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As a UC Academic Worker, I Need a Contract That Addresses the Cost of Living

A vocal rank-and-file movement is emerging to reject a contract that pays us anything less than a living wage.

University of California academic workers strike as they walk along the picket line on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, on November 28, 2022.

Earlier this year, I passed a major milestone in my graduate education: I passed my qualifying exams and defended my prospectus. I had just begun looking seriously at my data and engaging with a new set of literature with an eye toward completing the dissertation when my union, UAW 2865, voted to go on strike. The vote was nearly unanimous. Of 48,000 academic workers at the University of California, 36,558 votes were cast, 98 percent of whom voted to go on strike.

As I sit down at my desk to write this, I am reminded of all the work I need to do, or rather all of the labor I am withholding from my employer, the University of California. Staring back at me are dozens of unopened web browser tabs and a large pile of unread books. Withholding my labor at this time only jeopardizes my time to complete my degree, but the same cannot be said of many of my colleagues who do a majority of teaching, research and service at UC. Consider that just yesterday a colleague in the anthropology department came to our group chat with the following dilemma: “Are you all writing letters of recommendation during the strike? I hadn’t actually opened the email request until now and the student says she understands if I don’t want to do it because of the strike. I’m going to say no for as long as the strike is ongoing.” The undergraduate, who is applying to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, herself, will have to tell the admissions committee that her recommender was on strike.

During the summer of 2022, this colleague was paid a teaching fellow’s salary of $4,956 before taxes while paying up to $5,067 in rent at UC subsidized housing. All of this at the “#1 Public University in the U.S.” Many of us love our work and ordinarily go above and beyond the hours of part time (50 percent), but love doesn’t pay the rising rent, inflated gas prices, or any other surcharged necessities. In the weeks since the strike began, graduate student workers have shared moving testimonies of the cost of not having a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA: Some students are living out of their cars, going hungry and even committing suicide. What the label of “#1 Public University in the U.S.” hides is the fact that the UC system also leads the nation as one of the biggest exploiters of Ph.D. labor in the U.S., according to a new study just out by Daniel Masterson (“University of California PhD pay is among the lowest in the U.S. Accounting for Cost of Living”).

Masterson, a political scientist at UCSB who compared UC to other top 20, 50, private and all top schools, found that the UC system pays among the lowest salaries, adjusting for inflation. Moreover, he writes that even a 7 percent increase, the highest annual increase that is not a COLA in any contract proposal on the table, would only shift UC Ph.D. pay from the 9th percentile to the 19th percentile in the nation.

But all is not doom and gloom. Against these conditions of alienation and immiseration, the strike has provided a much-needed counterweight, and some exciting developments both legally and tactically — that is, at the bargaining table and in the streets. One example is the demand for a COLA, which ties wages directly to the alleviation of rent burden or to other indexes of cost of living such as the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is used to measure inflation. In our original proposal, the wages article of our contract contained the following COLA language:

The University shall increase wage ranges/rates for all ASE titles by at least either 7%, or the highest year-over-year median rent increase in the locality of any UC campus, whichever is greater; the methodology for calculating “median rent” shall be mutually agreed to by the University and the Union.

This language is all the more significant when you consider that for many academic workers, the UC is both employer and landlord. COLA language therefore is both a bulwark on the decline of our real wages relative to inflation and functions as a check on the rent increases by UC real estate. COLA disincentives UC from raising rents on graduate student tenants in subsidized housing, as it would mean that they would have to pay us more as academic workers.

Another movement, “COLA4ALL,” rejects economism and the idea that the struggle over wages, or even rents, as the only terrain of struggle in which a contract can intervene. The COLA4ALL tendency builds on earlier ideas of “social justice unionism” that animated the UAW’s struggle for gender-neutral bathrooms in the 2010s. This approach to unionism seeks to center the voices of the most marginalized workers and imagine a different horizon of worker struggle and all of the ways that the cost of living affects workers with intersectional identities and life experiences. Today, this mantle is being carried by university groups like UC Access Now, a disability justice coalition, and the movement for Cops Off Campus. What is a wage increase when students with disabilities can’t access the classroom or when Black students are significantly more likely to be stopped by UCPD?

On the ground, the strikes have been tactically imaginative. Each day at every campus across the state, workers are showing up and bringing their unique skillsets to share, from pop-up kitchens to artmaking, music to drag performances. UC has tried to undermine the effectiveness of our strike by enforcing the no-strike clause on contingent faculty and trying to convince tenure-track and tenured faculty that they are managers and supervisors, and thus do not have the right to respect our picket California’s Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA). Nevertheless, we have encouraged supportive faculty to hold down the virtual picket line. We are also conducting daily teach-ins, blocking construction, making use of social media to communicate and preparing to withhold grades for finals next week.

As our strike moves into a third week and as our movement matures, different theories of change are becoming clear. Many of us voted to strike under the assumption that our union would fight for our demand to be paid enough to live where we work. Every day it seems our original demands are being gutted right before our eyes, and we are being told that our original demands were actually unreasonable by a slim majority of our bargaining team, which called for a strike over these popular demands in the first place.

This week even a “Diet COLA,” a package that retained at least the language of $54,000 base pay, was gutted by a slim majority of the UAW 2865 Bargaining Team, 10-9. By the same slim margin, the bargaining team sacrificed workers with disabilities, for zero concessions from UC and with zero accountability in addition to slashing child care in half and dropping dependent care. Our bargaining team agreed to conceding on COLA in the second week, and agreed to moving from $54,000 to $43,000 on November 30. These widely unpopular concessions have not led to the outcome that was anticipated, a significant move on the part of UC. The UC’s most recent counterproposal put base pay at $28,000 without a COLA, up from our current salary of $24,000.

With current rates of inflation and a statewide median rent increase capped at 10 percent, this contract ensures academic workers take a pay cut every year, effective immediately. The bargaining team of UAW 5810, the union representing Postdocs and Academic Researchers, reached a tentative agreement with the UC on Monday, after conceding on COLA in the second week of the strike. UAW 2865, the unit representing graduate student workers (Academic Student Employees and Graduate Student Researchers), appears to be headed in the same direction. (In San Francisco, the cost of living is upwards of $70,000, and in my home of Los Angeles, it’s close to $60,000.)

In response, a vocal rank-and-file movement is emerging at every UC campus. This group includes many people like me who would love to return to the work that we love but believe that the UC owes us a living wage. Under the banner of “No COLA, no contract!” we intend to reject a contract that pays us anything less than a dignified wage and that uses our intersectional struggles as mere bargaining chips.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

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