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UC’s academic workers strike brings stress to undergraduates

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) – A month after the nation’s largest higher education strike, the walkout by University of California academic staff at 10 campuses is causing stress for many students who are faced with canceled classes, no one to answer their questions and Uncertainty about how they will be valued at the end of the year.

Some 48,000 student workers quit their jobs on November 14 to demand higher wages and better benefits. The workers, represented by United Auto Workers Local 5810, say they have had no choice but to go on strike to demand higher wages needed to keep up with sky-high rents in cities like Berkeley, San Diego and Los Angeles Keep up.

Last week, university officials approved a 29% pay rise for postdocs and academic researchers, who make up about 12,000 of the 48,000 workers. The higher education system also pledged to provide more family leave, childcare grants and job security.

But the postdocs and researchers have refused to return to work until an agreement is also reached for the 36,000 teaching assistants, tutors and researchers, who are separately negotiating higher salaries and benefits. The strike is being closely monitored and could impact schools across the country.

Colleges and universities are increasingly relying on graduate staff to teach, grade papers, and conduct research previously undertaken by tenured faculty.

Many University of California students fear the strike could last well into next year and disrupt their plans to apply to college.

Janna Nassar, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, said she believes academic staff should be paid better but is increasingly concerned as the strike continues. She expected final review sessions with her Graduate Student Instructor for one of her business courses before taking her final exam next week. But now the 18-year-old said it wasn’t an option.

Before the strike, she said she attended lectures for that class three times a week and two roundtables with the doctoral teacher. She needs to finish the class before she can graduate with an economics degree next year.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve learned in all my semesters here, and I feel the least prepared,” she said. “It’s really disheartening to know that I might have to declare late or I might not be able to declare Econ and have to choose a different major.”

Susana Sotelo, a sophomore at UC Berkeley who plans to major in psychology, said four of her five classes were taught by faculty or graduate school teachers. These courses have been canceled or rescheduled online and are optional.

One class taught by a psychology professor also went online and he told the students no new material would be taught for the remainder of the semester to support the strike, she said.

Sotelo, 19, said she is not yet sure how she will be graded for her courses, with the exception of her psychology course, which is considered successfully completed when she submits her research project. Ironically, her research revolves around the stress students go through when choosing a major.

“My only professor was very understanding. He sent various emails saying he would not issue orders and cancel talks in support of the strikers,” Sotelo said.

The average salary for UC student workers is about $24,000 per year, and many academic staffers say they have to skip meals or take on extra chores to make ends meet on their meager pay.

Jonathan Mackris, who is pursuing a PhD in film and media from UC Berkeley, said he teaches an undergraduate class on silent film history but often has to take on other jobs, including grading papers or teaching reading and composition.

He said he brings in $2,100 a month and pays $1,870 for a studio apartment near campus. His landlord recently told him his rent would increase to $1,950.

“I go through phases where sometimes I wake up at 2 a.m. and I feel very stressed about it,” he said.

The bargaining units say they are demanding that the university agree to a payment that relieves workers of the “rent burden,” which the federal government defines as paying at least a third of your salary in rent.

The working students are also demanding childcare, no more tutoring for international students and better protection against harassment in the workplace, especially for scientific researchers who can be pushed into long nights and weekends.

UC officials said in a statement that they believe the proposals they have made to the bargaining units are “fair and reasonable and recognize the important contributions that these members of the bargaining unit are making to the university’s educational and research mission.”

The university said it has proposed total compensation for part-time employees ranging from $46,757 to $74,798, depending on bargaining unit title and campus.

“The proposals the university is making to the UAW would place our graduate students and faculty members at the top of the pay scale of major public universities and on a par with the best private universities,” the university said in a statement.

If graduate students and researchers are better paid in the UC system, it could lead to similar changes at colleges that compete with UC or where graduate students organize unions, said Tim Cain, associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia.

“If unions can get close to what they’re looking for, it will be an eye-opener,” he said, adding, “when conditions at UC schools change fundamentally, the market for others changes as well.” Schools.”

According to Cain, 75% of the academic staff nationwide who do research in laboratories, libraries and archives and teach undergraduate courses are graduate students.

Cain sees the strike as part of a broader shift in the US workforce after the pandemic has placed more strain on workers and drawn attention to nationwide wage disparities.

“We’re in a moment where there’s a lot of work activity among workers that isn’t being treated well by larger systems, and I think a number of people working in higher education see themselves as part of that larger disruption,” he said .

What impact the suspension will have on UC students, whose education was already in disarray due to the pandemic, remains to be seen. But for Nassar, who isn’t sure she can pursue an economics degree, the effect appears to be long-lasting.

“It’s like a breaking point,” she said. “It will probably affect us for the rest of our bachelor’s career.”


Associated Press writer Collin Binkley contributed from Washington.

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