The California academic strike is the most important in US higher education history | Nelson Lichtenstein

The strike by unions representing 48,000 academic workers at the University of California stands at a perilous crossroads. It is by far the largest and most important strike in the history of American higher education, with the potential to transform both the status and income of those who work in an “industry” that now employs more workers than the federal government.

Despite all the disruption, the strike has generated virtually no opposition from either the faculty or from most undergraduates. Indeed, student leaders at all nine University of California campuses have endorsed the demand by their graduate student teaching assistants and other academic workers for a substantial wage increase designed to offset the soaring cost of California housing as well as the larger inflationary riptide that has eroded even the paltry salaries, grants and fellowships upon which so many of them rely.

Most faculty are sympathetic as well, with many joining the picket lines put up each day by the United Automobile Workers, the union representing the separate locals composed of teaching assistants, tutors and readers; postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers. Many of the UC strikers hold that the “A” in UAW really stands for “academic,” certainly in California, where most UAW members are now employed in a university setting.

After three weeks, however, the strike has reached a moment of danger. UC administrators have offered the postdocs and the academic researchers, about 12,000 in number, a set of five-year contracts that modestly increase wages in year one and also provide a set of additional enhancements, including more money for parental leave, childcare benefit and longer appointments. But the graduate student teaching assistants, who compose a large majority of those on strike and who constitute the most militant and activist element among the unionists, have thus far been unable to persuade UC administrators to increase an initial wage offer – 7% now followed by smaller annual increases later on – that barely compensated them for the inflationary erosion of their real incomes.

It’s a divide-and-conquer strategy. Because the federal government pays the salaries of most postdocs and academic researchers – through grants from the National Science Foundation and other funding entities – UC can more easily accede to a wage enhancement, in the case of the postdoctoral students, for more than 20% in the first year, although only 3.5% in subsequent years. But since the teaching assistants, whose current pay is the lowest of all those on strike, are funded directly out of the University budget, school negotiators have taken a hard line.

Adding insult to injury, UC insists upon long contracts for all those now on strike, with relatively paltry wage increments in the out years. Most of the teaching assistants – who have made Cola, a guaranteed cost of living adjustment each year, a key demand – see such a long-duration contract as a recipe for more inflationary wage erosion.

For the moment, all UAW members at UC remain on strike, but some union leaders seem inclined to encourage ratification of contracts covering the postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, leaving the graduate student TAs to fend for themselves. This would be a disaster, generating recrimination, division and disaffection within the ranks of the more active grad student strikers.

There is still time to avoid such a debacle and instead carry the strike to victory. UC administrators plead that budget constraints foreclose the possibility of any large wage boost for the school’s 36,000 graduate student workers. Yet California remains an immensely wealthy state, with a budget surplus that almost reached $100bn this year. Over the last several decades, however, state funding for UC, as well as the even larger state university system, has steadily declined. Today just over 10% of UC’s $44bn budget is funded by California itself, down from more than half when in 1963 UC president Clark Kerr famously declared that the institution he led was a “multiversity”, the world-class model for the creation of a knowledge-based society.

The UC strike is therefore not just an effort to raise thousands of academic workers out of near poverty, but a movement whose success will require a reversal of the austerity that has subverted the higher education promise in California and elsewhere. That is a cause that deserves our hearty endorsement.

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