UC staff say they’re struggling to survive in California. Will strike bring change?


For doctoral candidate and single parent Konysha Wade, the financial struggle is day by day.

Greater than half of her monthly earnings from her two on-campus jobs at UC Irvine goes toward renting her university apartment, where she lives along with her 11-year-old son.

She brings home about $2,700 a month after taxes from working as an African American Studies instructor and a graduate student researcher — all while taking no less than two classes toward her Culture and Theory doctoral degree and raising her son. She said their rent is greater than $1,500 a month, which leaves just over $1,000 a month for all other expenses.

“It’s so, so tough,” Wade, 29, said. “We barely make it. We are attempting to survive on limited savings. It’s about constant budgeting.”

Wade is certainly one of 48,000 University of California academic staff — including postdoctoral scholars, graduate teaching assistants and researchers — who walked off the job this week in a strike billed as the biggest at any academic institution in history.

The work stoppage goals to challenge long-held labor practices on the UC and other universities across the country, which have come under growing scrutiny for a way graduate staff and academic employees are paid in an era of rising inflation and growing union activism.

These staff perform much of the teaching, grading and research across the state’s most prestigious public university system.

In some ways, the strike underscores the growing economic strains low-wage employees are facing, particularly in places like California where the price of living is high.

“Persons are already facing high rents and difficulty making ends meet on the form of pay they’ve,” said Paula Voos, a professor on the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “This can be a time by which there’s lots of organizing and lots of strikes, especially by younger, lower paid staff who’ve been taking it on the chin for some time.”

Significantly increasing compensation for tutorial staff would definitely alter the budgets of massive universities just like the UC, where high tuition is already an enormous issue.

But strikers argue California has a possibility to cope with the economic inequity — and set a greater example for other universities.

“The university prides itself on our world-class research, yet it’s not evident within the paychecks it issues us,” said UC Irvine doctoral candidate Edward Mendez. “We don’t earn enough to live within the cities where these schools are.”

Union leaders are asking for big wage increases for tutorial staff, noting that housing costs on and near many UC campuses have continued to rise, making nearly all of their members “rent-burdened,” or spending greater than 30% of their income on rent.

They need to see all graduate student staff — who’re teaching assistants and tutors — earn a base salary of $54,000, greater than double these staff’ average current pay of about $24,000, in line with the union. For postdoctoral employees, the union has called for a minimum salary of $70,000, which can be, on average, a $10,000 increase, said Rafael Jaime, a UCLA doctoral candidate and president of United Auto Staff Local 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other academic staff on strike

Surveys by the UAW found that 92% of graduate staff and 61% of postdoctoral scholars were rent-burdened.

“We’d like help,” Wade said as she joined her fellow graduate student staff and other academic employees on the picket line for the second day in a row. “We’re doing work that’s imagined to be contributing to the larger society — to liberate and to light up.”

UC officials have offered a salary scale increase of seven% the primary 12 months for certain graduate student staff and three% each subsequent 12 months — a suggestion that union leaders say falls short.

Ryan King, a University of California system spokesperson, said UC believes its current offers are sufficient. He noted most of those graduate employees are working part time while earning a graduate degree.

“Compensation is just certainly one of the numerous ways by which they’re supported as students during their time with the university,” King said.

But for Safa Hamzeh, a second-year international doctoral student in UCLA’s history department, that baseline salary is removed from sufficient.

She said she makes about $24,000 annually working as a teaching assistant and lives in an apartment within the Palms provided by UC housing, paying $2,000 a month, split with a roommate. Due to her visa, she said she’s limited from taking up additional work.

To pay for food, she applied for CalFresh, known federally because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in an effort to get $100 to purchase groceries at Kroger stores along with her roommate. But even that wasn’t enough to cover the rising cost of groceries attributable to inflation, she said.

“I watched as grocery prices kept going up,” she said. “And that’s a thing that it’s essential do every week.”

Hamzeh was out on the picket line Tuesday at UCLA, especially calling for the university to drop the $15,000 nonresidential tuition fees that graduate student staff like her often face — though at once she has a fellowship that covers it.

“That is the strongest tool we’ve against the administration,” Hamzeh, 26, said. “Once we are striking, we should not grading, we should not attending sections, we’re not attending lectures, we’re not holding office hours. When that happens, your entire education progress stops. … Once we strike, you’ll be able to see that we do a lot of the work because all the work stops.”

Mendez at UCI said he wasn’t in a position to join the picket line Tuesday — despite his interest — due to his newborn baby’s nap schedule. The primary-generation college student working toward his doctoral degree in visual studies at UC Irvine said he and his wife looked into utilizing campus childcare, but they couldn’t afford the $2,000 monthly fee — something unionized staff would wish to see reimbursed for graduate and academic employees, like Mendez.

“I need to make sure that that folks don’t should sacrifice their lives to go to grad school — and to get on the profession path they need,” Mendez, 30, said. He pointed to the UC’s massive budget, which he said doesn’t correlate with the small payments to staff like him. He said while working on his dissertation, he teaches an introductory English class, earning about $25,000 for nine months of classroom instruction, prep work, responding to emails, office hours and grading.

He said each he and his wife complement their day jobs — for him by co-editing the film section of a magazine based in Latest York, and for her, entering the gig economy filling Instacart orders.

Jaime said it isn’t rare to listen to about graduate student staff and other academic staff struggling to make ends meet, trying to seek out supplemental jobs despite being already overworked. He said it’s especially painful to see the UC chancellors receive six-figure raises earlier this 12 months, which the Board of Regents said was to offer “fair and competitive” compensation — something Jaime hasn’t seen apply elsewhere.

“In relation to grad student staff and postdocs, for some reason that’s not translating to them,” Jaime said. “We’ve seen a pattern through the years as public universities have turn into increasingly more privatized, the worth that students and researchers provide have been increasingly undervalued.”

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