The Largest Strike in the History of American Higher Ed

The Largest Strike in the History of American Higher Ed

What happens at the University of California will set the standard for a sector that today employs more people than the federal government.

Academic workers and supporters march on the picket line at UCLA on November 15. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The “A” in UAW has long carried an elaborate set of meanings, both economic and social. Rooted in the vehicle factories of the Upper Midwest, the United Automobile Workers organized hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers in America’s most important industry by the onset of the Second World War. That war generated aircraft industry jobs, many of them held by female Rosies who riveted airplane frames. By the end of the war, many of those workers had joined the UAW alongside workers from the farm equipment industry, giving the union a new full name: the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers. (Aircraft would later be changed to Aerospace during the Cold War missile race.)

Now, unofficially, that “A” also stands for academic workers, 48,000 of whom are on strike at the University of California. Though there has been no formal change to the UAW name since 1962, there is no doubt that the academy has become the most dynamic and successful venue for the union in recent years. For decades, these organizing efforts seemed something of a curiosity. University administrators, especially those running the Ivy League and other elite schools, denied that employed graduate students were workers, and the National Labor Relations Board often agreed, especially if its members were appointed by a Republican administration. And even when teaching assistants and other student workers did form unions and periodically go on strike, their fight rarely seemed of any large economic consequence.

The current strike at the University of California is different. It seems rather more like one of the UAW’s epic showdowns with General Motors or Ford during the mid-twentieth century, when that union was “the vanguard in America”—a phrase coined by Walter Reuther, the UAW’s legendary president. That was an era when the UAW, then the most powerful and progressive working-class institution in the nation, forged the wage and benefit patterns that were soon emulated by hundreds of firms employing millions of workers throughout the country’s economic core.

History may be repeating itself as the UAW conducts the largest strike in the history of American higher education. Because of its size and stature, anything that happens at the University of California will have an impact extending beyond campus quads. The UC budget is $44 billion a year, it enrolls 295,000 students on its ten campuses, and there are 227,000 faculty and staff. Graduate students and non–tenure track instructors teach more than half of all the classes, while thousands of postdoctoral employees play a vital role in making UC a research powerhouse. What happens at UC will set the standard for an “industry”—higher education—that today employs more people than the federal government.

Three major unions are on strike, representing postdoctoral scholars; teaching assistants, tutors, and readers; and a large group of recently organized graduate researchers. Technically it is an “unfair labor practices” strike, meaning they want UC to bargain with them in a fair and forthright fashion. At the top of their joint demand is more money—a lot more. Graduate teaching assistants earn about $24,000 a year, but they want up to $54,000, more than twice as much as they now make. Postdocs want a minimum of $70,000. And all the strikers demand healthcare coverage for dependents and child-care reimbursements. All this, say the strikers, is essential to afford California housing costs that now eat up more than half their income, as well as the inflationary riptide that has eroded their pay in recent years.

Some historians and industrial relations experts have argued that the UAW and other big industrial unions traded higher wages for management control of working conditions in the twentieth century. I never thought that trade-off was one that most workers accepted: they wanted both power on the job and a rich pay packet. In the university today, that supposed trade-off has been reversed. Most academic workers enjoy a good deal more autonomy on the job than any assembly line worker, and they get a dollop of social prestige in the bargain. But in return, near poverty wages are the norm, in the expectation that scholarly accomplishment will generate a tenured, well-paid university post for hard-working graduate students.

That bargain has been broken for decades, along with the expectation that many graduate students and academic workers could rely on support from parents or spouses. The tension between the role of grad worker and student locks these individuals into a low-wage regime because they can only be part-time employees, with twenty hours per week as the norm. But that part-time work status is a fiction, especially for those in labs where learning and working are deeply intertwined. Compounding all this has been the effort by UC and other institutions to recruit a more diverse, multiethnic student body. That project has been modestly successful, ensuring that a larger proportion of students come from working-class backgrounds.

For years, unionized graduate students, at UC and elsewhere, had neither the clout nor the militancy to put forward the kind of transformative wage demands that stand at the core of this strike. They bargained over healthcare, workload, grievance handling, and the right to respect the picket line of another union—all important issues, but nothing compared with the boldness on offer today.

Two things happened to make this strike possible. First, the UAW organized thousands of new academic workers at UC: 6,000 postdoctoral scholars in the years after 2010, and then 17,000 graduate student researchers in 2021. Combined with newly organized teaching assistants at California State University and the University of Washington, the West Coast UAW is now largely comprised of workers in higher education, enough to ensure that a former grad student, Mike Miller, who helped organize teaching assistants in the 1990s and after, will soon join the UAW executive board as director of Region 6, covering the Pacific states.

The second spur to the contemporary mobilization has been the pandemic era’s rapid rise in both rents and inflation, a particularly pressing issue in coastal California, where so many UC campuses are located. In 2019 and 2020, spirited wildcat strikes at Santa Cruz and other campuses made a cost of living allowance the touchstone demand for the most militant graduate students. They wanted a big wage increase to pay for the exorbitant housing costs that burdened so many students. Then in 2021, untenured UC lecturers, represented by the American Federation of Teachers, won an average pay increase of 30 percent over the life of their five-year contract.

Taking a page from the union handbook of Reuther, who often defused internal opposition by adopting the program of the dissidents, Miller and other UAW leaders have successfully channeled the social energy generated by that wildcat movement, as well as the chronic frustrations caused by the California housing crisis, into the current strike. Thus far the ranks are unified, with an outpouring of faculty, undergrad, and outside support. As the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “What does it say about a university system touted as one of the Golden State’s best attributes if its intellectual workforce can’t afford to live in the state?”

The UC strikers are part of a whole strata of college-educated workers, including Starbucks baristas, museum curators, journalists, and retail workers at REI and Apple, who are revolting against a wage standard and dead-end work regime that promise to keep them in near-poverty for decades. In academia, an impoverished apprenticeship was once considered a brief prelude to a more secure and prosperous career. But that promise has been utterly discounted by the university itself, which has constructed an enterprise model that requires a huge class of precarious adjuncts to toil alongside a shrinking number of tenured professors who receive high prestige and pay.

It is almost ironic that the UC strikers, a twenty-first-century workforce of the most variegated racial, cultural, political, and gendered character, have put at the center of their struggle a wage demand that, except for its size, would have been entirely unexceptional in 1955. In response, UC administrators have offered pay raises ranging from 4 to 7 percent in the first year of the contract, with smaller subsequent increases. One could imagine General Motors executives making the same sort of response.

But the familiarity of the contest should not detract from what’s at stake. In an economy where universities, hospitals, technology companies, and other employers of well-educated labor have systematically sought to create a precariat to do the work, a radical enhancement of the remuneration on offer will have a salutary twofold impact. First, it will make life far more viable for those whose real standard of living has been eroding for more than a generation. As the trillions so quickly appropriated and spent during the pandemic has shown, there is no substitute for getting money into the pockets of the people who need it. But equally important, a truly substantial wage increase will drive a stake through the heart of the business model that UC and so many other employers have constructed, animating a more democratic workplace and creating a new basis for working-class power in American society.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a Research Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism, forthcoming in 2023.