Teaching assistants, researchers and other workers walked off the job Monday in a dispute over pay and benefits, a move expected to disrupt classes.

Academic workers on the U.C. Berkeley campus went on strike on Monday to seek better wages and working conditions.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Shawn Hubler

SACRAMENTO — Academic workers in the University of California system went on strike on Monday, as teaching assistants, graduate student researchers and other university employees called for significant pay increases in the face of rising housing costs in the state.

The walkout covers nearly 48,000 unionized campus employees across one of the nation’s most prestigious public university systems. It appears to be one of the largest university-based labor actions yet as graduate students push in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic for higher pay and more secure working conditions.

The university system has said its 10 campuses, where nearly 300,000 students are enrolled from San Diego to Berkeley, will remain open and that instruction and operations will continue. But the students and employees involved, who are represented by the United Automobile Workers, make up a core work force in classrooms and labs throughout the university system, where most campuses are only a few weeks away from final examinations.

“We’re the ones who perform the majority of the teaching, and we’re the ones who perform the majority of the research,” said Rafael Jaime, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is president of U.A.W. Local 2865, which represents some 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other classroom workers.

“We’re the backbone of the university,” he said, “and I have a hard time seeing how operations are going to be maintained with us on the picket line.”

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Graduate students at universities across the country have long been integral to higher education, advising students, teaching classes, grading exams and papers, and staffing major research projects and labs. In recent years, however, concerted efforts to unionize have gained momentum, particularly as the pandemic has underscored schools’ reliance on graduate student labor. The actions have been driven by what workers say is low pay and often insecure working conditions, especially as wages rise in other sectors during a tight labor market.

Three years ago, a “wildcat” strike at the University of California, Santa Cruz — conducted without the backing of the union that represents the workers statewide — ended with the firing of more than 70 graduate students who had refused to turn in fall grades as part of the labor action. Most were eventually reinstated. This year, in contrast, unionized graduate students and adjunct professors have negotiated contracts at Columbia University and New York University.

The University of California workers, many of whom have been negotiating with the university for more than a year, are demanding that their salaries more than double in some cases, particularly to address the cost of housing. The U.C. campuses lie in some of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, not just in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but coastal enclaves such as Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Irvine. Even subsidized campus housing in some areas is significantly more expensive than market rents in much of the country.


Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Campus-area housing has long been a policy concern, vexing state lawmakers and inciting town-and-gown legal battles. In a union survey, 92 percent of graduate student workers said housing consumed more than a third of their income. For 40 percent of them, it was more than half.

Mr. Jaime, 33, who teaches an introductory Shakespeare class at U.C.L.A., said he could not afford an apartment in the Westwood neighborhood surrounding the campus. Instead, he lives in downtown Los Angeles, more than 15 miles away, sharing rent with two roommates. Even so, he said, the $1,600 he pays for rent each month eats up half of his paycheck, not counting the costs of his commute to campus via bicycle, light rail and bus.

The workers are also demanding more reimbursement for public transit, additional child care subsidies, expanded health care for dependents and other benefits.

In a statement, the university system said it recognized the “important and highly valued contributions” to its teaching and research mission made by the workers and that it had provided “fair responses” on issues including pay, housing and a “respectful work environment.”

“We have listened carefully to U.A.W. priorities with an open mind and a genuine willingness to compromise,” the statement said, adding that “many tentative agreements” on issues such as health and safety had been reached.

But major differences remain. Graduate teaching assistants, tutors and readers, for instance, are demanding that their pay, which averages about $24,000 annually, increase to $54,000, while the university system is offering an increase of 7 percent the first year, with 3 percent annual raises in subsequent years.

Workers also want salaries to be set high enough that no employees would have to spend more than 30 percent of their monthly pay on housing; the U.C. system has noted that housing is an issue for workers throughout California, and that it already provides a limited amount of subsidized housing for graduate student workers that is priced at up to 25 percent below market rates.

Union officials say that the university system also has violated labor law nearly two dozen times in the course of negotiations, dealing directly with certain groups of workers and changing certain working conditions without going through collective bargaining. These unfair labor practices, officials say, triggered the strike.

“The university needs to bargain fairly,” said Neal Sweeney, president of the U.A.W. bargaining unit that represents academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars. “If they do that, we think we can reach a transformative agreement.”

The university system has denied any illegal action and has called on the unions to stay at the bargaining table. “We are committed to continuing to negotiate in good faith and reaching full agreements as soon as possible,” the statement from the University of California said.

Stephanie Saul and Anemona Hartocollis contributed reporting.