‘It’s like a breaking point’; Campus stress mounts during UC university workers’ strike

BERKELEY — A month after the start of the nation’s largest strike involving higher education, the work stoppage of University of California scholars at 10 campuses is causing stress for many students facing canceled classes, no one to answer their questions and an uncertainty as to how they will be graded at the end of the year.

Some 48,000 employed students left work on November 14 to demand higher wages and better benefits. The employees, represented by United Auto Workers Local 5810, say they had no choice but to strike to demand the wage increases needed to meet exorbitant rents in cities like Berkeley, San Diego and LA.

Last week, university officials agreed to a 29% pay rise for postdoctoral employees and university researchers who make up about 12,000 of the 48,000 workers. The university system has also agreed to provide more family leave time, child care subsidies and job security.

But postdocs and researchers refused to return to work until a deal is also reached for the 36,000 teaching assistants, tutors and graduate student researchers who are separately negotiating a pay and benefits increase. The strike is being watched closely and could have a ripple effect in schools across the country.

Colleges and universities increasingly rely on graduate students to teach, mark assignments, and conduct research that was previously managed by tenured professors.

Many University of California students fear the strike will drag into next year, disrupting their plans to apply for degree programs.

Jana Nassar, a sophomore at Berkeley, said she thinks academics should be paid more, but she is increasingly concerned as the strike continues. She was counting on final review sessions with her graduate student instructor for one of her economics classes before taking the final exam next week. But now the 18-year-old says that’s not an option.

Prior to the strike, she said she attended lectures for this class three times a week and two discussion sessions with the graduate student instructor. She must complete the course before she can declare an economics major next year.

“It’s the hardest I’ve studied in all my semesters here, and I feel the least prepared,” she said. “It’s really disheartening to know that I may have to declare late or maybe I can’t declare the eco and have to choose another major.”

Susana Sotelo, a sophomore at UC Berkeley who is considering declaring a major in psychology, said four of her five courses were taught by certified instructors or lecturers. These courses have been canceled or moved online and have become optional.

The only class taught by a psychology professor was also moved online and he told students no new material would be taught for the rest of the semester in support of the strike, she said.

Sotelo, 19, said she does not yet know how she will be graded for her courses, except for her psychology course, which will be considered passed if she hands in her research project. Ironically, his research focuses on the stress undergraduate students experience when choosing a major.

“My one teacher was very understanding. He sent various emails saying that in support of the strikers he would not give any assignments and cancel the talks,” Sotelo said.

The average salary for employed UC students is about $24,000 a year, and many college workers say they have to skip meals or take on extra work to make ends meet on their meager pay.

Jonathan Mackris, who is pursuing a doctorate in film and media at Berkeley, said he teaches an undergraduate course on the history of silent movies, but often has to do other jobs, including scoring movies. articles or the teaching of reading and composition.

He said he made $2,100 a month and paid $1,870 for a studio near campus. Her landlord recently told her that her rent would go up to $1,950.

“I go through phases where sometimes I wake up at like two in the morning and I like to be really stressed about it,” he said.

Bargaining units say they are asking the university to accept compensation that will relieve workers of the “rent burden,” which the federal government defines as having to pay at least one-third of your salary for rent.

Student workers are also calling for childcare services, an end to extra tuition fees for international students and better protection against harassment at work, especially for scientific researchers who may be forced to work long hours the day before. night and weekends.

UC officials said in a statement they believe the proposals they have made to the bargaining units “are fair, reasonable and honor the important contributions these bargaining unit members make to the mission. of education and research of the University”.

The university said it offered total compensation for those working part-time ranging from $46,757 to $74,798, depending on the bargaining unit title and campus.

“The university’s proposals to the UAW would put our graduate students and university employees at the top of the pay scale at leading public universities and on par with top private universities,” the university said in a statement. .

Tim Cain, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, said the massive strike was being closely watched across the country because if graduate employees and researchers earned better pay in the UC system, it could lead to similar changes at colleges that compete with UC. or where graduate workers organize unions.

“If the unions can get closer to what they are looking for, it will open their eyes,” he said, adding that “if conditions change fundamentally in UC schools, then the market also changes. for other schools.

Nationwide, 75% of academic work, including research in labs, libraries and archives, and teaching undergraduate courses, is done by nontenured faculty, Cain said.

Cain sees the strike as part of a broader shift in the American workforce after the pandemic placed a greater burden on workers and drew attention to nationwide wage disparities.

“We are at a time when there is a lot of professional activity among workers who are not treated well by the wider systems, and I think a number of people working in higher education see themselves as doing part of this larger disruption,” he said. .

It remains to be seen what effects the disruption will have on UC undergraduates whose education had already been disrupted because of the pandemic. But for Nassar, who isn’t sure if she can claim an economics major, the effect seems lasting.

“It’s like a breaking point,” she said. “It will likely affect us for the rest of our undergraduate careers.”

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