University of California TAs and Postdocs on Strike!

A showdown over wages could upend the apprenticeship arrangement that has long characterized graduate education.

WaPo (“In largest strike of 2022, California academic workers walk off job“):

In the largest work stoppage of the year, thousands of academic workers at the University of California system went on strike Monday over the university system’s bargaining practices with their union, which is trying to secure higher wages.

Some 48,000 teaching assistants, postdocs, researchers and graders on the front lines of teaching and research at California’s prestigious public university system are seeking a minimum annual salary of $54,000 and increased child-care benefits, saying they do not earn enough to live in the state. They also accuse the university of not bargaining in good faith with their union, the United Auto Workers.

“At every turn, the university has sought to act unlawfully at the bargaining table, which is preventing us from reaching an agreement,” said Neal Sweeney, the president of UAW Local 5810, which represents more than 11,000 UC postdocs and academic researchers.

The University of California strike is also the largest academic strike in higher education in U.S. history, according to the UAW.

The bargaining units that represent UC academic workers said university leadership has illegally made changes to pay and transit benefits without consulting the union. They also alleged that the university has refused to provide necessary information about who is in the bargaining unit and has otherwise obstructed the bargaining process. Negotiations have been underway for more than a year.

Let me state at the outset that I have next to no knowledge of the contracts and labor laws in question. Consequently, I have no opinion as to whether they’re being violated.

On the broader question of teaching assistants and postdocs striking over labor conditions, though, I find the whole notion bizarre. That they’re being represented by an auto workers union simply adds to my concern. TAs and postdocs are students seeking to train themselves for careers in academia, receiving free tuition and a stipend as part of what amounts to an apprenticeship. That they should be paid as though they were full members of the labor force trying to raise families is, therefore, ludicrous.

The strike threatens to disrupt classes, research and grading ahead of final exams at the UC system’s 10 campuses. Students would have to rely solely on professors for grades, teaching and other one-on-one instruction.

University administrators and the union continued to meet over the weekend through Sunday evening, with some progress toward a deal, but union officials said they remained far apart on the core issue of wages.

In the days leading up to the strike, some tenured UC professors said they had the right to cancel classes during the work stoppage and spoke out in solidarity with academic workers.

Again, I have no opinion on the applicable labor laws.

Obviously, the strikers have, in standard fashion, timed their work stoppage at the time they have the most leverage: toward the end of a semester, when the maximum burden of grading falls. For tenured faculty used to being able to shunt the most mundane of academic tasks off on to grad students, the timing is most unwelcome. But, frankly, institutions at which faculty have that luxury are almost always ones where faculty have the lightest teaching loads; I suspect they will survive the indignity.

The problem is that, as a NYT report on the strike notes,

[T]he students and employees involved, who are represented by the United Automobile Workers, make up a core work force in classrooms and labs throughout the university system, where most campuses are only a few weeks away from final examinations.

“We’re the ones who perform the majority of the teaching, and we’re the ones who perform the majority of the research,” said Rafael Jaime, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is president of U.A.W. Local 2865, which represents some 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other classroom workers.

“We’re the backbone of the university,” he said, “and I have a hard time seeing how operations are going to be maintained with us on the picket line.”

If their ranks include contingent faculty (aka, “adjuncts”) their bargaining power increases tremendously. If it’s just TAs and postdocs, they really shouldn’t be “perform[ing] the majority of the teaching,” let alone of the research, at any university.

I would also note that leaving one’s mentors in a lurch in this way is not likely to endear yourself to them. Given that they are the ones who will pass judgment on the quality of the dissertation and write letters of recommendation and otherwise be instrumental in helping place students into jobs, it seems unwise to me.

The strike arrives amid a wave of increased labor activity in the United States, buoyed by pandemic working conditions and a record-hot labor market that has afforded workers more leverage to negotiate for improvements in pay and schedules.Workers have scored historic union victories at AmazonStarbucks and Apple this year. Minnesota recently faced the largest private-sector strike in the nursing industry in U.S. history.

Again, I just don’t see TAs and postdocs as analogous to longer-term workers, let alone blue collar workers. If these folks want to leave school and work for Amazon, I suspect they will soon find they’ve made a grave error in judgment.

The United Auto Workers is asking UC leadership for a minimum salary of $54,000 for all graduate students and a minimum salary of $70,000 for all postdocs, as well as annual cost-of-living adjustments in contract negotiations. Many graduate students earn in the low $20,000 a year, and postdocs earn a minimum of $55,631. The union has also requested $2,000 a month in child-care reimbursements, expanded paid parental leave and public transit passes for its members.

Granted that California is a very expensive place to live, this is simply ludicrous. Again, these are supposed to be stipends for CV-enhancing work performed as apprentice professors and scholars, not salaries on which to raise a family.

Interestingly, the universities have already gone well beyond that:

The university system has offered pay increases ranging from 4 percent to 7 percent in the first year of the contract, with smaller subsequent raises. Workers have rejected those offers, saying they are too low. For example, many teaching assistants would earn less than $30,000 a year with the university’s proposal.

University negotiators have also offered child-care stipends of between $2,500 and $4,050 a year and some transit subsidies. Some workers receive $3,300 in child-care subsidies a year. Workers have said the proposed annual stipend would barely cover a month of child care. Still, the union said, bigger pay increases are paramount to winning a contract that improves the quality of life for their members.

University leadership maintains that “providing fair and competitive pay to all employees is a UC priority and essential to ensuring the excellence of our workforce and the quality of our service to students and the public,” UC administrators said in a press release.

The NYT adds:

Workers also want salaries to be set high enough that no employees would have to spend more than 30 percent of their monthly pay on housing; the U.C. system has noted that housing is an issue for workers throughout California, and that it already provides a limited amount of subsidized housing for graduate student workers that is priced at up to 25 percent below market rates.

While I managed to house and feed myself on my roughly $6700 a year assistantship almost 30 years ago, it’s apparently gotten a lot harder—at least in parts of California:

The union said the vast majority of UC graduate students spend more than a third of their income on rent. For example, teaching assistants at UCLA earn an average of $24,000 a year, the union said. The median annual rent in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metro area is more than $36,000 a year, according to Realtor.com.

[…]

Jacob Kemner, a doctorate student in environmental studies at UC Riverside, makes roughly $28,000 a year and donates blood plasma twice a week for roughly $200 in extra income.

“I’m making ends meet by selling plasma,” Kemner said. “I am less able to be effective in my job as a result of this because I spend six to 10 hours going to and from the plasma donation center. If I wasn’t spending time on that, I could be lesson planning and grading.”

Aya Konisha, a teaching assistant and second-year PhD student in the sociology department at UCLA, said she cannot afford to live near campus and has to commute an hour on public transit to get to school.

“My salary is definitely not enough to make ends meet,” said Konisha, whose rent takes up half her monthly income of $2,400. “I make all of my food at home. I don’t make any expensive purchases at all and I often skip meals when I have to teach. UCLA is supposed to be the number one public university in the United States … but it’s extremely inequitable.”

I’m skeptical that the comparison to median rental prices, which presumably includes places large enough for families with children, is apt, I would agree that TAs and postdocs should be able to afford to feed and house themselves in modest fashion on their stipend. Again, the NYT report adds clarity on that front:

The U.C. campuses lie in some of the most expensive housing markets in the nation, not just in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but coastal enclaves such as Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Irvine. Even subsidized campus housing in some areas is significantly more expensive than market rents in much of the country.

The offset, of course, is that PhDs from these schools—in particular Berkley and UCLA—are highly coveted and being paid even a modest stipend while going to school free to get them is a pretty good deal.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    If it’s just TAs and postdocs, they really shouldn’t be “perform[ing] the majority of the teaching,” let alone of the research, at any university.

    The TA’s were doing most of the actual teaching for the Freshman and Sophmore classes even back in the late 90s when I was an undergrad. I imagine that even more of that burden has been shifted to them in the last 20 years as University’s have reduced the number of tenured faculty positions.

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  2. Mu Yixiao says:

    I make all of my food at home. I don’t make any expensive purchases at all

    .

    Pardon me while I fire up the electron microscope to find my violin.

    Does this girl not understand that this is the way most people in the US live? I cook all my food at home (this is somehow a hardship??) the most expensive thing I’ve bought recently is $120 for a pair of shoes that I expect to last for 5 years (the last pair did).

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  3. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Some perspective from my own discipline.

    There is an sizeable gap between the supply of people with a Ph.D. in Accounting and in Finance from AACSB accredited schools and the demand for research faculty in those two disciplines, to the point where it limits the ability of regional colleges and universities to meet accreditation requirements for % of academically qualified faculty.

    The primary issue is one of opportunity cost. A standard research Ph.D. in Business takes five years and can only be completed full time and on site. The majority of people who would be interested in such a program have to weigh the cost of continuing to work in their career field earning (usually) a middle to upper-middle class salary versus living on an assistantship for five years. When I was at [prestigious private Southern research university in an expensive inner suburb] in 2009-2010, the stipend was $2000 per month plus health insurance and a dedicated cubicle with your own PC in the shared office space. That was considered generous at the time, and our stipends were 150% higher than the Econ folks we took most of our classes with.

    Part of the reason that I left after one year was because I had to start taking on parental caregiving responsibilities when my father’s cancer advanced. There was no flexibility within the program on coursework, and FMLA does not apply to teaching assistants.

    Additionally, Business academia is interesting in that the master’s level education consists of professional degrees but the doctoral path is a research path. So in addition to the opportunity cost of leaving your career progression behind, an MBA or MS Accounting, etc., provides very little preparation for the change in focus. Research methods courses are limited and normally tailored to practice.

    So most people who attempt an Accounting Ph.D. have to take preparatory coursework on their own time and dime in topics like multivariate calculus and linear algebra.

    I know that there a lot of fields that have gluts of doctoral candidates, but there are ones that don’t. I don’t have a specific opinion on the union’s overall position, but I can say for sure that I bet that UCLA, Berkeley, etc., are having a heck of a time finding as many qualified doctoral candidates in my field as they would like to enter into their pipeline, especially when they are competing with the cost of living in places like Ames, College Station, and Tucson. Unlike some other fields, everyone who finishes and wants one pretty much has a tenure track position waiting for them, regardless of who you’ve been coauthoring with.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes, that’s plausible. It wasn’t yet the case at Alabama in my time (1992-95) but I’m sure it was trending.

    @Gromitt Gunn: That’s interesting. I’m sure there are indeed fields where there isn’t a glut of PhD students.

  5. Modulo Myself says:

    The sole argument against the strike seems to be that TAs and postdocs should accept the generous offer of low pay, constant work, selling plasma, taking another job, and being treated like shit.

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  6. Andy says:

    I’m also ignorant of the details, but asking for that kind of salary would seem to incentivize the university to get rid of student assistants and postdocs entirely. There is already a large glut of PhD’s in this country.

    Why pay a student TA $54k a year plus benefits and free tuition when you could probably hire a non-student full-time TA with better TA skills as a regular employee? Instead of mentoring post-docs, universities could just hire professional research assistants.

    It’s also bizarre to me that many of these people did not seem to understand what they were getting into. Figuring out basic personal finances before committing to these programs seems like step one to me. These aren’t unskilled line workers with no other prospects being bullied by an evil profit-seeking corporation. They are highly educated elites benefiting from a large amount of public money (ie. they are being subsidized) in order to get into an even more elite position.

    I’m sure I’m missing something, but it’s really hard for me to have much sympathy for them.

    But there is a lot of stuff that goes on at Universities that doesn’t make much sense. The whole structure seems stuck in 19th-century ways of organizational thinking.

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  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Andy: I will note in passing that at some institutions, there is a difference between being a GA (graduate assistant) and a TA (teaching assistant) but I can’t speak to any consistency throughout the academic system.

    I will agree with Dr. Joyner about teaching personnel being represented by the UAW, also, but note that to the best of my recollection, that situation came about because the NEA, AFT, and AAUP all declined to represent non-tenured personnel because they weren’t “real teachers” and representing them would constitute a conflict of interest relative to their primary represented workforces. A similar discrepancy happens in K-12 where I live in that teachers are represented by the NEA, but paraprofessional teaching assistants are represented by SEIU. But that’s probably all as it should be given that we must maintain the distinction between the planters and the field [racial epithet, deleted], even in the gardens of academe.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself: I see little evidence that TAs and postdocs are treated poorly. They’re basically in an apprenticeship program that potentially leads to a highly coveted professional position. Contingent faculty/adjuncts, on the other hand, have a legitimate complaint.

    If they’re going to be highly-paid, union workers, I think @Andy is right. Why subsidize them at all? They can hire adjuncts to teach undergrad classes more cheaply and can certainly find ways to farm out grading and basic research.

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  9. MarkedMan says:

    If it’s just TAs and postdocs, they really shouldn’t be “perform[ing] the majority of the teaching,” let alone of the research, at any university.

    I can’t speak for the teaching part but 2hen I negotiated contracts with universities for research, 99% of it was done by post docs and grad students.

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  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but do you ever object to owners or senior managers leveraging their contribution to get a larger slice of the pie? If not, why does it offend when the little guys do the same?

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @James Joyner:

    They’re doing a major chunk of the university’s work and are asking to be paid 54K a year. These are not the demands of being workers being treated well. As far as doing the work, who else is going to do it? 48,000 people just walked out of their jobs, each of whom has some sort of specialty. The operating cost of even finding the people to replace them is going to be a big one. A huge university has relied on this system for this decades and they have exploited the power they held, and now blowback is coming.

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  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    now blowback is coming.

    While I will root for them, color me skeptical. I was “released” by a school that decided to replace virtually all of its adjunct staff in English and Math (over 100 positions as I recall) every year for 3 consecutive years just for the sake of proving they could in the mid 90s. A lot of the blowback will depend on how many are truly “irreplaceable.”

    On the other side and based on what people are reporting they were being paid, they may have virtually nothing to lose if they can’t afford to live where their jobs are and given the likelihood that most of them will post doc a couple of (more) times and have to throw it in. Of the grad students in the cohort that I was in, I lasted longer teaching than almost all of them and only because I was able to cobble together enough work to support one person (me) at poverty-level compensation.

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    They’re all in a union, so we will see. It’s quite possible that the university will blink and give in. Firing 48,000 striking employees is a huge event, and they are asking, literally, for enough money to cover basic expenses.

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  14. de stijl says:

    A bullshit old arrangement is now negotiable.

    1. The arrangement was bullshit
    2. It was old
    3. It’s now negotiable

    Relying on past practices and therefore thinking that is best practice is clearly really bad logic.

    If you ask me whether or not I’m going to side with the strikers or The Man, I’m going to side with the strikers everytime. Screw The Man!

    Different profession, but why does the existing structure treat newly minted medical doctors so horribly? It makes zero sense, it’s straight up hazing, it’s meant to be traumatizing, why? WHY?!

    That traditional greeting for brand spanking new doctors is so incredibly stupid.

    I think the mindset is that this line of work can be hard on your psyche longterm, so we are going to make your first work experience as worse as possible.

    As a condition of your employment we will keep you awake for several days. Because the best patient outcome happens when the doctor has been awake for 30 some hours is basically insane.

    It’s straight hazing. It’s a bunch of fools designing a system that they faced rather than a system that makes doctors treat patients well. It’s foolish, and kinda obviate the Hippocratic Oath. You are literally causing harm to your colleagues and to your patients.

    Worst training system designed that’s still kind of in use. Yeah, let’s torture someone with sleep deprivation and see how they react under pressure.

    It’s bullshit and I declare Shenanigans. It’s a really stupid way to train a person. Plus, it’s super shitty to them and it is super shitty to the patients you forced them to treat when you know the doctor is severely sleep deprived and not of sound mind. It’s hazing and it is stupid. Stop!

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  15. Andy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Wow, that’s some serious messed-up inside baseball. Add that to the list of reasons why European-style sectoral bargaining is better.

    @MarkedMan:

    I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but do you ever object to owners or senior managers leveraging their contribution to get a larger slice of the pie? If not, why does it offend when the little guys do the same?

    I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking here, but no, I don’t feel sympathy for owners or senior managers either – but this is a public institution – there are no owners except maybe the taxpayers.

    And it doesn’t offend me – I simply do not consider them to be the “little guys.” As I wrote in my original comment, “These aren’t unskilled line workers with no other prospects being bullied by an evil profit-seeking corporation.” They are highly educated and privileged people in competitive, publicly funded apprenticeships that they applied for. I think their demands for a full-time salary and benefits while also getting all the in-kind benefits of their program just aren’t realistic.

  16. Ken_L says:

    TAs and postdocs are students seeking to train themselves for careers in academia, receiving free tuition and a stipend as part of what amounts to an apprenticeship.

    This would get a hearty horse laugh from casual academic staff in Australia, who do more than half the teaching (paid at piecework rates, like laying bricks) and an unknown proportion of the research and administration work (mostly unpaid, because it will “look good on your resume”). Very few will ever have a “career” that involves anything more than an annual bunfight to suck up to tenured staff so they get their casual contracts renewed. A friend of mine who got his PhD in philosophy last century, and had his thesis published as a book, finally landed a junior lecturer’s position after 23 years of precarious employment. The longest contract I’ve ever had was 11 months; the school couldn’t go longer than that, they explained awkwardly, because it would become liable for all sorts of “entitlements”.

    I was under the impression that the situation in the US was similar, but perhaps not.

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  17. Ken_L says:

    @Andy: “Why pay a student TA $54k a year plus benefits and free tuition when you could probably hire a non-student full-time TA with better TA skills as a regular employee? Instead of mentoring post-docs, universities could just hire professional research assistants.”

    For the simple reason that RHD and post-doc students are the unpaid labor pool for tenured staff. I learned this a long time ago as a new casual academic/PhD student, when I wrote a book chapter for the head of school which was published under his name. Publishing your own original research is encouraged, but only if you give your supervisor (who has spent perhaps two hours reading and commenting on your draft) lead author status.

    Because if eminent Professor X isn’t the lead author, your paper won’t get published at all, will it? That’s how the system works.

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @Ken_L:

    Publishing your own original research is encouraged, but only if you give your supervisor (who has spent perhaps two hours reading and commenting on your draft) lead author status.

    That’s bizarre and unethical. I co-authored with a professor as a grad student, doing much of the leg work, but he was the principal author of the paper.

    Because if eminent Professor X isn’t the lead author, your paper won’t get published at all, will it? That’s how the system works.

    In political science, papers are blind peer reviewed.

  19. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Read through the entire thread, and nobody seems to have touched on the elephant in the room – these folks are not only being paid a stipend, they are being provided with what amounts to an enormous economic benefit via free tuition.

    The tuition and fees figures for Berkeley, as an example, are all over the map depending on the particular school / college in question, but these guys are receiving between (lowest) 10,500 (resident) / 18,100 (non resident) and (highest) 36,900 (resident) / 41,400 (non-resident) worth of educational benefit that they are not paying for / which is effectively being paid for them by the taxpayers of California.

    Not to belittle their plight, but I hesitate to imagine how much more difficult they’d find it to achieve this desired standard of living they’re seemingly after if they were tasked with paying that tuition themselves instead of receiving it for free. Something about gift horses and mouths comes to mind.

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  20. Andy says:

    @Ken_L:

    I agree the system as a whole is weird, which is why I originally commented about the organizational structure. In many ways, it seems to have many of the hallmarks of old guild systems.

  21. mattbernius says:

    @HarvardLaw92:

    Read through the entire thread, and nobody seems to have touched on the elephant in the room – these folks are not only being paid a stipend, they are being provided with what amounts to an enormous economic benefit via free tuition.

    I think this is a case where practice varies greatly from theory–especially in the case of liberal arts graduate programs.

    The reality is, outside of certain professional graduate programs (business, law, and medicine), few PhD students ever “pay out of pocket.” The programs are designed to be loss leaders for universities because the universities would cease to function without graduate students. So to some degree, the idea that those courses have commensurate economic value is somewhat questionable. And the programs get back any “loss” in the form of both (a) undergradute tutions for their programs and (b) service fees from STEM and other programs at the university whose students are required to take liberal arts classes.

    Additionally, the economic reward of those programs is questionable as many are still focused on professionalizing for teaching positions that simply do not exist anymore.* That also before we get to how long most of those degree programs take to get through (upwards of 8 years). Cynically, I think part of the reason for that bloating is specifically to maintain a pool of graduate students for the university to run on. Even if that wasn’t planned, the workload that a graduate student takes on in TA and teaching responsibilities is not insignificant and tends to slow down their progress towards getting their degrees (ultimately drawing out the overall process).

    BTW, this is all based on my experience as a graduate student (including TAing and teaching a class) for 3 years at an R1 Ivy League School. Short of my stint in retail, it was the lowest-paying job of my career.

    * – In the social sciences there has been a slow movement to actually embracing alt-academic careers, but it’s taking way too long and still not particularly well done.

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  22. grumpy realist says:

    @mattbernius: My graduate school was notorious for accepting a huge load of grad students to act as TAs for the hordes of undergraduates and then kicking us out at the qual level. The physics department also carefully massaged the statistics to say that “fully X% of graduate students who have tried twice to take the qualification exam have passed”, when the fact is, a sizeable percentage didn’t hang around after failing once, just took the consolation Master of Science degree and vamoosed. I did some number crunching and discovered that our attrition rate was at least as bad as other grad schools notorious for having a killer qual.

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  23. Barry says:

    The old program ended in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.
    In general it does *not* lead to a tenure track position.

    As for tuition waivers, universities can’t fill more than a teeny-tiny fraction of those seats at the alleged market value. It’s wooden nickels.