Graduate students have been picketing loading docks at science buildings on the UC Berkeley campus. Credit: Ian Castro

For four weeks, UC academic workers have been striking for higher wages and benefits, spending the night outside UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ’s office and canceling discussion sections and office hours. 

The UC has come to a tentative agreement with the unions representing postdocs and academic researchers, but negotiations are still ongoing with student instructors and researchers. (The union representing student instructors lowered their base pay ask last week from $54,000 to $43,000.)

On the Cal campus, the strike is having tangible effects, even as the numbers of graduate students on the main picket lines falls. As the end of the semester nears — finals begin on Monday — UC Berkeley graduate students are ratcheting up the pressure by refusing to hold review sessions or grade exams. And a smaller group of strikers has been picketing campus deliveries, aiming to further disrupt daily life and research at the university. 

Chancellor Christ has called the disruptions “operational inconveniences” and promised to do everything possible to “ensure continuity of learning and research.” But for some students attempting to prepare for finals without the usual support, the impact has been profound. 

“We’re reaching out into a void and asking for help, and for a lot of students, that’s reminiscent of the pandemic, which scares us,” said James Weichert, the UC student association’s vice president of academic affairs, and an on-strike teacher’s assistant. Weichert said it’s had a serious impact on students’ academics and their mental health.

The UC has continued to pay most student workers throughout the duration of the strike, but graduate students, many of whom both take classes and teach them, are often losing out on skills they’ll need to complete their dissertation or, in the case of researchers, jeopardizing their own projects.

At the gas delivery picket line, the strikers are sometimes interfering with their own research. Marching back and forth early Wednesday morning, the strikers jokingly chanted about their delayed graduation, brought on by their own refusal to work during the strike. “Whose lost research? Our lost research!” they chanted. “Whose helium? Our helium!” 

Abrar Abidi, a fifth-year graduate student in molecular and cell biology, has been going to the gas delivery pickets, which he describes as part of a direct action strategy to “invert the balance of power” on campus.

“Slacking off or not going into the lab for three weeks is not actually enough to bring the UC system to a halt,” he said. “You need to do more than that.”

Some picketers attempt to interfere with ‘normal functioning’

Graduate student workers picket deliveries at Weill Hall, a biology building on the UC Berkeley campus, on Wednesday morning. Credit: Ian Castro

Since the first days of the strike, a group of picketers have been trying to obstruct university functioning. Instead of demonstrating in front of high-profile administrators, they tried other ways. 

Students temporarily halted construction at a new data and computer science complex. Then, they picketed the dumpsters to try to stop garbage from being picked up. There was also an effort to picket other deliveries, turning around shipments of toilet paper. 

But these only lasted a few days. Over time, their focus has turned to the delivery pickets at physics and biology buildings, where complex experiments in DNA sequencing and atomic physics rely on gasses and other materials to keep the necessary components ultra-cold. The picketers don’t block the drivers outright — they step aside if drivers ask — but they do try to persuade them to turn around in solidarity.

In one physics building, gaseous nitrogen was in such short supply that researchers had to power down their experiments. At the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, a delayed shipment of liquid nitrogen caused concern about a collection of 150,000 frozen animal specimens at risk of thawing. At a biology building, one researcher said that the frozen reagents used in experiments had thawed by the time they were delivered.

Michael Nachman, the director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, described the specimens as “irreplaceable,” adding that picketing students were considerate of the risks involved and let the nitrogen deliveries through before any specimens were seriously at risk.

While the delays ultimately lasted no more than a couple days, it’s just one more way that the ongoing strike has made “business as usual” at UC Berkeley that much more challenging. 

“We’re not making it impossible for people to get what they need,” Abidi said. “The point is just to generally disrupt and slow down and, to the extent we can, interfere with the normal functioning of things going on in these labs.”

Some of the drivers are also in unions and have been told they can respect picket lines, while others, including a driver in a FedEx truck, ignore the picket line and whip into the loading dock as students dart to the side.

At 7 a.m. on Wednesday morning, a white van with the label, “RS Analysis, Inc.” approached the loading dock at Weill Hall, a biology building on the west side of UC Berkeley campus. A dozen graduate students grabbed UAW union signs and hurried to reform their picket line.

Two student researchers approached the driver and explained why they were picketing. “Some of us earn as little as $22,000 a year,” the graduate student, bundled in a coat, told him. 

“That’s not enough,” the driver said sympathetically. 

After calling his supervisor and trying another entrance where he was met with more picketers, he drove away.

Grad students’ absence felt with finals starting Monday

A student checks their phone outside of an otherwise empty Cesar Chavez Student Center on Nov. 14, the first day of the strike. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ Catchlight

With final exams at UC Berkeley just days away, anxiety is building. 

Graduate students typically help students process course materials in discussions, prepare study guides and grade the exams. Their absence has been noticed.

“We’re not going to get a do-over at the beginning of January. We’re going to go into finals in a week after basically zero instruction in four weeks, and we’re going to be assigned a grade,” said Weichert, a senior in computer and data science. Weichert urged the UC to extend the deadline for students to switch to a “Pass/ No Pass” grading option.

UC Berkeley has recommended that faculty be “flexible about the format and scope of exams and assignments during the strike and about the amount of new content students are responsible for learning,” UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore wrote in an email.

Some professors have granted extensions on course assignments and replaced final exam essay questions with multiple choice formats, which makes exams easier to grade but can mean it’s more difficult for students to show the depth of what they learned.

As of Wednesday, 300 faculty across the UC have pledged to withhold 35,000 grades in solidarity with the strikers. Some faculty say they won’t do the extra grading to make up for the graduate students missing labor, while others simply may not have time to finish. 

The delayed grades could have consequences for students graduating this winter and applying for jobs, or those whose financial aid relies on a certain GPA — though the UC has said that only a small fraction of students could see their financial aid affected. UC Berkeley extended its deadline to submit grades by 10 days and plans to notify faculty which students need their grades most urgently, Gilmore wrote in an email. 

James Vernon, a UC Berkeley history professor and the chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, said that UC is weaponizing undergraduate students by saying that they will be impacted financially if grades are not returned. He said that it’s within the university’s power to suspend financial rules so that no students are impacted. 

“The University of California has developed a dependence — I sometimes call it an addiction — on low-wage and precarious labor,” said Vernon, who has been outspoken about his support for the strike.

Vernon canceled the remaining sections of his seminar on Black British History in solidarity with the striking graduate students, but he hasn’t decided whether he will withhold his students’ final grades yet.

Other professors have not been so embracing of the strike. Some are concerned about its impact on undergraduate students, while others, like chemistry professor Ron Cohen, say they think graduate student researchers should be treated as students, not employees.

“It takes a relationship that’s purely academic, where my only objective is to advance their careers, and imposes a bureaucratic labor management difference and adds to the already awkward power relationships that we work so hard to diminish,” he said. Cohen added that he doesn’t want anyone to be “hungry or homeless,” and the university should be responsible for helping anyone in that position through financial aid or other means.

The strike has become painfully personal on campus, Cohen said, threatening relationships. Since openly criticizing aspects of the strike, Cohen has had students demonstrate outside his office.

Student workers on strike hang a sign under Sather Gate on UC Berkeley campus on Nov. 14, the first day of the strike. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ Catchlight

On Tuesday afternoon at Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley undergraduates said they’ve been missing their graduate student instructors keenly. 

Junior Kiki Hung puzzled over a computational structures assignment, while junior Jasmine Lozano said she was worried about her statistics final without a graduate student to break down the concepts. 

But it was the university system, not the graduate students, for which the undergrads at Sproul reserved their criticism. Freshman Sam Bhowmick wanted the TAs to be paid more, in part because he wants to become a TA himself.

“These are the people who do most of the labor at the university,” Lozana’s friend, senior Aisha Wallace-Palomares, said while Lozana nodded, adding that grad students aren’t paid enough to afford the high cost of living in the Bay Area

“It’s reflective of the lack of empathy that the institution has for the lives of the people here. If they don’t care about their educators and their workers, then how do they feel about their students, how do they feel about someone who’s not on any sort of payroll?” Lozana said.

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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,...