After a five-week strike at the University of California, employed graduate students have ratified a pathbreaking new contract that offers most of them 50 or 60 percent wage hikes within the next two-and-a-half years.
The agreement, which covers more than 36,000 at the ten UC campuses, was not without controversy, with some arguing it was hardly far-reaching enough. Among teaching assistants, tutors, and readers, 11,386 voted yes, with just over 7,000 voting against. Student researchers, largely in the sciences, favored the agreement more strongly, with more than ten thousand supportive and less than half that opposed.
The agreement is a stunning accomplishment, raising the bar for all workers, in the academy or not, who have faced an inflationary surge that has eroded real incomes and generated economic anxiety in a post-pandemic era where layoffs and recession loom just over the horizon.
The UC grad students, who are organized into the United Auto Workers, have more than doubled the raises won in other recent wage settlements. Railway workers got just a 24 percent increase in the five-year contract that Congress imposed on them earlier this month; another recent agreement, for grocery workers in Southern California, provides for about a 20 percent boost over three years. Grad student employees at other universities have had to settle for single-digit wage increases. And for the 90 percent of all U.S. workers who are not in a union, pay has hardly kept pace with inflation, while employment turnover remains high.
The bargaining team that negotiated the new contract was sharply divided. A staunch minority, reflecting militant sentiment at the Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and Merced campuses, argued that the skyrocketing cost of housing and child care in California makes the new wage standard—$34,000 a year—hardly adequate to lift most grad students out of poverty. They wanted a much higher wage, which would then be linked to a cost-of-living index assuring that its real value does not erode. Moreover, the new agreement provides a higher wage scale for UCLA, UC San Francisco, and UC Berkeley grad students, which strikes many as inequitable, institutionalizing the more elite status of those campuses.
This combination of internal union factionalism, pace-setting union power, and vigorous democratic debate is reminiscent of the dramatic era of working-class advance when, in the 1940s and 1950s, the UAW confronted the most powerful corporations in the United States. Walter Reuther, the union’s legendary president, called the UAW “the vanguard in America.” Like the UC grad students today, the mid-twentieth-century UAW was divided into factions who competed for power by arguing that their collective bargaining program, their strike strategy, and their politics would win more money, more power, and more dignity for the rank and file. Even after Reuther and his caucus won control of the UAW in 1947, powerful locals, especially the giant Ford unit at the River Rouge complex, challenged his leadership and his priorities.
We’re seeing a replay of this salutary dynamic today. Although the Detroit-based UAW is but a shadow of its former size and power, the national union is in the midst of a vigorous and highly democratic contest for leadership. Insurgents, who want the union to adopt a far more aggressive effort to organize new members and reject “two-tier” wage disparities, have won two of the three vice presidential posts and at least six seats on the union’s fourteen-member executive board. In New England, a former grad student from Harvard was elected as one of those regional directors with an exec board seat. A runoff in January will determine the next president of the entire union.
In California, the presence of a militant minority has already played an important role in winning the recent strike. Early in December, university negotiators presented their “final offer,” which boosted the pay of the postdoctoral scholars and academic research staff but left grad students far behind. The postdocs and researchers, organized into a separate UAW local, took the deal, but some grad student union leaders, who might well have gone along, were confronted by protest and militancy from those who wanted to continue the strike and move the picket lines and protests off campus to confront the University’s Board of Regents, its top officials, and Governor Gavin Newsom.
That renewed militancy seems to have gotten results, signified by Newsom’s appointment of Darrell Steinberg as mediator in the strike. Steinberg is a liberal Democrat, mayor of Sacramento, and a former head of the California Senate. Consulting frequently with both the governor and the university president, Steinberg helped orchestrate a dramatic improvement in UC’s wage offer. Instead of earning a 3.5 percent wage increase in the 2024–25 academic year, grad students will now see their pay rise by 16.5 percent in the same nine-month period.
The UAW victory does not promise to quiet either the division or the militancy within grad student ranks. Rafael Jaime, president of the UC UAW local, admits that the “incomplete victories” found in the new contract “sting.” Organizing for the next contract fight will begin immediately.
Certainly, the divergent wage scales that give teaching assistants in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley a $2,500-a-year advantage are sure to rankle for the next two and a half years, until the current contract expires. Other issues, like the enormous out-of-state tuition that foreign students still have to pay and UC’s inadequate child-care subsidies are also sure to stoke discontent among student militants. But such conflict and controversy seem likely to ensure that UAW academic workers remain a vanguard both within the world of higher education and beyond.
Nelson Lichtenstein is Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His latest book is A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism.