UC Berkeley academic workers rally on Sproul Plaza on Monday 14, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Academic workers at UC Berkeley were back on the picket line Monday morning, a week after a 48,000-strong strike across UC campuses began. 

Negotiations continued over the weekend, with some progress on health benefits and workplace security for international students. But the University of California and four unions representing academic workers remain at odds over the strike’s central issue: compensation. 

Four unions are demanding a wage floor of $54,000 for grad workers and $70,000 for postdocs, which they said would lift academic workers out of rent burden and end what they have called the university’s poverty wages.

Instead, the UC’s latest proposal offered grad student researchers a 9%-10% wage increase in year one of the contract, with a 3% increase each subsequent year. (To put it into context: under that proposal, Abrar Abidi, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate who makes $40,000 per year, could see his salary increased to $44,000.) 

Tarini Hardikar, a bargaining team member for the Student Researchers United-United Auto Workers (SRU-UAW) said it’s not enough.

“If the UC truly wants to be committed to creating a better academia, paying its workers a living wage is step zero,” Hardikar said, pointing to the size of the UC’s $152 billion endowment

UC Provost Michael Brown called the unions’ wage and housing demands an “overwhelming” financial hit in a letter obtained by the Los Angeles Times

Ryan King, a spokesperson for the office of the president, said the UC’s proposal would “set the standard for graduate academic employee support” at public universities. Graduate student workers are part-time employees, King wrote, and “compensation is just one of the many ways in which they are supported as students during their time with the University.”

Union leaders have also called for an end to what they consider “unfair labor practices” by the UC during bargaining. The union has filed unfair practice charges against the UC for allegedly withholding information needed to bargain, bypassing the bargaining process, and intimidating union members. The UC has in statements, continued to deny these accusations.

In the week since it began, the strike — the largest labor stoppage in the U.S. this year — has turned the UC Berkeley campus into a hub of strike activity and garnered widespread support in Berkeley and beyond. Throngs of academic workers have continued chanting, singing and marching for the last six days. Across campus, large banners — sometimes spanning multiple floors — have been gleefully unfurled from roofs and windows.  

It has garnered widespread support in Berkeley and beyond. The chair of the Berkeley Faculty Associations called on professors to cancel classes. The Berkeley City Council sent a letter to UC President Michael Drake supporting academic workers. Mail carriers and construction workers represented by labor unions refused to cross picket lines in solidarity with the academic workers’ unions. 

On campus, the mood has been festive. The strikers and their supporters hosted a concert with indie pop and rock band Casachanclas, held a bike strike and marched on President Drake’s $6.5 million home in The Elmwood in Berkeley. This week promises more strike activity as bargaining drags on behind the scenes in classrooms and on Zoom. 

Negotiations on work security and environment inch forward

The UC hasn’t addressed the “elephant in the room,” said Samuel Chan, a bargaining team member for UAW Local 2865, which represents grad student instructors, undergraduate student instructors, readers and tutors. It hasn’t proposed wage increases that the union has deemed satisfactory, Chan said. Nor has it offered a proposal to waive non-residential supplemental tuition — one of the union’s core demands.

But “real progress” has been made since the strike began on Nov. 14, said Jess Banks, a bargaining team member for UAW Local 2865. The two sides are now closer to securing a grievance process for academic student employees, Banks said. They’ve also come eye-to-eye on staffing and workload issues for grad student instructors.

Understaffing, said Banks, a reader for the UC Berkeley math department, has resulted in overworked staff, particularly in its cash-strapped electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) department. (In a Daily Cal op-ed, ex-UC Berkeley EECS lecturer Nicholas Weaver described the department as “in danger of shattering just due to demand.”)

It’s a problem the university was initially “reluctant” to discuss, Chan said. His unit began bargaining with the UC in March. Now, “I think they are genuinely interested in — or have been pressurized enough to — bargain with us on the EECS situation,” he said.

The UC and student researchers union have reached a tentative agreement on increased workplace security for international workers, said Hardikar, the bargaining team member for the student researchers union.

Bargaining team members from the UAW Local 5810, which represents postdocs and academic researchers, were not available for comment, but according to a statement from the union website, the UC and postdocs unit have reached an agreement on more minor issues, including health benefit improvements. 

“While important, (these issues) are not the major ones dividing the parties,” the statement read. 

An outpouring of support from city leaders, faculty, and undergraduates

On Monday morning, academic workers blocked the entrance to the UC Berkeley campus at the Crescent Lawn, chanting, “Berkeley is a union town” as academic workers cooked pancakes for strikers nearby. In the last week, the strike has drawn support from some city leaders, professors, undergraduates and other unions.

“The system is broken, graduate school should be affordable for everyone, and only this labor movement can fix it,” James Vernon, the Helen Fawcett Distinguished Professor of history, wrote on Twitter. “Faculty cancel your classes and support our graduate students so one day they can do your job.”  

UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore said Friday that the “overwhelming majority of our classes taught by faculty or lecturers took place as scheduled.” Some students have reported that many sections, labs and discussions, often taught by graduate student instructors, have been canceled amid the strike.

Undergraduate students held a solidarity rally Friday next to the Campanile and showed up in hundreds to support the striking workers. Some professors showed up to the picket line holding signs like “Faculty Solidarity” and “Pay our Grads.” A professor at UC Santa Cruz published an op-ed in the LA Times explaining why he supports the strike, calling the average annual earnings for a grad student worker “an impossible wage to live on.” 

“The City of Berkeley would not be what it is without their contributions,” the Berkeley City Council wrote in its letter to Drake. 

Other unions serving the UC have refused to cross the picket line in solidarity with United Auto Workers unions. Last week, building workers from OE3, IBEW 595 and LiUNA temporarily halted construction on a new data and computer science complex on UC Berkeley’s campus. And teachers from the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and Oakland Education Association have shown up at picket lines. 

After the Teamsters union told mail delivery drivers they could honor the picket line, a video of USPS drivers standing in a line honking their horns outside UC San Francisco went viral on Twitter. Some students at UC Berkeley received emails advising them to use FedEx for urgent deliveries. 

“We’re basically just asking the university to bargain in good faith about these fundamental issues, like making sure that the students and workers here can actually afford to live here,” 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.

And until that happens, Esquival said he and thousands of other academic workers will remain on the picket line.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...