UC Strike Marks Turning Point for Higher Education

August 1, 2023 | | 15 min read

On November 14, 2022, a six week strike by academic workers along the entire University of California system commenced. Over 36,000 academic student employees represented by UAW Local 2865—including teaching assistants, graduate student researchers, graduate student instructors, tutors, and readers—organized in picket lines and withheld their labor. By December 23, 2022, a 2.5-year contract with the UC was ratified, granting these workers many of the terms they had fought for. The strike has caused widespread disruption to academic affairs within the system, and in doing so has sparked discussion of the role of graduate students and the workings of higher education in general. The events of the strike have highlighted issues at UCSD and within our own Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry which have implications for all students and faculty. Graphite seeks to portray the facts of the matter; viewpoints will be shared which do not necessarily reflect those of UCSD, the Chemistry Department, or our own. 

UC classifies those represented by UAW 2865 into two groups, each with their own contract: graduate student researchers (GSRs) and academic student employees (ASEs), which consist of TAs, student instructors, tutors, and readers. As a result of recent bargaining, ASEs will initially receive 16-33% wage increases, with experienced-based increases. TAs at UCSD will be earning a 9-month minimum salary of $34,000 for 50% employment. GSRs will initially see 10% wage increases, with yearly increases thereafter; this will result in a minimum salary of  $34,564.50 for 50% employment. Other notable improved benefits for both groups include childcare reimbursement, paid leave extensions, and coverage of campus fees and remission of UC-sponsored student health plan premiums for most employees. There will also be a confirmation of accommodations for disabled workers and a new provision that will address and provide solutions for abusive work environments.1

The immediate concerns amongst many parties at UCSD during the strike were about continuity of research and education. Chemistry research, and that of most other departments, remained largely unimpeded. Principal investigators were generally able to maintain laboratories, and some graduate students still fulfilled their research obligations even if participating in the strike in other ways. However, undergraduate education certainly suffered. The absence of TAs resulted in discussion cancellation, postponing of grades, alteration of key class components such as projects and exams, and increased workload for professors. An FAQ was posted on UCSD’s labor negotiation website that directed instructors on how to proceed, but little could be done to fully make up for the loss of such an integral component of undergraduate classes.2

Union members faced conflicting pressures regarding their decision to go on strike. The primary reason for joining was to fight for better support and protections for all academic student employees. Hiya Datta, a second-year GSR, TA, and Chemistry Organizing Committee member, generalized the motivation of union members: “We rely on these systems that are within the institution that don’t get a lot done… withholding your labor is the only thing that you have to make the employer budge.” Those on strike did not necessarily want things to escalate so far but felt it was a needed action. Indeed, some were supportive of the goals of the strike but believed it was more destructive than necessary. There were other good reasons for hesitation as well. TAs in particular expressed concern about the impacts on their classes. One individual shared, “I thought it was unfair to leave my students without any sort of backup plan.” Some graduate students sensed pressure from the Chemistry Department to avoid going on strike. In an email sent out the night before the strike began, vice chair of graduate education, Jerry Yang, conveyed support for the strike, but included an imperative for graduate students to fulfill all job duties related to graduate level coursework. There were also fears of retaliation as a result of striking. 

The consensus among the graduate student community is that retaliation for striking did in fact occur. After the winter quarter, 23 unsatisfactory (U) grades in CHEM 500 were given by a number of professors to TAs within the Department of Chemistry alone. In order to be employed as a TA, one must concurrently be enrolled in CHEM 500, which is essentially a placeholder course to meet the credit requirement.3 In response to these events, official grievances have been filed by the union which are as yet unresolved by the university or the UC Office of the President (UCOP), and are now in the process of arbitration with a third party. Union representatives claim that escalation only resulted from the fact that UCSD has failed to issue a formal response or agree to meet with the union regarding the grievance. Complaints of the U grades were brought directly to the professors who issued them, but no intention to resolve was shown, despite acknowledgement of the severity of the issue. Defendants in this case argue that this is an act of grade retaliation for going on strike, which is deemed unlawful by the California Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA).4 The issue under arbitration is whether or not the grades received are in direct response to the protected act of withholding labor. Being employed as a TA falls under the category of ASE and such labor is protected by union membership. However, TAs are still seen as full-time students and must fulfill their academic duties, so a U grade could be construed as relating not to labor, but to academic performance. 

This gray area between being a student or a worker raises the issue of how to fairly classify ASEs and GSRs, another problem that UC has not fully resolved following the strike and is under arbitration. UC generally sees ASEs and GSRs as full-time students and only part-time workers; as such, they are given no more than 50% employment appointments, meaning they earn no more than 50% of the salary that they otherwise would if they were full-time employees. This is widely seen as problematic, as many ASEs and GSRs claim to work much more than the 20 hours per week stipulated by their 50% appointments, resulting in an hourly pay equivalent below minimum wage. Additionally, chemistry graduate students at UCSD – and those in most other departments – are generally given appointments closer to 40-45%, resulting in a lower salary than is deemed possible by their contracts. The standard appointment for chemistry TAs, for example, is only ~40%.5 The common experience of GSRs is explained by Ahmed Akhtar, a physics GSR/TA and former head steward of UAW 2865: “The reality is a lot of times you can’t even disentangle the work you’re doing for your thesis and the work you’re doing for your lab.” Many graduate student workers are upset that the time and effort they devote to the Chemistry Department are not being properly recognized or compensated.

Another result of the strike that is under intense criticism is potential enrollment cuts to graduate programs throughout the school. The Department of Physics has communicated plans to significantly reduce GSR and TA appointments in the near future.6 The School of Biological Sciences plans to eliminate most discussion sections for lecture courses beginning in Fall 2023, instead opting to hold one remote section run by a single TA.7 The Department of Chemistry is in the process of assessing what adjustments will need to be made in this regard. According to Dr. Thomas Bussey, Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Undergraduate Education for the department, “The goal is to have as little to no impact if we can… that might be overly optimistic. I think there will be changes, I just don’t know what they are at this time.”

These changes to GSR/TA appointments, and therefore undergraduate course structure, are presumably a direct effect of increased costs associated with wage increases won in the new contract. Due to ongoing legal proceedings regarding contract provisions, the Division of Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs (GEPA) and UCOP are still in the process of providing guidance to departments on how to implement the contract. Therefore, the exact amount of funding that each department will receive moving forward, and where they will decide to put this funding, is still unknown. This all comes as UCSD faces ever-increasing undergraduate enrollment, resulting from calls by the State Legislature to increase UC enrollment as well as Chancellor Khosla’s vision for an expanded campus.8 The potential changes have stoked fears that both education and research at UCSD, and throughout the UC system, will falter. As summarized by Ahmed Akhtar, “TAs are going to have to do a lot more work to accommodate much larger class sizes. It’s going to be worse for students because they’re not going to get as much individual attention. It’s going to be worse for research because [graduate students] are going to be spending a lot more time doing their teaching labor.” 

In the aftermath of the strike, the graduate student community, particularly within the Chemistry Department, has become more united and better organized. Union membership of graduate students in Chemistry is quite high at around 75% for ASEs and 50% for GSRs, and this number is increasing. The student-run organizing committee within the department, referred to as Chem OC, has recently established more leadership positions, expanding its reach. These departmental stewards have been working to support the community by recruiting members, conducting walkthroughs of labs, and meeting with the campuswide organizing committee to communicate key issues. They have also been responsible for filing the aforementioned grievances with the university for strike-related issues in the Chemistry Department. 

Although the strike is seen by many union members as a success, the work of organizing is not finished. Clearly, there are still outstanding conflicts between graduate students and the university. Additionally, not every negotiation term was included in the most recent contract. Notable protections that many are still pushing for include cost of living adjustment (COLA), cancellation of nonresident supplemental tuition (NRST), guaranteed 12-month appointments, and increased accessibility accommodations for disabled student workers. With that said, the possibility of another strike is very much looming. As Hiya Datta explains, “[inclusion of those protections] doesn’t just happen overnight, those are things you have to organize for.” In the meantime, student workers are currently focused on ensuring that the new contract is enforced, and union activity remains high. 

This historical strike marks a turning point in higher education, in which the roles of graduate students and academic student employees within the larger community of academia are being reconsidered. These issues highlight the need to clearly classify these individuals; perhaps the line between being a student and a worker is not drawn clear enough. Additionally, a need has been shown for better communication and strengthening of relationships between students, faculty, and school administration. It is argued that UC does not understand the needs of its students and workers, and in the eyes of the union, striking is the only way to be heard. Although much has yet to be resolved, most are hoping for a brighter future as a result. As Dr. Bussey explains, “Sometimes disruption to the system causes the need to change in ways that are more efficient, more effective.” The strike will hopefully foster a continuing dialogue about what the dynamic between these parties can and should be.

The movement started by today’s graduate students will set the tone for years to come. Current undergraduates will soon grapple with the same issues, and must decide whether the system at hand is the most conducive to working, learning, and living. This scrutiny of the institution has undoubtedly brought the student body together, and shown the significance of united action. Advice from graduate students to those pursuing graduate school is perhaps best put by one individual: there is power in numbers.” Peer advocacy is at the root of every protection won during the strike. As undergraduates advance through higher education, they will need to consider not only what they can do for their community, but what their community can do for them. 

  1. UC/UAW GSR Negotiations – First Contract Recognition. 2022.
  2. Labor Negotiation Updates. https://updates.ucsd.edu/labor-negotiation/index.html#Leadership-Correspondence (accessed 2023-01-24).
  3. Chemistry and Biochemistry Course Catalog. https://catalog.ucsd.edu/courses/CHEM.html (accessed 2023-01-24).
  4. Codes Display Text. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=GOV&division=4.&title=1.&part=&chapter=12.&article=4 (accessed 2023-03-17).
  5. Teaching Assistants. https://www-chem.ucsd.edu/graduate-program/ta.html#Chemistry-Ph.D.-Students (accessed 2023-02-20).
  6. UAW-UC Bargaining Outcomes: Impact on Our Physics Ph.D. Program and Department Teaching Mission. https://drive.google.com/file/d/18GvaI5GEPyL_lBKocLJCDZzb5r3zMAW9/view.
  7. Shahbandi, N. BREAKING: Discussion Sections to be Largely Eliminated in School of Biological Sciences Beginning Fall 2023. The Guardian. https://ucsdguardian.org/2023/04/06/breaking-discussion-sections-to-be-largely-eliminated-in-school-of-biological-sciences-beginning-fall-2023/ (accessed 2023-05-23).
  8. Robbins, G. UC San Diego enrollment could hit 50,000 within 10 years. San Diego Union-Tribune. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2021-09-13/crowded-uc-san-diego-campus-could-add-10-000-students-within-a-decade (accessed 2023-01-24).
  9. Featured image taken by Giovanni Bernal Ramirez, independent photographer.