Update, Dec. 27:
University of California student researchers and academic student employees approved new contracts Friday, effectively ending their 39-day strike.
After the five-day ratification vote, 68% of the Student Researchers United members and 62% of UAW 2865 members cast their vote in favor of ratification.
At UC Davis, those numbers were higher: Of union members who voted, 74% of the campus’s student researchers and 66% of its academic student employees voted in support of the new contracts.
However, the vote wasn’t unanimous across campuses.
A majority of student researchers and academic student employees at UC Merced, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara voted down both contracts. Among the counties with UC campuses, Santa Cruz County and Santa Barbara County require some of the highest wages to keep up with the cost of living.
The contracts will remain in place until 2025, and both include a no strikes article that prohibits union members from engaging in any work stoppages, including striking in sympathy with other workers outside SRU-UAW or UAW 2865, until the contracts end.
Under the article, individual workers withholding labor may risk being fired.
This week, over 30,000 striking University of California academic student employees and researchers could approve new contracts. If a majority of members vote in favor, the student unions will end their more than month-long strike.
The agreements were announced Dec. 16, four days after union and UC bargaining teams brought in Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg to mediate negotiations.
But the new contracts haven’t been unanimously celebrated. Both bargaining teams split the vote for the tentative agreements. The Student Researchers United union’s team voted 13-7 in favor, while the union representing academic student employees, UAW 2865, voted 11-8.
The divide reflects ongoing criticism from some union members who are frustrated by the move away from initial demands, such as linking raises to cost of living and guaranteeing access needs without medical documentation. A coalition of workers has organized a no vote campaign in favor of a longer strike that could win more.
While Gwen Chodur, a PhD candidate in nutritional biology at the college, acknowledges the contract doesn’t meet all initial bargaining demands, she’s still voting yes.
“I think the contract is just one of the tools we have in the fight we have about how higher ed is, as a system, not really meant to meet the needs of student workers in this day and age,” she said.
UC Davis ecology PhD student Emily Marie Purvis is voting no on the contract. She’s hoping to get one that addresses equity demands the union originally put forth, like more universal access for disabled workers.
“I see a lot of evidence that the strike still has power, Purvis said, adding that, at UC Davis, the deadline for turning in final grades was pushed back until December 28.
“A huge exercise in power, in withholding grades, hasn’t been manifested yet,” they said of a potential bargaining chip.
Workers would see raises, expanded childcare
The union’s original wages demand was a raise, to a base pay of $54,000, and language tying compensation increases to local costs of living. That language was axed in late November.
The tentative agreements contain gradual, discrete wage increases to begin taking effect 90 days after contract ratification. By fall 2024, the lowest base wage for academic student employees and student researchers across UC would be at least $34,000.
Some workers say these wages aren’t enough. “The cost of housing, it’s really prohibitive, and it’s becoming more prohibitive,” said Ross Hernandez, a comparative literature PhD student at UC Davis. Having participated in the 2019-20 wildcat strikes, for which organizers made a cost of living adjustment a priority, Hernandez is also planning to vote against the proposed new contract.
Still, other workers say the wage increase provides relief. One UC Davis PhD candidate, Elias Bunting, who’s studying plant pathology, said the raises bring “a far greater sense of financial security.”
“It’s a huge relief and I’m so proud of what our strike has accomplished,” he wrote in an account on the union’s website.
The new UAW tentative agreement introduces differential pay across campuses. Workers at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UCSF would be raised to, at minimum, a $36,500 per year. Workers at the other UC campuses, including UC Davis, would eventually see a $34,000 annual base wage.
At UC Davis, the lowest-paid teaching assistants currently earn $22,500, or $2,582 a month, annually.
If the contract is ratified, they would see an additional $195 per month raise in spring 2023. They’d earn $3,236 per month in the fall of 2023 — still lower than the living wage for Yolo County, $3,303 per month.
By the end of the contract, wages would jump to $4,007 per month in the spring of 2025, a $36,070 annual salary for working the entire academic year.
If approved, the new agreements would require UC to increase the child care stipend it offers workers: academic student employees currently get $1,100 each quarter or $1,650 per semester.
Under the tentative agreements, workers would see the stipend gradually go up to $1,400 per quarter, or $2,100 per semester by Oct. 2024.
The contracts for student researchers and academic student employees would also expand parental leave. Both would increase fully-paid time off for both birthing and non-birthing parents to eight weeks, from six for birthing parents and four for non-birthing.
New anti-bullying protections, heavily revised access needs article
During bargaining, one of the first items agreed to was the respectful work environment articles. The tentative new agreements would prohibit retaliation against workers who report abusive conduct in the workplace or participate in related investigations. They also codify definitions of abusive conduct, noting power imbalance as one variable to consider.
Chodur, the nutritional biology student, said she’s excited by these protections and that they’re part of why she’s voting to approve the contract.
“If they’re [your advisor] implying that you need to work 80 hours a week in order to produce enough to make them satisfied, if they’re belittling you because you aren’t getting the results they want … all of these things have made higher education a really toxic place,” she said. “Having these types of protections is really transformative.”
There’s also modified language for discussions about increasing access at work for disabled student workers.
The tentative agreements in both contracts codify an expanded role for supervisors and department administrators to help with providing a “temporary work adjustment” — which wouldn’t require medical documentation — during the process of determining specific, continuous accommodations. They also specify that students can bring a union representative to discussions with university representatives about access.
Continued from the 2018 UAW 2865 contract, workers are responsible for acquiring their own medical documentation for disability if the university requests it, though UC will pay the costs if it determines a worker must be examined by a university-appointed health care provider.
This policy is stricter than the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under it, employers are not required to ask for medical documentation in order to provide accommodations.
The unions’ original access needs proposal eliminated the documentation requirement, in addition to demands for fully accessible workplace materials and buildings. It also used “access needs” in place of “reasonable accommodations” to refer to any adjustments disabled workers may need for their jobs.
While Sophie Worthington-Kirsch, who’s a PhD student in UC Davis’s chemistry program, acknowledged the tentative agreement doesn’t include everything the union asked, she also said it “gives us something to build on.”
However, for Purvis, who is also disabled, the move away from the original proposal is too stark for her to vote yes on the contract.
“It gives the university the power to determine what accommodations are and are not ‘reasonable’, and it gives the university the power to deny accommodations that people need,” she said. “The ADA is not a good goal post – it’s really restrictive, and we need to do so much better.”
Worthington-Kirsch also recalled frustrations over the ADA’s limits: “I’ve been told that all I can do is file a complaint at the overworked ADA office — and wait for them to claim it’s not reasonable.”
A commitment to re-open discussion about international student tuition next contract
California’s education code requires nonresident students to pay additional tuition on top of the regular instruction fees, the amount of which is set by educational institutions.
Chodur started her time at UC as an out-of-state student, and was paying the nonresident fee. As a domestic student, she was able to establish residency in California. But international students are not, and so they’re saddled with additional tuition.
“Unfortunately, in the case of international workers, what happens is their hiring department will pay the base tuition but not the nonresident supplemental tuition,” she said.
Initially, the union demanded UC cover international student worker tuition and fees.
The tentative agreements make formal a practice already in usage: When graduate doctoral students pass their qualifying exams, they’ll have their out-of-state tuition waived for 3 years. After those three years, workers would be again responsible for that tuition.
While some international students say it’s a stepping stone to continued conversations about tuition remission, others, like Irem Aydemir, a PhD student at UC Davis studying anthropology, argue that isn’t enough and are voting no as a result.
“We can and should strike as long as it takes to win a just contract,” she said, noting the “anxiety of the NRST [nonresident supplemental tuition] after the third year” as only one of the reasons they’re not voting in favor of the contract.
If the Student Researchers United contract is ratified this week, it would be their first since the group unionized last year. If one or both of the contracts is voted down, the respective bargaining team would return to negotiate with UC.
The voting period began this past Monday, December 19, and is scheduled to end on Friday at 5 p.m.