Op-Ed: Ongoing University of California Strike Hurts Both Students and the Picketing Workers

On December 2, 2022, CalMatters published this Op-Ed from Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine, co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education:

United Auto Workers, the labor union negotiating for striking workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses, claims it is “fighting for a UC that works for its students and its workers.” But some of its demands certainly won’t work for students, and could hurt the very workers UAW represents.

UC officials have held more than 50 bargaining sessions with the UAW, and this week reached tentative agreements with two of the smaller bargaining units, the postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers. If adopted, the deal would place their compensation among the highest in the nation for their respective roles.

But these 12,000 employees won’t return to campus until the agreements are ratified, and the remaining 36,000 teaching assistants, readers, tutors and graduate student researchers are still on strike, leaving students without the help they need to prepare for exams and close out the fall term.

UAW members are an important piece of California’s public higher education system. They include student employees who perform part-time, professionally relevant work that helps support their respective campuses, while also earning their graduate degrees or preparing to advance in their careers as scholars.

For the academic student employees who remain on strike, the UAW is demanding compensation be tied directly to local housing costs with no cap on pay increases. While California has high housing costs, academic student employees often have the option of renting from UC where overall rent costs are as much as 25% below market rates. Some campuses provide even deeper discounts.

Tying compensation directly to local housing costs could overwhelm UC finances by creating an unfunded obligation of at least several hundred million dollars – an especially troubling prospect as the university system is still recovering deep spending cuts during the Great Recession. The impact of those spending cuts on staff and students should be instructive – especially since the state Legislative Analyst Office predicts California will be grappling with a $25 billion deficit next year and the “weakest performance the state has experienced since the Great Recession.”

UC lost almost a third of its state funding on a per-student basis during the recession, and had to nearly double tuition, furlough staff and defer critical capital improvement projects. Students struggled to get the courses they needed while facing higher student-faculty ratios in the classroom, increased costs and fewer support services.

The union’s proposal could also drive up housing costs for undergraduates and everyone living near a UC campus. Property owners could raise rents indiscriminately, secure in the knowledge that UC would be contractually obligated to pay for any rental cost increases.

The UAW is also demanding in-state tuition for international students and other non-resident student workers, which could also take much-needed funds from other programs that benefit students and staff. And it would be unfair to the state’s residents whose taxes support the university system and help fund lower, in-state tuition.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature have worked to increase the number of California residents enrolled at UC. To extend the benefit of in-state tuition to students from outside California would undermine this commitment and effectively mean that non-resident student employees would receive a larger compensation package than homegrown student employees for doing the same work.

For all these reasons and more, the UAW should accept UC’s proposal for mediation to reach a new agreement that will protect students and staff. The workers’ right to strike must be respected, but the impact of the strike on students and the state’s future is troubling.

UC students missed important instructional time during the pandemic, and they should not have to lose more due to a work stoppage. It’s time to work together to provide the world-class education that is the hallmark of UC and essential to creating California’s future leaders.

Dick Ackerman, Fullerton

Mel Levine, Pacific Palisades

Ackerman is a former Republican leader of the California Senate; Levine is a former Democratic member of Congress. They co-chair the California Coalition for Public Higher Education.