Student Workers on Strike at UCLA
Thousands of academic workers at UCLA are entering their third week on strike, joining 48,000 UC students statewide in the largest public university strike in US history.
Note: this is a rapidly developing story. Last night, the union representing student workers offered the university a compromise in a new proposal on wage increases. This evening, student workers began occupying the Luskin Conference Center.
Represented by the UAW, the student workers are teaching assistants (TAs), tutors and readers; graduate researchers; and postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers. Their demands include higher wages, greater job security, and more support for families and international student workers. They say the university has illegally interfered with the bargaining process to avoid negotiating a fair contract.
Hundreds of faculty published a letter on November 28 committing to withhold their labor in solidarity. Supportive delivery drivers from the Teamsters union refuse to cross the picket line to deliver supplies.
On November 29, postdocs and academic researchers reached a tentative agreement with the university. However, those workers will remain on strike at least until the membership ratifies the agreement.
‘The Professor Has a Patent and We’re Still Living in Our Cars’
“The university relies on underpaying graduate students in order to function,” said Candace Hansen, a musicology teaching assistant.
Last year, Hansen was “wrecked” with Covid and urgently needed to rest and recover. But as the only person in the department trained on intake for a required course for undergraduate students, Hansen saw no option but to work through it. “Fifty students would not have graduated if I had not worked when sick,” said Hansen. “There’s so many examples like that across departments.”
The University says the “opportunity” to work is “one of many ways in which UC supports these student employees as they pursue their course of study.” But TAs say they do the majority and sometimes the entirety of the work of teaching undergraduate classes: lesson planning, preparing and grading homework and exams, teaching class sections, and holding office hours.
Teaching assistants make on average $24,000 a year, and Hansen says that when you consider how many hours they actually work, that amounts to minimum wage — or less. For working-class students whose families depend on their income, this situation is untenable.
“The university says it wants to remove barriers for historically underrepresented students,” said Bineh Ndefru, a student worker in material sciences and engineering, “but its proposals show exactly the opposite.”
As a researcher studying clean energy, Ndefru made $1,800 a month, and $1,600 of that went back to the university for a room in graduate student housing. Students without family support sometimes forgo paying rent altogether. “We do the research on discoveries that the UC plasters on the front page,” said Ndefru, “Then the professor has a patent and we’re still living in our cars.”
Meanwhile, UC Chancellors voted earlier this year to give themselves raises of up to 25%, bringing UCLA chancellor Gene Block’s salary to about $640,000. He lives rent-free in a 55-room mansion on campus.
Full-Time Work, Part-Time Pay
In response to the strike, the University released a number of statements defending its positions, and emphasizing that student employees are part-time workers. “In fact,” they say, “UC policy prohibits them from working more than 20 hours per week to ensure they have the time and energy they need for their studies.”
Physics researcher Milan Mandigo-Stoba says that’s misleading. “There’s absolutely no distinction in duties between paid and unpaid time,” she said. “We do the majority of the lab work. We write grants and fellowship applications. We do the labor to make it the #1 research facility and to bring in funding.”
The union says that meeting all their demands would only require 3% of the university’s budget.
Extra Pressures for International Students
For international student workers, the pressures, costs, and risks of the strike are higher.
The university requires that international students pay an additional $15,000 per year in out-of-state tuition. The union is demanding the university revoke that policy, which many students say is xenophobic. (Domestic students can claim residency and qualify for in-state tuition after one year, but international students cannot.) Departments cover that tuition for graduate students, but only if they proceed to candidacy within two years. This means extra time pressure on something students say they don’t have full control over.
“You have three advisers and they all have different expectations,” said an international student and feminist labor researcher who requested anonymity. “Sometimes I don’t hear back from them for months. You could be working 24/7 but if your advisor never gives you feedback, you might end up not taking the exam on time.”
Although strikes are a legally protected activity, international students told Knock LA they were anxious about the protests affecting their immigration status.
“E.,” a TA studying indigenous economies, said she’s received vaguely threatening emails from faculty, and from the Dashew Center, the international student center, reminding her of the requirements necessary to maintain her visa.
But E. said the stress and risks of the strike are worth it; “There’s so much at stake.” After taxes, she makes $20,000 a year as a TA, and her visa requirements prohibit her from finding additional work, so she can’t afford a car, nearby housing, or even to buy lunch on campus. “I am planning every detail of daily life,” she said, “because I objectively economically can’t afford to make a mistake.”
The university says it would be “unfair” to California residents to allow international students to study and work without charging them extra tuition.
“As a state-funded public institution,” the university writes, “UC has an obligation to California resident students.” Some workers and scholars disagree with that assessment. “You do not work at a public university,” anthropology professor Hannah Appel said at a November 17 teach-in on the financialization of the university. “You work at a place formerly known as public.”
Whose University? Whose Union?
For the first hundred years or so of the UC’s existence, students did not pay tuition. But after student protesters in the ’60s agitated for racial justice and sexual liberation and against imperialism and war, Ronald Reagan rode to power on a platform of repressing student activism. As governor of California, he slashed university funding and introduced tuition in an explicit attempt to diminish student protests and “get rid of undesirables.”
To cover costs, Appel explained at the teach-in, the university now issues bonds to private funders, so its stakeholders are private corporations who view organized labor as a threat.
At another teach-in, on the history of radical campus organizing, rank-and-file members pushed for more democracy from the UAW. Many said the union had been too quick to drop demands like better access for disabled students, cost of living adjustments (COLA) — which would tie wage increases to economic factors like area median rent — and getting cops off campuses.
At least two department deans have called the police on striking workers. Administrators in the life sciences department emailed student workers admonishing them to consider themselves students, not workers, and get back to work. One worker said he is unable to use his own office after his department chair suspected he was storing strike materials there and stole his key. On November 28, academic workers marched in protest against increasing retaliation measures from the university.
Building Community through Shared Struggle
For many students, the strike actions have been the most vibrant display of community they’ve ever experienced on campus. “These past few weeks have been really good at showing us that we’re not just competing with each other,” said E., “and we actually need each other in order to get what we all need. That has been amazing.”
At six picket lines across campus, protesters continue to rally outside buildings, sharing food and strategy. One day a picket line broke out into Armenian line dancing; another day a bike coalition joined the protests. Just before sunset each afternoon, all protesters gather for one giant rally, with speakers from the UAW and other supportive local unions, including the newly formed strippers’ union. On the day before Thanksgiving, protesters held a potluck and listened to anthropology professor Shannon Speed speak about rematriating the land.
“There’s things that happen at the university that are so inspiring and amazing and are doing the beautiful work of envisioning the world we want to see, getting people to expand their minds and learn about history and envision different futures,” said Hansen. “It’s this combination of amazing stuff and also this sad, discouraging, difficult, disparaging reality, too. You just have to figure out a way to navigate it with your ethos as best as possible and remember why you’re there.”