A student activist on the unfoldment and debates of the strike of 48,000 academic workers at University of California – Editors
From the smoldering ashes of the 2019 teaching assistant wildcat strike arose an incredible mobilization of academic workers. Culminating in a strike 48,000 workers strong, the 2022 University of California strike was the largest display of labor power in higher education throughout all of American history.
In the wake of such tremendous organizing, the striking workers, represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW), have entered a contract that will increase wages of the lowest paid and largest group, teaching assistants, from a base salary of $24,000 to $34,000 by fall 2024. Furthermore, student researchers were able to win anti-bullying protections, despite the special precarity of withholding research. The victories of the strike were seen not solely in wage increases or protections, but also in the developing consciousness of the striking workers and networks formed within and between each of the UC campuses. In withholding their labor, teaching assistants, student researchers, tutors, and postdocs simultaneously revealed the immense power held by workers and clarified the antagonistic position held by institutions against labor power.
The newly elevated consciousness of the academic workers manifested itself in demands that extended far beyond wage increases and job protections. Demands as ambitious as the abolition of the UC police and divestment from military research, particularly aligned with the BDS strategy to combat Israeli apartheid, resounded from the rapidly radicalizing element of the rank-and-file.
Rallies and marches thousands strong swept through the universities, demanding positive change. Organizations like the Young Democratic Socialists of America and Campus Marxist Humanists assisted in organizing undergraduate support at the picket lines. Undergraduate students overwhelmingly supported the strike despite grading delays, showing impressive solidarity. Many faculty members canceled classes and withheld grades to support striking workers as well. Unionized UPS drivers also refused to deliver packages.
However, the massive strike fell short of the original demands which proposed a $54,000 starting salary and a cost of living adjustment to combat the steeply rising price of housing. A rank-and-file student researcher I spoke with attributed the failure to reach these goals to a lack of unity among workers. In the days leading up to the union’s vote for or against the contract, workers became divided on how they should vote. Further, which tactics the strike should employ became muddled, as neither disruption nor withholding labor was as effective as hoped. A singular attempt to block parking on the UCSB campus crumpled after pushback, and some professors engaged in strike-breaking, simplifying finals and assignments so that grades could be submitted without the labor of the teaching assistants. Nonetheless, the massive wage increases indicate a victory for the striking student workers.
The contract presented by the union was approved by almost 65% of the striking workers, while the remaining percentage voted against the contract. However, at UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Merced, and UC-Santa Cruz, a majority of voters rejected the proposed contract. Responding to these contradictions, the UCSC UAW leadership released a statement that contained the following, “As the voting margins show, a large (though not majority) section of workers still perceived the unfulfilled potential and future points of leverage of the long haul strike. Many rank and file organizers may experience intense frustration and disappointment. This is natural, but has the potential to lead to a phase of demobilization and inactivity. We may even see calls for outraged No voters to revoke their union memberships, ‘dual-card’ with a different union, or otherwise attempting to disaffiliate from our union locals. We must resist this urge, and instead redouble our commitment to the organizing that has taken us this far”. The statement from UCSC remains hopeful and celebrates the victory achieved by the strike, despite the concessions made in bargaining, notably higher wages for workers at the most “prestigious” universities, UC-Los Angeles, UC-Berkeley, and UC-San Francisco, violating the trade union principle of equal pay for equal work. Most importantly, it emphasizes the importance of organized labor and the work which still must be done.
This commitment to greater militancy in the future is especially important because the new contract expires on May 31st, 2025, merely two-and-a-half years after it was ratified. The short duration of this contract ensures that workers with organizing experience will not be phased out before new negotiations begin. The groundwork for an even larger, more powerful, union of workers has been laid by the 2022 strike. Not only within the UC system but throughout higher education all across the country, as other Universities will be forced to match wage increases to remain competitive in the search for talent, student workers will have a successful model which they can adapt in their own strikes.
All in all, the year 2022 ended with a massive achievement for American labor, an unprecedented strike in higher education. Yet a deep yearning remains, as displayed by the more radical demands within the strike. Deteriorating living standards and the heightened visibility of state violence following the massive BLM movement indicate a weakening hegemony. It is as critical as ever to analyze and act, to theorize and construct a future beyond class society.