Disagreement among striking UC unionists over interim pact
A day after the University of California and union leaders representing 36,000 academic workers announced a landmark deal that could end a five-week strike, duels over the interim pact emerged among supporters and opponents of graduate students.
Rafael Jaime, president of one of the two United Auto Workers unions involved in the negotiations, called Friday’s agreement a “historic” victory that would change the lives of thousands of student workers and inspire colleagues across the country to fight for better wages and Working conditions. The pact, he said, would raise minimum wages by up to 80% and improve support for childcare, health care for dependents and international students.
“This contract really sets a new standard for colleges,” Jaime said Saturday. “This is an important step in building a fairer UC that is accessible to workers from diverse backgrounds.”
But opponents of the tentative pact announced Saturday they would launch a nationwide campaign to urge their peers to oppose ratification. They said the wage increases are not as significant as billed, would not materialize fully until the fall of 2024, and would do little to ease the rent burden for academic workers struggling with housing costs in the expensive neighborhoods where where many UC campuses are located.
Mark Woodall, a UC Merced graduate student in physics and chair of its UAW 2865 campus unit, said the tentative agreement dropped the requirement to link wage gains and housing costs, which he called the “organizing principle” behind the strike, which began on Nov. 14 started with 48,000 teaching assistants, tutors, researchers and postdocs.
“The idea of these being sold as spectacular wins is just ridiculous,” Woodall said.
The divided views were reflected in the votes to accept the tentative agreement by members of the tariff team for UAW 2865, representing 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other academic staff, and SRU-UAW, representing 17,000 graduate students. Members of the UAW 2865 negotiating team supported Pact 11-8; for SRU-UAW the vote was 13-7.
Campus UAW units – each providing two representatives for the negotiation team – showed significant differences.
All representatives from UCLA, Berkeley, Davis and Irvine supported the agreement; everyone from Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Merced opposed it. UC Riverside representatives from both negotiating entities shared their vote. For UC San Diego, three of the four representatives supported the pact; for UC San Francisco, one supported it and the other abstained. Both graduate students from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory voted yes.
Both sides said they would work hard to win over fellow union members when the ratification vote takes place Monday through Friday. If the pact is ratified by a majority of members, the strike ends.
For academic student workers, the tentative agreement would increase the minimum wage from about $23,250 to about $34,000 for nine months of part-time work through October 1, 2024. The rate at Berkeley, San Francisco and UCLA would be $36,500. The union had called for doubling the minimum wage to $54,000 for 12 months, but leaders agreed to submit the compromise for ratification by members, Jaime said.
Graduate student researchers would earn a minimum of $34,564.50 for 50% temp work through October 1, 2024, under a new six-point pay scale.
Members of both bargaining units would receive certain student grants. Childcare reimbursements would be set at $1,350 per quarter, or $2,025 per semester, plus $1,350 for the summer. UC also agreed to pay 100% of dependent child bonuses for eligible student workers, introduce new protections against bullying and harassment, and increase paid family leave.
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 unit went back to work last week. Her new contract also offers increased support for childcare and health care for dependents, as well as transit subsidies and protections from harassment and bullying.
The breakthrough in the protracted strike over graduate student salaries and other issues – which upset final exams and grades at the end of the fall semester – came after both sides agreed to use an independent mediator. Darrell Steinberg, Mayor of Sacramento and former State Senate Chairman, stepped in to help.
Steinberg said in an interview that he began meeting and “listening hard” with both sides on December 10. By Wednesday, he had made enough progress to begin in-person negotiations and was working after 11 p.m. to exchange offers and counteroffers between the two sides while hiding at Sacramento City Hall.
Steinberg did not deny reports that he was ready to leave without compromise as both sides continued to resist during the negotiations.
“You get to a point where the parties get a little more involved, and you have to say, ‘I’m going to insist that you consider those options now — that’s it,'” he said.
A critical compromise, he said, came when UC agreed to raise minimum wages to about $34,000 and unions agreed to drop calls for an increase in a salary guarantee for teaching assistants and other academic staff from nine to 12 months .
A majority of negotiating team members also agreed to drop calls for a full waiver of additional tuition fees for international students during their doctoral journey, which can last six or seven years. Instead, they agreed to codify the current general practice of tuition waivers for up to three years after doctoral students have completed teaching, research and other requirements to advance to a doctoral candidacy.
Aarthi Sekar, a UC Davis graduate student and a member of the negotiation team, said she plans to promote the pact across campus as a big step forward in addressing the high cost of living.
“Speaking to members as a member of the negotiation team for UC Davis, there is a lot of excitement for this contract,” she said.
But Woodall said the wage increases were oversold and the wage increase was barely enough to support the escalating cost of living, even in Merced. When he moved to the city of Central Valley in 2017, he paid $730 for a one-bedroom apartment, he said; such units now cost about $1,300.
He also said he disagreed with the higher pay for colleagues at UCLA, Berkeley and San Francisco, saying all graduate students should get “equal pay for equal work.” But these three colleges tend to offer higher salaries to graduate students to compete for top talent nationwide.
Hannah Freund, a graduate student at UC Riverside who plans to oppose ratification, said her salary would increase by about 44% over the life of the contract, which runs through May 31, 2025. However, they said the increase would not be enough to cover high healthcare costs for their fragile health. Freund also said they were concerned that the closed negotiations did not allow for further input from union members.
Freund said graduate students have leverage to fight for more profits by holding back their work to grade final exams and assignments.
Regardless of what disagreements have surfaced among members of the negotiating team, leaders say the democratic process will come into its own this week.
“We have a very large and diverse union of 36,000 people,” Jaime said. “It will be up to each individual member how they want to vote on this treaty.”