The Future of Academic Unionism Will Play Out at the University of California System

The UC strike was a struggle for dignity and equity. Xinhua

ACADEMIC WORKERS ARE on the move. Just in the past year, academic workers at 25 campuses including over 25,000 workers unionized, including MIT, Northwestern, Yale, Johns Hopkins, University of New Mexico, and Boston University.

After decades of haggling over whether they were actual workers or just trainees learning their craft, and by extension whether they were entitled to basic labor protections like the right to join a union, academic workers are rendering the question moot by unionizing in ever greater numbers.

Importantly, given how difficult the NLRB election process makes it for workers to unionize, along with a string of failed academic worker organizing attempts in the not-too-distant past, these were not nail-biter elections. Blowout margins upwards of 80-90% were common. More elections are scheduled or imminent at the University of Chicago, Dartmouth, USC, Caltech, and more.

The scope of who counts as an academic worker has also expanded far beyond the standard image of a graduate student teaching assistant. It now includes larger groups of research assistants, adjunct instructors, and undergraduate workers at campuses like Kenyon, Grinnell, and the University of Oregon.

Meanwhile, already-unionized groups of academic workers are taking action, with Bloomberg reporting a post-pandemic higher education strike wave. The Cornell ILR Labor Tracker documented 15 strikes involving academic workers since the beginning of 2022 — the most in at least 20 years according to Bloomberg.

Notably, most of these strikes were offensive strikes with workers were trying to expand gains, as opposed to defensive strikes where workers were trying to beat back concessions.

Familiar Issues

The issues driving the uptick in unionization and strikes should sound familiar to workers inside and outside of academia: wages not keeping pace with the rising cost of living, eroding job security, lack of support for families, lack of access to comprehensive health resources, and more.

This is partly due to factors affecting all U.S. workers, like out-of-control housing markets and lack of paid family leave or universal health care. But it is also the result of the growing corporatization of the university.

As public funding of higher education has eroded over the past several decades, university leaderships have drawn increasingly from the managerial handbook of private corporations to run their institutions. Expensive, secure tenure-track faculty have been replaced by cheap, contingent adjunct, lecturers, and teaching assistants, who now account for more than 70% of university instructional staff.

As a result the job market for tenure-track faculty has virtually collapsed, making it increasingly unlikely that many current graduate students will end up in those types of jobs. Meanwhile an ever-expanding administrative bureaucracy has grown ever more concerned with identifying university “profit centers” and “revenue streams” to replace state funding, all while relying on questionable metrics and rankings to quantify performance in pursuit of that amorphous goal, “excellence.”

In this context where academic labor is both essential and undervalued, the promise of more secure, tenured employment down the road rings increasingly hollow, and university administrations behave more like corporate management, it makes sense that academic workers are organizing.

The trends have been apparent for years now, but the pandemic crystallized them for many academic workers, driving the recent upsurge.

The UC Strike

In a year of momentous labor actions on campus, one in particular stood out: the six-week strike by 48,000 academic workers at the University of California (UC), members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Locals 2865, 5810, and Student Researchers United (SRU), at the end of 2022.

While every strike or campaign has its own peculiarities, a closer look at the UC strike can tell us something about the state of academic labor more generally.

Bringing together a wide array of classifications including teaching assistants, research assistants, postdoctoral fellows, academic research staff, and more, this was the largest strike by academic workers in U.S. history. It was the result of an unprecedented mobilization effort across the UC system, culminating in a 98% strike authorization vote on the eve of the walkout, with over 75% of eligible workers voting.

The big issue was substandard pay, with most UC academic workers making around $24,000 annually. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many UC campuses are in some of the most expensive housing markets in the country, leaving the vast majority of UC academic workers “rent-burdened,” meaning that over 30% of their income goes to rent.

Many in fact qualify as “severely rent-burdened,” meaning that over half of their income goes to rent.”

Academic workers at UC Santa Cruz put the rent burden issue on the map with a wildcat strike that gained national attention, and spread to several other UC campuses. Their core demand was a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, of $1,412 per month, with subsequent increases automatically tied to the rising cost of living.

COVID-19 cut the 2020 strike short, but the COLA issue only became more urgent as mobilizations got underway for the 2022 statewide contract negotiations. Addressing the rising cost of living became a central issue, with workers demanding a minimum annual salary of $54,000 for graduate workers, and $70,000 for postdocs, along with annual cost of living adjustments and experience-based increases.

After weeks of mass rallies, pickets to block shipments of critical lab material, direct actions targeting university leaders, and more, UAW union leadership could rightly point to significant gains. Most notable were wage gains of between 20-80% over a two-year contract for teaching and research assistants, and between 29-57% over five-year contracts for postdocs and academic researchers, with higher percentages for workers at the lower end of the pay scale.

This will result in minimum annual base pay of $34,000 for teaching assistants after two years, and $85,734 for postdocs after five years. Workers also won increases in parental and medical leave, medical coverage for some dependents, and childcare subsidies, among other improvements.

The strike is also making waves beyond the UC system. Inspired by the UC strike mobilization and the gains it won, academic workers at other campuses are stepping up their organizing efforts. In the weeks following the strike, workers at USC and Caltech announced new organizing campaigns, and others are following suit.

“These big actions in higher ed don’t just raise the bar for those institutions; they raise the bar everywhere for all grad students and postdocs,” said Sam Ponnada, an astrophysics graduate student researcher and union organizer at Caltech, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s kind of forcing a race to the top…to match the better pay, benefits and workplace conditions that academic unions are winning across the country.”

Why the No Vote?

Yet despite these real gains, nearly 40% of academic student employees and nearly one-third of student researchers voted to reject the contracts, with nearly 70% turnout. (By comparison, fewer than 20% of members voted to reject contracts following other major education worker strikes like the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike or the 2019 United Teachers Los Angeles strike.)

What explains the significant No vote? The result is all the more surprising given that union leadership put as much effort into campaigning for a Yes vote as they had in mobilizing for the initial strike authorization vote, according to reports from UAW members and staff.

Simply put, many workers thought they could win more.Those who voted No saw the sizable percentage wage increases, but noted that the actual dollar amount behind those percentages would still leave most workers rent burdened by the end of the contract. The final agreement also jettisoned the COLA provision, which would have automatically indexed future wage increases to the cost of living.

Many “Vote No” proponents saw the wage demands not simply as an economic question, but a political struggle over the nature of wage determination: should wages be a function of “what the market will bear,” or should they be determined based on what is necessary to provide for human needs?

More concretely, tying wage increases to the rising cost of living, which in California as elsewhere is largely driven by the cost of housing, would have created incentives for the UC to use its substantial power as an institutional investor and large landholder to intervene in the housing market to keep costs down.

But beyond wages, “Vote No” organizers highlighted what else was missing in the contract: There was little progress on addressing non-resident supplemental tuition (NRST), additional fees of up to $15,000 per year charged to non-U.S. citizens.

As state funding for the university has eroded, NRST has increasingly served as a core funding mechanism to make up the shortfall. But with the University of California attracting top scholars from around the world, union activists charge that NRST serves as a form of tuition discrimination, balancing the UC’s budget on the backs of international students.

The new contract codifies existing practice, which exempts international students from NRST for three years after they have fulfilled all graduation requirements except for researching and writing their dissertation.

Childcare was also a sore point. The contract increased childcare subsidies by 27%, from $1,100 per quarter to $1,400 per quarter by the end of the agreement. But with quality childcare in many California cities easily topping $1,400 per month, the increase still leaves parents with significant childcare expenses.

Many also expressed concern about the “special wages” negotiated for workers at the Berkeley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles campuses. This will result in an annual wage premium of roughly $2,500 for each of these campuses.

Union leadership argued that the new agreement creates greater wage standardization across campuses than existed previously, and that codifying existing inequalities in the contract subjects them to the bargaining process going forward, creating a means to reduce them over time. Critics charged that these “prestige tiers” would entrench cross-campus inequalities and create dangerous precedents for negotiations with other UC unions.

Language around improving workplace accessibility for disabled workers also fell short for many. “Vote No” proponents argued that the new provisions left university management with too much power to determine what constituted “reasonable” accommodations.

The Upside of Conflict

In the aftermath of the contract ratification vote, there is heated debate within the UC academic worker unions about whether it would have been possible to win more.

Some argued that a “long-haul” strike that would have withheld grades into the next term could have exerted more leverage on the university, while those advocating a Yes vote contended that such a strategy would have dissipated the union’s power, leaving the door open for UC management to backtrack on previously agreed-to provisions.

With the contracts ratified, it is impossible to know who was right. What is certain though is that there are radically different perspectives within the UC academic worker locals about strategy, tactics, and organizational functioning.

Media reports on the ratification focused on the internal divisions within the UAW locals.

And while intra-union conflict can be unpleasant, and rhetoric can get overheated, it is important to recognize that there are some real upsides to this internal conflict.

Most fundamentally, the controversy surrounding the UC contract settlement is symptomatic of rising expectations among academic workers. After years of being told to accept low pay and exploitative working conditions in exchange for the ever-vanishing possibility of a secure, tenure-track future, they are demanding the respect and pay commensurate with the value of the work they do for the university right now.

The internal disagreements center around how best to advance those demands, and how far to push them. Rather than seeing the substantial No vote as a sign of fragmentation and weakness, we can view it as a sign that there is a sizable constituency within the union that remains unsatisfied with the current state of affairs, and is willing to fight for more.

After decades of workers taking concessions and being told to be thankful for what they have, this is a welcome development. Indeed, the kind of internal debate and disagreement we have seen is a sign of a healthy organization—especially in a high-participation context like in the UC system.

Labor organizer A. J. Muste famously described unions as being “part town hall meeting, part army.” As organizations of individual workers whose power can only be exercised collectively, unions must deliberate in order to determine common interests and shape a course of action — the town hall part. But then they also must act with unity of purpose in the fight against the employer — that’s the army part.

These two functions are in tension but they can also feed off each other. Deliberation over demands, strategy, and tactics, even when heated, can spur members’ engagement, increasing their willingness to fight. Likewise, the experience of fighting the boss can transform workers’ sense of what they want — and what they’re capable of winning. This can increase members’ commitment to the union and increase their desire to shape its strategic vision.

We have seen this dynamic unfolding at UC. To its credit, UAW local leadership put considerable time and resources into the 2022 contract campaign, building in part off the energy and issues that emerged from the 2020 UCSC wildcat strike. This translated into record high participation in the strike authorization vote and the strike itself. The army came out in force.

But as the broad organizing and large-scale strike mobilizations escalated, they took on a life of their own. Despite leadership efforts to stage-manage picket lines through attorney-approved chants and picket signs, members found ways to express their issues in their own words and actions. Picket lines created forums for political discussion of the issues surrounding the strike and union strategy — something like a town hall meeting.

But efforts to translate these small-scale discussions into a broader dialogue between leaders and members sat awkwardly with union leadership. There were few union-organized mass forums to discuss bargaining issues and strike strategy.

Leadership opted instead for regular informational updates combined with “one-on-one” discussions between staff/officials and members. These were effective means for disseminating leadership talking points, and miles ahead of many other unions’ internal communication efforts during bargaining. But the fact remains that they left little room for engaging in substantive discussion of core issues as a collective.

Frustration at the lack of deliberation over strike strategy and bargaining demands bubbled up at campus-level organizing meetings among workers energized by their experiences on the picket lines. This came to a head on a November 21 Zoom call where Local 2865 bargaining team members announced the withdrawal of the COLA demand to loud protests. It spilled over into independent teach-ins and strategy sessions about the strike.

This kind of dissent and debate is the lifeblood of a healthy union. Indeed, it’s the kind of contentiousness that characterized the UAW in its formative years, when it grew from virtually nothing at its founding in 1935 to one million members by 1944. The challenge is how to balance the “town hall” and “army” elements.

Again to its credit, UAW leadership did respond to member pushback on occasion, most notably in modifying a November 30 wage proposal that would have dropped annual base pay from $54,000 to $42,000, after more than 2,000 members signed a petition opposing the move within half a day. But even then, the response was grudging, raising the base wage proposal to $43,000.

Disagreement or Disloyalty?

For the most part, UAW leadership paid lip service to the idea that “disagreement and debate are important parts of this union,” while meeting actual dissent with defensiveness and derision.

When a reporter for In These Times sought comment from UAW leadership about internal disagreements on bargaining demands and strategy, the response came not from leadership, staff, or even a well-rehearsed rank-and-file member. Rather, it came from a PR firm, which followed up with a prepared statement from Local 2865 President Rafael Jaime.

Jaime’s statement stressed that the union’s actions were “guided by the majority,” and that the democratically elected bargaining committee was executing the will of the majority at the bargaining table.

This argument had some validity, in that the union does operate according to majority rule, and the bargaining team could not be expected to go back to the membership with every single proposal. But it also sidestepped the fact that many controversial bargaining team decisions were passed with razor-thin 10-9 majorities.

In such cases, one might expect that being “guided by the majority” might also include some acknowledgment of legitimate disagreements within the membership. Instead, UAW leadership interpreted disagreement as disloyalty.

As talk of a Vote No campaign gathered steam, an open letter signed by 153 UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW members appeared on Twitter on December 10, titled “Against an Anti-union No Vote Campaign.” While the letter itself had no direct connection to union leadership, the union’s PR firm had informed the aforementioned In These Times reporter on December 9 that such a letter would be forthcoming, and sent the reporter a copy upon its release.

The letter presented some well-reasoned defenses of contract gains, and called for “diversity of thought and tactics,” all while criticizing efforts to organize a No vote as divisive and anti-union. While this goes against basic democratic practice and decades of labor history, those familiar with UAW history will recognize this rhetorical maneuver as classic Administration Caucus (AC) behavior.

For those unfamiliar, the AC has functioned since 1947 as the single party in the UAW’s one-party state. In that time, it has maintained its hold on power by portraying itself as the true defender of progressive union values, while denouncing those offering a different vision for the union as anti-union extremists. It used this rhetoric to crush Black-led wildcat strikes against shop-floor and internal union racism, and against internal opponents concerned with the union’s embrace of concessionary bargaining and labor-management partnership.

Over time, the AC’s progressive veneer crumbled into outright corruption, culminating in a massive scandal that has unfolded over the past five years. More than a dozen UAW officials have pled guilty and gone to prison forembezzlement and other crimes, including two presidents.

The scandal also resulted in federal oversight of the UAW and the implementation of a system for direct election of top union officers. In elections held while the UC strike was underway, reformers critical of the AC-aligned leadership won nearly every leadership position they contested, with two positions left to be settled in an ongoing runoff election (ballots are counted starting March 1).

In fairness, current UAW leadership at UC and the open letter signatories bear no resemblance to the literal crooks who have led the international union in recent years. Indeed, many have been part of the recent efforts that have seriously weakened the AC’s hold on power.

Similarly, levels of transparency and accommodation of dissent are greater than in many other UAW locals and other unions. Notably, Local 2865 leadership tweeted both pro and con statements prior to the contract ratification vote, even as it mobilized major resources behind the Yes vote.

Still, old habits die hard, and the UC UAW leadership’s prickly response to criticism during the strike suggests that the AC’s culture of conformity remains difficult to dislodge within the union.

Conflict and Growth

With the UC contracts now ratified, the focus now turns to enforcing the gains won in this contract, and laying the groundwork for the next contract campaign in 2025. Internal disagreements aside, it’s clear that the strike has transformed the UC unions, which are now positioned at the head of a new wave of academic worker organizing.

Member participation is at an all-time high, and it will be critical to watch what happens with that member participation in the months ahead. Will those who mobilized for a no vote continue organizing for their alternative vision for the union, perhaps mounting a leadership challenge? Or will they dissipate and disengage?

For its part, will the current leadership follow through on its post-ratification promises and continue fighting to win issues that were left unresolved in the 2022 negotiations? Or will it focus more on taming internal opposition?

A lot can happen in two years, but initial signs point to a promising synergy in the UAW at UC. Following the ratification vote, leaders at UC Santa Cruz, where the No vote prevailed by a wide margin, called on those disappointed with the ratification results to resist the urge to withdraw, “and instead redouble our commitment to the organizing that has taken us this far.”

Maintaining that commitment will be essential to build a culture of democratic debate and dissent within the union.

The main concrete action UAW leadership has taken since ratification has been to merge SRU-UAW into Local 2865, creating a 36,000-member mega-local. While the size of the new local may be unusual among academic worker unions, it is common for researchers and instructors to be in the same local.

On a more substantive level, union leadership has been focused on combating post-strike retaliation against workers and pushing back against UC management’s efforts to pay for negotiated improvements for academic workers by drastically reducing the number of academic worker positions.

As academic worker unionism continues to sweep across campuses in the months and years ahead, the UC strike offers important lessons for the path forward. At a basic level, it has shown how transformative a strike can be, even when workers don’t win all their demands. The strike set a new standard for academic labor, raising workers’ expectations in the process.

Those raised expectations stoked member involvement, ensuring mass participation in the strike. But they also sparked debate and dissent. While that debate and dissent could get heated, even vitriolic at times, it’s important to recognize that it is a necessary source of dynamism within the labor movement.

Periods of growth are also periods of conflict, as workers figure out who they are, what they want, and how they want to get it. You can’t figure that out through surveys and carefully managed focus groups. It has to be debated.

If academic worker unionism continues to grow, we should expect to see more of the conflict we saw on the picket lines and meetings during the UC strike. And we should welcome it.

Barry Eidlin is an Associate Professor of Sociology at McGill University and a former head steward in UAW Local 2865 at UC Berkeley.

Co-published with Jacobin.