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Inside UCLA Student Workers’ Fight for a Truly Public University

Nearly 50 years in the making, the Los Angeles labor effort aims to rebuild better public education for all.

strikers holding signs that say UAW on strike: unfair labor practice
(Photo: Vani Sanganeria)

For Menelik Tafari, losing a day’s worth of pay could mean losing care for his daughter, who was born with serious health complications earlier this year. 

“My daughter has been on seizure watch, in [hospitals], and she’s needed more care and more support,” Tafari said. “I’ve had to opt to be a stay-at-home dad — not working and not teaching — really just focusing on my child.”

Tafari is a native Angeleno, lifelong public educator, and fourth-year urban schooling graduate student at UCLA. Before becoming a stay-at-home dad, he spent his first few months of fatherhood working additional roles as teacher, administrator, and consultant at other educational institutions to supplement his $2,500 monthly income as a graduate worker at UCLA. 

But his sobering reality as an underpaid worker and overworked parent is why Tafari walked off the job and joined 48,000 graduate workers across the UC’s 10 campuses on strike for the past three weeks. 

“For me, being on this picket line is for her,” Tafari said. “Every day before I leave home, I kiss my daughter and I tell her I’m doing this for her. Because this is the only way we have going forward.” 

Represented by the UAW union, a coalition of the UC’s teaching assistants, postdoctoral scholars, and academic researchers have been negotiating with the university for a new contract since March 2021. Their key issues include fair compensation, job security, affordable housing, support for parents and disabled workers, and protections from bullying and harassment at work.

According to the union, the average teaching assistant at the UC earns roughly $24,000 a year, and the average graduate student worker spends more than 52% of their income on rent. For UCLA students living in Westwood, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment rose to $3,200 — a 23% increase — in the past month alone. 

Lavanya Nott, an international third-year graduate student in the geography department, was rejected by all the Westwood apartments she applied to due to her low income as a graduate worker. When she finally received university housing, she said she paid over half her paycheck back to the UC — in addition to the $15,000 non-resident supplemental tuition fee for international students. 

“LA is a city of some really ugly inequalities,” Nott said, “that [are] unsurpassed anywhere else in the country. And to have such a militant and strong labor movement here is really important, because the power that we have comes from our collective strength.” 

For Tafari, these inequalities have been ugliest inside of UCLA’s professional workspaces. 

“I worry about all of my peers who are not only rent burdened. [and] paid poverty wages, but aren’t even given legal protections when they’re being sexually and professionally harassed by professors because they may be undocumented, brown-skinned, Black-skinned, or Native,” Tafari said. 

Since the strike began on November 15, the UAW has negotiated historic protections against abusive conduct, establishing concrete methods to report, investigate, and define abuse, according to Michael Dean, a graduate student in history at UCLA and member of the UAW Unit 2865 bargaining committee. 

Last Tuesday, postdoctoral workers and researchers reached a tentative agreement with the university to raise minimum annual pay from $55,000 to $60,000 in April 2023. But the UAW’s main proposals, such as a $54,000 minimum salary for graduate workers and 14% salary increase for academic researchers, remain far apart from the university’s offer. 

If the UC agrees to the UAW’s $2,500 annual childcare benefit proposal — an increase from the current $750 stipend that Tafari calls “insulting” and “inaccessible in terms of actually get[ting] the money” — he might be able to make a small dent in the significant medical debt he’s accrued from his daughter’s treatment. But the time Tafari lost with his daughter, and the harassment he said his colleagues endured at work, are some of the unrecoverable losses that won’t be remedied by a new contract. 

“There’s no way for the UC to give us back the time we’ve lost and the people that we’ve lost,” Tafari said. “But what they can do is begin to pay us and treat us with dignity. Getting paid the minimum of a fair wage and protecting us legally is the most important starting point.”

Strikers holding UAW 2865 banner
(Photo: Vani Sanganeria)

A Strike 50 Years in the Making

The UAW academic worker strike — the largest in the nation’s history of higher education — is also a campaign to rebuild the UC as a truly public university, following nearly 50 years of Reagan-era state divestment. 

As governor, Reagan enacted annual 20% cuts to higher education funding, ending free tuition for state university students and declaring that California would “not subsidize intellectual curiosity” as part of a crackdown against free speech activism and anti-war protests taking place on UC campuses. 

Since then, the UC has restructured into the likes of a corporate conglomerate — earning the vast majority of its “non-core funds” from sales, services, and UC-owned hospitals like the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and funding real estate ventures like an $80 million land buy in Palos Verdes, or the infamous and inhumanely designed “mega dorm” at UC Santa Barbara. 

But for academic workers, the most direct impact of privatization has been a financial “squeeze,” or low worker retention and even less opportunity for career mobility, according to Tobias Higbie, professor of labor studies and history at UCLA. 

“The Amazon model of intensification of work and high turnover to keep pay down,” Higbie added, “holds here at UCLA in some ways. [The UC] can lower [its] overall compensation budget and benefits because when you have people staying for a really long time, they have high pension costs and other things like that.” 

In 1969, 70% of all faculty in the US universities held tenure-track positions with full-time pay, benefits, and pension. Today, nearly the same percentage are adjunct instructors, or part-time lecturers with significantly less pay, worse job security, and no benefits. According to a 2021 CalMatters report, a quarter of these instructors at the UC leave their roles every year due to low pay and high workload. 

“It shouldn’t be this difficult to get a public education,” said Stefany Mena, a fourth-year psychology graduate student and TA at UCLA. “We’re expected to teach and do research on top of getting our degree, and that doesn’t happen at other universities.”

As an undergraduate student at UCLA, Mena said she stayed at the university to get her PhD and become a professor. But after working too much for too little, she said she can no longer see herself staying in academia.

“The amount that our classes have grown is extremely big, especially in the psychology department,” she added. “That means more grading for us, more work [to] our teaching load. And we still get paid the same.”

strikers marching
(Photo: Vani Sanganeria)

‘Get Up, Get Down, LA is a Union Town’

Tafari’s choice to attend UCLA was purposeful and hopeful, he said. He joined the university’s urban schooling program with a specific vision to investigate issues of inequity in the schools he grew up in.

Since then, Tafari has broken ground on researching truth commissions and the policing of Black and brown children in Culver City’s public schools. He has also collaborated with the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA to research medical reparations and health disparities among Black, brown, and Native people in Los Angeles healthcare systems.

“It’s been some of the most profound work I’ve been able to participate in in my life,” Tafari said. “I’ve been very thankful to have gotten some of the most profound and diverse training that I could have experienced in academia.”

UCLA is also one of only 12 universities in the country to offer a labor studies program. According to Higbie, LA’s unique history of labor activism — which helped form the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment in 1964, where Higbie works as associate director — helped shape innovative dialogue between academic scholars and labor activists on campus. 

“As the labor movement was embracing the organizing of immigrant workers in [the ’90s], service workers at UCLA’s Labor Center were connecting students to organized labor,” Higbie said. “That’s where our program came from. It was our folks in the labor center who saw it as something we needed to do to serve students and advance labor research.” 

Every day at 3 PM, the six picket lines across UCLA’s campus converge at a joint rally, where numerous LA unions and their representatives, such as the California Nurses Association, drivers’ union the Teamsters, and the American Federation of Musicians, have voiced their support for the UAW platform. Like many faculty, Higbie marched alongside picketers, chanting “Whose university? Our university!” as UPS truck drivers sounded their horns in solidarity.

For Mena, the UAW strike at UCLA mirrors a long tradition of protest at universities. 

“I’ve been seeing in the news that Starbucks workers are striking and students at University of New Mexico are striking,” Mena said. “Hopefully, we’re inspiring more people to stand up for what they believe in, because what we want is better working conditions [and] to get back to our students.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the minimum pay for postdoctoral workers in the tentative agreement. We apologize for the error.