After the strike, UC and student workers reach tentative agreement

After the strike, UC and student workers reach tentative agreement

  • US News
  • December 17, 2022
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In a major breakthrough in the five-week strike that paralyzed classes and sparked grading turbulence, the University of California and the union leadership, which represents 36,000 graduate students, reached an interim collective bargaining agreement on Friday that will increase their pay and improve benefits would.

If approved by members, the agreement will resolve the nation’s largest strike by academic staff — 48,000 teaching assistants, tutors, researchers and postdocs at the 10 campuses of the UC system and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. All sides hailed the agreement as a historic step that has the potential to transform graduate education and working conditions at the national level.

The tentative agreement would grant student workers in two United Auto Workers bargaining units a minimum wage increase from about $23,250 to about $34,000 for nine months of part-time work. The unions had asked for their wages to be doubled to $54,000 for 12 months – but union leaders agreed to submit the offer to their members for ratification.

Rafael Jaime, president of the UAW 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other graduate educators, said the ratification vote will take place Monday through Friday. Its members, along with 17,000 doctoral students from the recently formed SRU-UAW, will remain on strike until and unless they ratify the agreement. He said he “proudly” recommends ratification.

Jaime said union members didn’t get everything they were asking for, but that the agreement would give the lowest-paid researchers an 80 percent pay rise over the term of the contract, which would last until May 31, 2025. He said those wage increases, which could add up to more than $13,000 annually at some colleges, will help alleviate the huge rent burden faced by many graduate students — many of whom spend half their salaries or more on housing.

The agreement also provides improved childcare and health care support for dependents. In addition, UC agreed to cover additional tuition for up to three years for eligible international students.

“This was a historic strike and we won a historic agreement,” said Jaime, a UCLA graduate student. “This sets the bar for public higher education across the country.”

The breakthrough in the protracted standoff over wages and other issues that has rocked final exams and grades as students recently finished the fall semester came after both sides agreed last week to bring in an independent mediator. Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento and a former state senate chairman who helped broker an agreement between Kaiser Permanente and some 2,000 striking psychiatrists earlier this year, stepped in to mediate.

Earlier, UAW 5810, which represents postdoctoral researchers and academic researchers, ratified a new contract that increased their minimum salary with adjustments to $70,000, one of the highest in the country. The new contract also offers increased support for childcare and health care for dependents, as well as transit subsidies and protections from harassment and bullying – provisions also offered to graduating students.

“I want to thank Mayor Steinberg and negotiators from both the university and the UAW for coming together in a spirit of compromise to reach this tentative agreement. This is a positive step forward for the university and our students, and I am grateful for the progress we have made together,” UC President Michael V. Drake said in a statement.

“Our academic staff and graduate students are central to our academic enterprise and make incredible contributions to the university’s research and educational mission. These agreements will make our student staff some of the best supported in public higher education. If approved, these contracts will recognize their important work and allow us to continue to attract the best academic talent from across California and around the world. I also want to thank our faculty, students and staff who have handled the burden of this strike over the past month with dedication and patience.”

In a statement, Steinberg congratulated both sides on ending what he described as a “difficult impasse”.

“The union has fought hard to ensure the university’s graduate students earn a living wage in every campus community. They have achieved a new national standard for their members,” Steinberg said.

“President Drake’s leadership is a model for other universities across the country. This agreement represents a sea change for higher education at the graduate level.”

UC Board of Regents Chairman Richard Leib praised Steinberg for helping the two sides break the stalemate in just a week. “It has been our goal to support our PhD students and this agreement will allow us to continue to attract the best and brightest,” he said.

Among union members, some celebrated the news of the agreement on Twitter on Friday night, saying the pay rises and benefits would set a new precedent for academia.

But in a lengthy thread, a UC Santa Barbara graduate laid out myriad issues with the negotiation process, saying the contract proposal will not address workers’ needs.

“It gives us a pay rise sufficient to disqualify us from government aid programs and move us to the next tax bracket, but not enough to cover these new costs,” the tweet said.

In a series of two tweets, a UCLA graduate student said the contract would continue to result in “precarious housing, medical debt, skipped meals, inaccessibility and racist policing” for UC colleagues.

However, Jaime said the improved pay and benefits will make UC more accessible to a more diverse range of graduate students — particularly those on lower incomes. “More people will be able to live and work near the University of California,” he said.

He added that it is still unclear how and when the fall semester’s final exams and assignments will be assessed and grades determined. He said graduate students are appointed for each academic semester and for some of them those semesters end next week. His own tenure as a teaching assistant in an introductory Shakespeare class ends in two weeks, giving him time to mark at least part of the work when the agreement is ratified next Friday and the strike ends.

The preliminary agreement includes:

For graduate researchers, a new six-point salary scale will be set at $34,564.50 for 50% temp work through October 1, 2024. A cover letter with UC San Francisco will also move their researchers up the pay scale by then.

For academic student staff, the nine-month minimum teaching assistant salary through October 1, 2024 is $34,000 for 50% temp work. The rate at Berkeley, San Francisco and UCLA is $36,500. The University will proportionally increase rates for Associate Instructors and Teaching Fellows effective October 1, 2024 to match the additional increases for teaching assistants.

Members of both tariff units receive certain study grants. Childcare reimbursements are set at $1,350/quarter or $2,025/semester plus $1,350 for the summer. The graduate students are eligible for an additional $100 per year beginning October 1, 2023 and October 1, 2024.

Eligible student workers continue to participate in the UC-sponsored student health plan to the same degree as other eligible students on that campus. UC pays 100% of dependent child awards for qualifying student workers.

Under the interim agreement, all charges of unfair labor practices will be dropped upon ratification, student workers will be expected to return to work, and pickets will be immediately pulled down.

Times contributor Gregory Yee contributed to this report.

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