More than 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system, including 10,000 from UC Berkeley, began an open-ended strike for better pay and benefits Monday.
Thousands of student workers marched on the UC Berkeley campus holding picket signs and singing union songs on the first day of the largest higher education strike in American history, according to organizers.
The Cal employees — from four United Auto Workers (UAW) bargaining units representing academic researchers, academic student employees, graduate student researchers and postdoctoral scholars — are joining graduate students across the 10 UC schools in a strike to raise the minimum salary.
The graduate students are demanding higher minimum salaries — $54,000 for grad workers and $70,000 for postdoctoral researchers — and better benefits, including free public transit passes, childcare subsidies, dependent healthcare and increased accessibility for disabled workers. They’re also calling for the UC to stop charging non-resident academic workers an additional fee.
“What we’re fighting for here is really the creation of a more equitable and more just form of academia that could really set a precedent far and wide,” said Kenzo Esquivel, a fourth-year graduate student in the school of Environmental Science Policy and Management at UC Berkeley who was on the picket line Monday afternoon.
Many undergraduate classes at UC Berkeley are taught by graduate students, who are on strike. The academic workers are striking until they reach an agreement with the University of California during bargaining, which has been underway since spring 2021.
Emiko Gardiner, a first-year graduate student, canceled all her sections of introductory astronomy until the strike is over. “Bad working conditions make for bad teaching,” said Gardiner, urging the UC system to come to the bargaining table so academic workers can “all do our jobs, which we all really would rather be doing.”
The University of California Office of the President said in an online statement that it believes its offers have been “generous, responsive to union priorities, and recognize the many valuable contributions of these employees” and that the UC is committed to “continuing to negotiate in good faith.”
Union leaders, however, disagree and have been keeping a tally of actions they’ve considered “unfair labor practices” by the UC.
“UC’s unlawful conduct is preventing us from reaching fair agreements that guarantee equity and dignified compensation,” said Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, which represents more than 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and readers, in a statement.
“We are the engine that runs the UC, and we’re paid poverty wages,” said Abrar Abidi, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the molecular and cell biology department at UC Berkeley and a strike captain for the SRU-UAW, a union that represents student researchers. At 8 a.m., Abidi was among thousands of grad students who began protesting at the Crescent Lawn on the west end of the UC Berkeley campus for increased wages and the annual cost of living adjustments.
Abidi said he makes $40,000 per year working as a lab researcher and spends more than half of his wages on rent and utilities despite sharing a divvied-up Victorian home with seven other grad students.
“When I first moved here, around 60% of my salary was going toward rent,” Abidi said. “The new month would start, and suddenly whatever I’d made … it’d just be gone.” A missed paycheck due to an accounting error, he said, once led to a “humiliating and embarrassing” incident in which he had to ask his roommate to cover his rent until the UC paid him a week later.
He’s likely not alone. A UAW report found that the average graduate student worker is “extremely rent-burdened” and spends more than 52% of their income on rent. Grad students at UC Berkeley, where housing prices are sky-high, live in basements, garages and large shared houses.
“Who does that leave out?” asked Esquivel. Lower salaries and higher rents “push out a huge number of people who could be inspiring and diverse academics. It’s like, ‘only apply if you have generational wealth, and or a partner who is making significantly more than you,'” he said.
Xander Lenc, a seventh-year Ph.D. candidate in the geography department and UAW strike captain who had been demonstrating on campus since 6 a.m., said he was prepared, if needed, to remain on strike until the end of the semester. As the recipient of a competitive federal grant, Lenc felt more fortunate than most. Still, to make ends meet, he had picked up extra work as a substitute teacher and editor.
He said most grad students are paid to work 20 hours per week, but put in significantly more unpaid hours for grading, committee work and course preparation.
“Our bosses are often our academic advisors (and) sometimes faculty,” Lenc said. “When you’re working for people who have more than just wage discipline that they can hang over you, there’s a strong, silent incentive to work longer hours.”
Monday morning’s rally was “like no other rally I’ve ever seen here,” Lenc said. “I don’t think the university expects the level of energy and willingness to withhold labor that is unfolding right now.”
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that many undergraduate classes at UC Berkeley are taught by graduate students, who are on strike. A previous version of this story said that “most” undergraduate classes had been cancelled.