SACRAMENTO — Academic employees at the University of California have voted to return to work, union leaders announced on Friday night, ending a historically large strike that had disrupted research and classes across the renowned public system for nearly six weeks.
The ratification votes by significant majorities of two fractious bargaining units of the United Auto Workers ensure that tens of thousands of employees will return in January once the winter break ends across the 10-campus system. The deals were praised by union officials, though some negotiators had argued that the agreement still did not provide enough pay and benefits to members beleaguered by California’s high cost of living.
“These agreements redefine what is possible in terms of how universities support their workers, who are the backbone of their research and education enterprise,” said Rafael Jaime, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the president of U.A.W. 2865, in a statement. “They include especially significant improvements for parents and marginalized workers, and will improve the quality of life for every single academic employee at the University of California.”
Some 48,000 unionized workers, most of them graduate students, walked off the job in November, and about 36,000 remained on strike after postdoctoral employees and researchers separately ratified their contracts this month. The work stoppage was the largest among university-based workers in national history.
The workers whose contracts were ratified on Friday perform much of the day-to-day labor involved in classroom instruction, from conducting office hours to leading discussion groups, and their absence has already disrupted research, fall examinations and grading.
Labor Organizing and Union Drives
Union leaders and university administrators reached a deal a week ago after a series of mediation talks led by Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento, who is a lawyer and an alumnus of the University of California. But ratification of the agreement was not a certainty.
The “yes” vote came amid a weeklong opposition campaign by union members who had argued throughout the negotiations that teaching assistants, tutors and researchers could do better, given the leverage they had amassed during the walkout.
Union leaders at U.C. Santa Cruz, where academic workers staged a strike in 2020 without the backing of the U.A.W., said in a statement that employees there overwhelmingly voted against ratifying the contract. They recognized that many members might be frustrated by the statewide vote but took solace in the wide mobilization of workers.
“We must celebrate the level and depth of rank-and-file engagement throughout this contract fight and strike, which has exceeded any mobilization in the history of our union local,” the Santa Cruz union representatives wrote, encouraging disappointed members to “redouble our commitment to the organizing that has taken us this far” and to resist the urge to leave the union.
Key to the strike was California’s notoriously high cost of housing. The union had sought relief from soaring rents by demanding that the university tie compensation explicitly to the cost of campus-area housing. The workers also had asked the university to raise their base pay for part-time work to about $54,000 a year.
The deal ratified on Friday did not increase pay to that level, but it significantly raised starting salaries over the course of a two-and-a-half-year contract, with higher pay scales for more experienced workers and those facing particularly expensive housing costs at campuses in Berkeley, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Starting pay will rise from roughly $22,000 to $35,500 for graduate student researchers, and about $23,000 to $34,000 for teaching assistants.
The agreement also included enhanced benefits for transportation, health care and child care, and offered recently organized student researchers their first-ever contractual protections.
In a statement, the university expressed gratitude to the union for agreeing to enter voluntary mediation.
“Today’s ratification demonstrates yet again the university’s strong commitment to providing every one of our hardworking employees with competitive compensation and benefit packages that honor their many contributions to our institution, to our community, and to the state of California,” Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations for the university, said.