Sunday, November 20, 2022

University of California Academic Workers Strike For Economic Justice (November 14 to December 23, 2022)

This space was here to lend a voice to the 48,000 academic workers from the University of California system who started their strike on November 14th.  Graduate student workers remained on the picket line for nearly six weeks before voting yes to an agreement on December 23.        

This group of UC employees was not the first or the last collective of academic workers to strike, but their struggle has become a model for other academic union campaigns.  The Higher Education Inquirer has been in solidarity with this effort for economic justice, where unfair labor practices are commonplace and systemic.  

The outcome of the long University of California strike was a solid victory for democratic action--but not surprisingly, some of the most vulnerable workers received the least in return for their efforts. 

There were many takeaways--lessons learned--in this long fight--a fight that was years in the making--and that must continue. Imagine if adjuncts, students, rank-and-file workers, organized labor, and other related communities fought just as hard (and smart) to reduce homelessness, hunger, hate and violence, debt, and precarity.

Elite Universities and the Systematic Exploitation of Labor 

US mainstream media have rarely acknowledged the plight of non-tenured academic workers--who go by a number of titles. This precariat teaches undergraduate students and does much of the research at universities, including elite US universities, for modest wages and limited job security.  

While elite private and public schools have gained enormous power and wealth, many contingent academic laborers often struggle just paying their bills. Grad student workers have shared stories of living in their cars, commuting long distances, and enduring other hardships while working through school.

In order to get economic justice, academic workers have struggled for union representation and equitable labor contracts--with limited results.    

The original strikers consisted of four bargaining units with about 48,000 workers: 

*Academic student employees (teaching assistants/readers/tutors) UAW2865

*Graduate student researchers SRU-UAW 

*Postdoctoral scholars and Academic researchers UAW5810

Image from Fair UC

Workers versus Elites

At the first draft of this article (11-20-22), the union and their bosses, the University of California Regents, were far from a settlement.  We expected UC officials to engage in a variety of anti-union strategies despite claims that they were bargaining in good faith.  True to form, that's what happened. 

Mainstream local media attention has occurred, but few sources have given much thought to the history of politics, academic power, and wealth--and their links to poor labor conditions: long and irregular hours, low-wages, and wage theft at University of California campuses. 

Organized workers in the UC system have also had to fight systemic harassment and intimidation, systemic racism, and threats of deportation. In the not-too-distant past, UC workers claimed the UC system spent millions of dollars on union busting firms and employed "activist response teams" that included police officials and administrators to watch striking workers.  

Governor Gavin Newsom and the 18 Regents of the UC system represent the major political and economic interests of the State of California--and the adversaries of labor.  In this situation they have an enormous amount of power but were mostly invisible to the media.   

California History

According to University of California Santa Barbara labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, about 10 percent of the UC's budget is funded by the State of California, down from more than 50 percent in its peak year, 1963.  Other elite universities have replicated this model.

Californians have also experienced growing inequality (including high rents and college tuition) for more than a half century, since the rise of Ronald Reagan (1967-1975) and the movement to reduce taxes and defund higher education. 

During Reagan's second term as Governor of California, a 1973 California Supreme Court ruling opened the floodgates for landlords to charge unaffordable rents. 

Proposition 13 (1978), which limited residential and commercial property taxes, added insult to injury. And Proposition 209 (1996) was a near fatal blow to equality and social justice in the Golden State. 

Labor and the UC System 

UAW Local 2865, the union of teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, tutors, and readers in the University of California system was formed in 2000.  UAW 5810, the union of postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, was formed in 2008.

By 2018, UAW 2865 grew to majority membership statewide and won a new contract with new rights in several areas.  

In July 2021, the UC system boasted that it had grown to $168 Billion in assets. Four months later, 6,000 UC part-time lecturers prepared to strike for better wages and more stability. Median wages for the contingent lecturers were $19,000 a year. The settlement between the UC system and University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) called for a 30 percent increase in wages over 5 years with promises of more stability.  

UAW 2865 has attempted to negotiate with the UC system--who for weeks offered concessions that would not even cover inflation. Worker salaries vary, but some make as little as $24,000 a year, in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, where housing is extremely unaffordable. 

Bargaining for a Fair UC document lists worker proposals and UC's proposals.  

The 2022 Strike

As the strike has developed, the system has employed a number of tactics, including divide and conquer actions and a number of appeals to the media and the public. We expect the mainstream media to side more with the system it serves rather than the people who do the hardest work but get the lowest pay.   

Initially, many senior faculty and other unions serving the University of California refused to cross picket lines in solidarity with the UAW strikers. 

Stanford University marching band spells out "UAW" during Stanford-Cal football game on November 19, 2022 at California Memorial Stadium.  Image courtesy Rafael Jaime, President of UAW 2865.  

Second week of the strike.  UC workers at the University of California, San Diego, November 21, 2022

 Week 3 of the strike.  UC workers at UCLA, November 27, 2022

On November 29th, the UAW 5810 gained a tentative agreement and received significant wage increases for postdocs and academic researchers--12,000 of the 48,000 workers.  Meanwhile, the UC system had made no additional concessions to lower status graduate student workers.    

On November 30, UC officials made few concessions to the graduate students. Student Researchers United (SRU) and UAW 2865 bargaining teams made major concessions, to include:

  • Dropping dependent healthcare coverage completely
  • Dropping the childcare subsidy from $6,000 per quarter to $3,300
  • Dropping the base wage demand from $54,000 to $43,000 

Week 3 letter from UCSC4COLA to UC workers encouraging them to continue and informing them that they can expect pushback from a number of fronts.  

Fox News used the UC strike as a reason to attack liberal higher education and labor power, noting the layers of administrative bloat at elite universities, the salaries of tenured professors, and the schools' reliance on foreign students--but using an ahistorial, white supremacist frame. 

On December 1, strikers occupied the UC Berkeley Chancellor's Office, leaving the next morning.  

On December 2, one thousand UC faculty asked Governor Gavin Newsom to support the academic workers in winning their demands.


Week 4 of the UC Strike (Finals Week).  Hundreds of workers in Sacramento and sit-ins at two President's offices, December 5, 2022.  That night, police arrested 17 UC protestors in Sacramento, for trespassing.  

On December 5, the UK Guardian published an opinion piece by renowned labor historian and University of California, Santa Barbara professor Nelson Lichtenstein calling the UC strike "by far the largest and most important strike in the history of American higher education."  That night, 17 protestors were arrested at the University of California President's Office in Sacramento, for trespassing.   

On December 6, the UC strike received 6 minutes of attention from the PBS News Hour.   UC strikers began planning for a "long-haul" strike and would continue to withhold their labor (grading exams) as finals weeks ends.  At least 400 UC Faculty Senate members have also agreed not to break the picket line, leaving more than 30,0000 grades uncompleted.  

On December 7, 10 strikers were arrested after entering the office of UC Regent & Chair of the UC Investment Committee Richard Sherman demanding fair contracts.

On Friday December 9, the UAW unions and administrators agreed to mediation.  The Associated Press reported that the postdocs and researchers would not return to work until all the bargaining units had gotten an agreement.  NBC News (print version) highlighted the effects of the strike on disrupting the university's operations and hurting undergraduates, with the workers struggle buried in the article.  Other news outlets framed the story as a disruption causing stress to undergraduates.  

In week 5, the number of strikers were reduced as 12,000 postdocs and academic researchers crossed the picket line after reaching an agreement with the Regents the previous week.  Remaining strikers, who had received little attention from the Regents, vowed not to stop, preparing for a large event, the Regents Romp, at UCLA on Wednesday, December 14.  Workers continued to be arrested as they spoke out about their economic hardships.  

On December 16, the graduate student workers reached a Tentative Agreement (TA) with the University of California but remained on the picket line until a new contract was ratified.  

On December 23, the strike ended after the agreement with graduate student workers was ratified.  According to the LA Times, 68 percent of the graduate student researchers (SRU) voted yes to the agreement, with a vote of 10,057 to 4,640.  UAW 2865, the union of teaching assistants, tutors and other student academic workers, approved their agreement with 61.6 voting yes, 11,386 to 7,097.  For future workers, the gains were substantial, more than 50 percent over two years. Some workers, however, said the TA did not lift them out of poverty.  

Related links: 

Rank and File Action-UC (Facebook) 

Rank and File Action-UC (Twitter)

UAW 2865

UAW 2865 (Twitter) 

Student Researchers United-UAW (Twitter) 

UAW 5810 

UAW 5810 (Twitter) 

UCSC4COLA (Twitter) 


Bargaining for a FAIR UC

Thousands of academics strike in California: how is research affected? (Max Kozlov, Nature) 

Historic Strike Launched at University of California (TYT) 

The University of California Strike Has Been 50 Years in the Making (Alissa Walker, Curbed)

From Master Plan to No Plan: The Slow Death of Public Higher Education (Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal, Dissent)

History of Rent Protections in California (No Place Like Home)

UC Davis students and employees to gather to protest against union busting (Hannah Strumwasser, The Aggie)

Labor Notes

The Power of Recognizing Higher Ed Faculty as Working-Class (Helena Worthen) 

Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Faculty

University of California strike is massive example of how Golden State problems are warning to rest of nation (Chuck DeVore, Fox News)

Statement by UAW Bargaining Team Members at UCSC  

Student Workers on Strike at UCLA (Sarah Michelson, KNOCKLA)

Closed labs, cancelled classes: inside the largest strike to hit US higher education (Dani Anguiano, The Guardian) 

More than 1,000 UC faculty members urge Newsom, lawmakers to support striking academic workers (Debbie Truong and Mackenzie Mays, LA Times)

“We Sold Out the People Who Elected Us”: UC Bargaining Team Member Speaks Out About Union Concessions (Janna Haider, Left Voice)

The California academic strike is the most important in US higher education history (Nelson Lichtenstein, The Guardian)

Sit-In | UC Workers Strike enters 4th week with 50,000 walking out (ABC-10,  Sacramento, December 5, 2022)

UCSC academic workers focus on ‘long-haul strike’ as job action shifts to withholding grades, exams (Hillary Ojeda, Santa Cruz Lookout) 



Anonymous said...

How sad that under the master plan, California higher education was once the model for the whole world. Now, using highly skilled labor as itinerant workers is shameful. Where is Steinbeck when we need him? The dissertation of Wrath.

Dahn Shaulis said...

Anonymous, you are quite right. This UC workers struggle is part of a larger saga, of the slow but consistent dismantling of democracy and public institutions, not just in California, but across the US.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is correct.

The Master Plan (1960) achieved the following:

It created a system that combined exceptional quality with broad access for students.

It transformed a collection of uncoordinated and competing colleges and universities into a coherent system.

It established a broad framework for higher education that encourages each of the three public higher education segments to concentrate on creating its own kind of excellence within its own particular set of responsibilities.

And it acknowledged the vital role of the independent colleges and universities, envisioning higher education in California as a single continuum of educational opportunity, from small private colleges to large public universities.[8]

According to the Plan, the top one-eighth (12.5%) of graduating high school seniors would be guaranteed a place at a campus of the University of California tuition-free.

The top one-third (33.3%) would be able to enter the California State University system. Junior colleges (later renamed "community colleges" in 1967) would accept any students "capable of benefiting from instruction."[8]

These percentages are now enforced by sliding scales equating grade point average and scores on the SAT or ACT, which are recalculated every year.

No actual ranking of students in high schools is used as many schools do not rank students.

Graduates of the junior colleges would be guaranteed the right to transfer to the UC or CSU systems in order to complete bachelor's degrees.

This practice was carried over from previous years before the Plan was enacted; graduates from the junior colleges had traditionally been accepted as upper-division transfer students at the state colleges or UC campuses by virtue of their prior coursework.

Finally, the Plan established that the University of California would be the sole portion of the system charged with performing research, and would award master's and doctoral degrees in support of that mission. The Cal State system, in addition to awarding master's degrees, would be able to award joint doctorates with the UC.[8]

Poor site see more critical articles on Pat Brown, Jerry Brown's father's Master Plan for Higher Education.

It was all about public education not private education or now, educational management organizations.

As it states, Brown did not do this out of the love of an educated citizenry, he did it out of both the need for American skilled workers and management during the height of the industrial revolution in the US and California.

It meant, in sum, that those that were formerly excluded from higher education due mostly to family income, working class kids, could get a higher education for almost nothing.

I was one of those kids. Did badly in HS and was working class and had to work during HS.

I am 70 and paid $87.50 per semester with no added fees to go to a California State University in 1978.

To understand the fight of the academic workers it is so necessary to see how Jerry Brown, Pat Brown's son, used the long con to privatize education in California in all aspects from entry to testing.

He basically appealed or perhaps better said, assassinated his father's plan for higher education and turned it over to Duncan and Obama's hedge fund friends and Wall St. while posing, with the help of the corporate press, as some kind of maverick or progressive.

It is enough to make on sick and many of the articles and exposures of Jerry Brown and his charterization of schools, his rampant support for corporations and the repeal of what was once the pride and joy of the world--- higher ed--- so one must investigate on their own and educate others.

Anonymous said...

Higher education, now, is to capitalism what investments are to Goldman Sachs.

It is a piggy bank of thousands of diverse investments and basically the majority of voting shares in higher education are held by both Vanguard and Black Rock hedge funds.

The students must win, but as Dahn notes:

"few sources have given much attention to the history of politics, academic power, and wealth--and its link to poor labor conditions: long and irregular hours, low-wages, and wage theft at University of California campuses. Organized workers in the UC system have also had to fight systemic harassment and intimidation, systemic racism, and threats of deportation."

This must change.

But it will only change when the multitude of strikes and grievances, be they from academia or rail road workers, are understood through the lens of the economic system they are swaddled in: capitalism.

Then they can unite.

The economic and political system is the problem.

Capitalism has always hated educated people and will never allow what happened in the 1960's ( the radicalization of young, working people with no tuition) to occur again.

This makes this strike even more stunningly important.

Anonymous said...

The board of regents is made up of charter school advocates, privatization matchstick men and millionaire businessmen.

n July 2021, the UC system boasted that it had grown to $168 Billion in assets. Four months later, 6,000 UC part-time lecturers prepared to strike for better wages and more stability. Median wages for the contingent lecturers was $19,000 a year. The settlement between the UC system and University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) called for a 30 percent increase in wages over 5 years with promises of more stability.

This is the salient part.

This and who makes up the Regents of the system. Charter school pioneers, privatizers and the criminal lot.

No COLA, No Contract! Build rank-and-file strike committees across UC campuses and beyond! For a counteroffensive against the attacks on the working class!
UC Rank-and-File Strike Committee
14 hours ago
A group of striking UC academic workers has formed an independent rank-and-file strike committee and issued the following statement. The struggle continues in its third week across the expansive University of California system, the largest institution of higher learning in the world.

To join the committee, email

Anonymous said...

No COLA, No Contract! Build rank-and-file strike committees across UC campuses and beyond! For a counteroffensive against the attacks on the working class!
UC Rank-and-File Strike Committee

A group of striking UC academic workers has formed an independent rank-and-file strike committee and issued the following statement. The struggle continues in its third week across the expansive University of California system, the largest institution of higher learning in the world. To join the committee, email

Our powerful strike which has united 48,000 graduate and postdoctoral teaching assistants, lecturers, researchers and other academics at the University of California is in danger of being shut down and sold out.

After years of suffering inferior pay, living and working conditions, we are determined to win our demands for the right to a decent life, which means transformative raises, COLA to meet soaring inflation, job security, affordable housing, health care, transportation and child care.

Our struggle is at a critical point, and the rank and file must organize to stop a repeat of the sellout of the 2020 wildcat COLA strike. In the past 48 hours the leadership of Local 5810 announced that it has reached tentative agreements for 11,000 postdoc and academic researchers. The details make clear that these agreements are sellouts, with wage increases only marginally above what the UC initially offered and, most importantly, no COLA provisions.

By trying to push through agreements for just over one-fifth of striking UC workers, the UAW apparatus is attempting to divide us and isolate us, the better to force us to accept contracts that do not meet our demands.

Anonymous said...

Continued: To counter these efforts, we are founding a rank-and-file strike committee. The task of this committee is to formulate the bottom-line demands for any contract we will accept. It will unify all striking workers against efforts to divide and weaken our strike and reach out to the broadest sections of the working class for a coordinated fight.

We are in no mood to surrender, but a fight requires strategy. We call on our fellow striking workers to build independent rank-and-file strike committees to see this forward.

To join the committee, email
In order to win, we cannot allow the strike to remain in the control of the UAW apparatus, which consists of hundreds of executives on the national and regional levels who make over $100,000 off the dues paid by members.

This apparatus has long accepted sweetheart deals with UC, the auto companies and other employers. Over the past two years, it has been engulfed in a massive corruption scandal that has sent top officials to jail for taking bribes from the companies and embezzling union dues.

The UAW apparatus is working behind the scenes with the UC Regents and Democratic Party to end our walkout as it did in 2020. Similarly Biden and Congress are seeking to impose with the help of the rail unions a concessions contract on railroad workers and prevent them from striking. The corporatist bureaucrats at the top of the UAW are no different from their counterparts in the rail unions.

Anonymous said...

Continued 2 - The agreements announced by Local 5810 were preceded by a statement signed by 27 BT members of the UAW Local 2865 and Student Researchers United-UAW bargaining team that declared that we must make concessions and drop COLA demands. It cynically claimed, “Our strike is historic, but our power is not infinite. Even if we could compel the University to accept uncertain year-over-year wage increases, we believe it would come at the expense of a critical increase to our base wage.” We reject the claim that we must choose between current wage increases and COLA to assist with future inflation and costs.

For us, “No COLA, No Contract” are not empty words but the means by which we intend to fight for a living wage that keeps up with wildly growing inflation. We need a substantial rise in base pay and cost-of-living increases! When UAW officials say the unversity system cannot afford both, they are only echoing the lies of the university administrators.

There is nothing democratic about the handling of our struggle. We were muted at last week’s online caucus sessions when we tried to make our voices heard. Members of the SRU BT have used the pretext of harassment to argue that BT member voting should not be disclosed to the public. Backroom bargaining and Zoom calls ended without caucus.

It is clear we must take this struggle into our own hands. We propose the establishment of a UC Rank-and-File Strike Committee (UCRFSC) at every campus to lead this fight forward. This is what Will Lehman, the socialist autoworker running for UAW president, has been calling for.

One of the first tasks of the UCRFSC is to formulate our own, non-negotiable demands, including wages that ensure no more than 25 percent of our pay is directed toward housing, and COLA that is reflective of market shifts. We also call for the farthest reaching protections for international students, COVID-19 protections, guaranteed campus housing for the entire length of our programs. The UCRFSC also calls for the resources of the UAW to be used for polling the entire membership to determine additional demands that serve our needs, and not what the UAW bureaucrats say our multibillion-dollar employer can afford.

Anonymous said...

Continued 3 - Additionally, we insist that the UAW’s $800 million strike fund—paid for through workers’ dues—be made available so that our full wages are paid to enable us to weather this strike until our demands are met. We are fighting for all workers and are certain our allies among rank-and-file autoworkers would support us, as we would them, to ensure none of us is starved out on the line.

To win we must know who we are up against. The UC is run by the top echelons of the state’s Democratic Party, with the majority being handpicked by the governor of California.

Both parties insist “there is no money” for public education, housing, living wages, free tuition, universal health care and child care, but they have no problems finding tens of billions to be handed over for war, weaponry and militarism. The California Master Plan, which built the CSU and UC systems in the 1960s with taxpayer money to guarantee the rights of future generations to attend college, has been turned into a dead letter by the financial elite who run this state.

California is home to 186 billionaires, who live next to millions of working people struggling to live. There is more than enough money, but it is made at our expense. The dropping of all COVID-19 mitigations showed the degree to which human life was and continues to be subordinated to private profit. These officials do not care if we contract COVID-19, get Long COVID, if we eat or if we cannot afford rent.

The Regents and the state officials would prefer nothing more than to keep us contained to the university, starving and tiring ourselves out marching around campus for a paltry strike pay of $400 a week, while the UAW could pay us our full wages to ensure we can hold out. Various stunts at chancellor’s residences are no substitute for a real fight to mobilize the broadest support from the working class for our demands.

The UC Rank-and-File Strike Committee calls for a turn to dock workers, autoworkers and railroad workers, health care workers, educators and other sections of the working class. That begins here and now with us supporting railroad workers, who are also in a direct fight against the state and the companies. We must reach out to the rank and file and also solidarize ourselves with the thousands of academic workers currently on strike in the UK and Scotland. "

Vote for Will Lehman for UAW president. We need to dump the union leadership that is forming nothing but alliances with capitalism. This union was once at the forefront of American democracy. We need to get rid of the current union leadership and set up rank and file commitees

Anonymous said...

Initial results from the first-ever direct election in the history of the United Auto Workers show an important level of support for rank-and-file socialist candidate Will Lehman, as well as widespread vote suppression and alienation among the rank and file from the UAW apparatus, reflected in the abysmal 10 percent turnout.

With one-third of the votes tallied, both main candidates of the UAW bureaucracy—incumbent Ray Curry and longtime UAW executive Shawn Fain—are far short of winning a majority of votes, with 13,132 and 14,458 votes (36 and 39 percent), respectively, according to unofficial tallies. If these percentages hold, it will mean that despite their access to the massive UAW apparatus, each of the main candidates will have won the support of less than 3 percent of the roughly 1 million eligible voters. If neither receives a majority, it will send the election to a run-off.

Steve Diamond said...

The Master Plan was a bureaucratic nightmare for higher education. It institutionalized the university as a modern capitalist institution against which the Free Speech Movement fought. Don't romanticize the past.

Dahn Shaulis said...

Steve, I hear you. Higher education is a tool for predatory capitalism. And it has almost always served as a tool of oppression.