being offered:

  • Implementation of a new salary scale by April 1, 2023, which will result in average salary increases of 8% for all.

  • Annual pay increases each October, with an increase of about 7.5% in the first year and 3.5% in each remaining year.

  • Annual experience-based pay increases of 3.7% for eligible postdocs.

  • Up to $2,500 annual reimbursement for child care expenses. Annual $100 increases in 2024, 2025 and 2026.

  • Effective Jan. 1, 2023, a new special Postdoc Paid Leave program of eight weeks of 100% paid family leave for all postdocs.

'29% salary increase'

Academic researchers, who make scientific discoveries in their fields of expertise, will vote this week on a proposed contract that includes:

  • Pay increases of 4.5% in the first year, 3.5% in the second, third and fourth years; and 4% in the fifth year.

  • Effective Jan. 1, 2023, eight weeks 100% pay for family care and bonding for eligible academic researchers.

  • Increased bereavement leave.

  • A typical academic researcher will receive 29% in salary increases (between scale and merit increases) over the life of the contract.

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Both tentative agreements include:

  • New contract provision to address abusive conduct and a dispute resolution process.

  • Access to a pre-tax program to pay for transit costs and an e-bike purchase discount program.

  • UC agrees to attempt to negotiate reduced-fee or no-fee access to regional transit system(s).

Negotiations for postdoctoral scholars began in July 2021 and in May 2022 for academic researchers.

Academic researchers at UC joined the UAW in 2018, getting their first contract in 2019. Academic student employees formed in the late 1990s and won their first contract in 2000. Postdoctoral researchers formed around 2008 and won their first contract in 2010. Student researchers won recognition from the University of California in late 2021, and this will be their first contract.

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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: UAW strike stuns University of California, heading into fourth week