In the largest strike in the U.S. since before the pandemic, 48,000 workers, almost entirely first-time strikers at the University of California won a significant wage hike in a colossal battle for higher wages and a cost of living adjustment (COLA). This historic strike was a huge step forward for thousands of workers involved, raising their confidence, their understanding of the power of the union movement, and with many hundreds of workers now seeing themselves as worker leaders at their jobs.
As workers continue to move into struggle in 2023, drawing the lessons from this strike will be crucial.
The scale of this fight is significant not only in the number of workers on strike, but also the challenge that the strike represented up against the social and economic weight of the UC system itself. UC has an operating budget of over $46 billion, greater than that of 25 states’ budgets. The UC’s financial assets, essentially its savings account, is $150 billion. Additionally, UC is California’s largest landlord. The state’s miserable high-rent-low-pay life is particularly bitter for the 20% of UAW workers who often pay 50% of their wages back to their landlord, UC Housing.
How Big Could This Strike Have Gotten?
UC is not just a school, but a vital instrument that serves big business. Big tech companies rely on UC not only for research, but also to train their future workers: this represents a massive subsidy to private industry. President Biden’s $52 billion bill to fund domestic semiconductor development relies on U.S. institutions like UC to help it wage its economic war with Chinese imperialism. Any significant disruption to UC, which would be a key component of a successful public sector strike, not only affects the business of the university but also big business. It can even affect U.S. imperialism. UC workers therefore have enormous power. UC management wants to keep labor costs down, but it also wants a stable relationship with its increasingly unionized workforce.
The 48,000 unionized workers that went on strike in November 2022 made up a significant leading section of the nearly half million strong combined population of UC students and workers who broadly supported the strike.
The demand for COLA was absolutely key for UAW workers to win wider system-wide support. This is one reason why UC asked for it to be removed from the table and why it was a serious error when the majority of the Bargaining Team quickly agreed to drop COLA in the second week of the strike. A well organized call from UAW for a campus-wide and system-wide closure of the UC, using sympathy strikes, sick outs or even personal days around economic demands like COLA, would have consolidated this support and led not only to greater gains for the striking workers, but potential campus wide gains.
Even serious discussion about a full shutdown of UC by its 227,000 workers and 238,700 students would have created panic among UC management. The immense social and economic weight of the UC system coming to a standstill would have created a full blown political crisis for UC administrators and made the strike not only Gavin Newsom’s problem, but also Joe Biden’s. It would have filled the sails of UAW, and could have brought broad social demands into the discussion. However, this did not happen.
As a public sector workforce, it is not enough to simply stop production – shutting off the profit-tap of the bosses. A public sector strike must also wage a political battle to bring social pressure on the UC administration. A strike must be disruptive and not just a spectacle, as many rank and file organizers described as the leadership’s approach. The failure of leaders to fully utilize the potential impact of the strike was a primary reason Socialist Alternative advocated a “No” vote. Over a third of strikers voted “no.”
One of the leaders of UAW 2865 was quoted on local radio arguing that all the workers wanted was to “have the UC recognize the contribution the workers make.” While this may have been taken out of context by public radio, it still speaks to a misunderstanding of the actual relationship between management and workers that hampered the strike. While individual union leaders seek respect from the employers, that’s not what workers want to strike for.
Up To 46% Raises, But A Lot Left On The Table
The high strike authorization vote and huge initial numbers on the picket line reflected a workforce that was highly energized, in part by the $54k baseline pay demand. Winning this demand would represent an end to decades of poverty pay and a huge step to undermining the rent burden on workers. However, echoing management, the majority in the Bargaining Team began a campaign to render the demand unrealistic and naive, despite not opposing it in the previous 8 months of negotiations. This u-turn led many workers to conclude that the leadership used the demand cynically to mobilize union members while they had no intention to genuinely fight for it.
Despite the handicap of their leadership, UAW workers were able to win huge wage gains in their new contract. UAW 2865 representing grad student workers increased their base wages from $23,250 per year to $34,000 per year by October 2024, a whopping 46% increase over two years. In contrast, their last offer from UC before going on strike was a four year contract with a 7% raise the first year followed by 3% for each of the next three years! This insulting, below-inflation offer is what many union leaders are settling for across the country.
UAW leadership, under the influence of the UAW international, squandered the opportunity to widen the strike. They chose instead to tie one hand behind the workers’ backs out of fear of disrupting their relationship with the employers. Their idea of cultivating a careful compromise of power between the union and the bosses rather than going all out to meet the needs of the workforce only served to undermine the union and strengthen the hand of the employer. This was on clear display when the bargaining team quickly made the concession to drop the demand for COLA in exchange for nothing but “good will.” The misconception of good will conveys a relationship of equals, misrepresenting the reality that the UC is a huge public entity that sees itself as a corporation out to build its mountain of power and cash at the expense of its workforce and the students it is supposed to serve.
The smaller bargaining units representing postdocs and researchers also made significant but smaller percentage annual wage gains, with researchers’ pay being on par with grad student workers and post docs seeing wages go from $55,000 per year to $70,000 per year, but over the course of a 5 year contract. These units agreed to a TA after just under four weeks of striking, having been given a sweetened deal by UC with the purpose of bringing those thousands of workers off the picket lines, weakening the strike as a whole.
Mistakes Of The “Admin Caucus” Leadership
The UAW leadership’s unofficial conclusion of why the strike did not win more was that they underestimated the UC. The UC is one of the most rotten employers in the public sector and on par with many in the private sector. Its Executive Director of Labor Relations, Letitia Silas, came from one of the biggest union-busting law firms in the country, Jackson Lewis. This half-billion dollar firm has been working closely with Jeff Bezos against attempts by Amazon workers to unionize.
The UAW leadership refused to take up a serious approach to widening the strike and were willing to bargain away their avenues for doing so in the future. The five-year contract for postdocs and academic researchers means that future negotiations will be out of sync between bargaining units, undermining worker unity and power. This represents the UAW local leaders sending the message to UC management that they intend to be cooperative long-term partners. For its part, UC has made limiting the union’s ability to widen future strikes one of its primary goals. Similarly, a clause allowing grad students the right to participate in sympathy strikes was sneakily removed from the contract, only being discovered by rank and file workers at the end of the TA voting period.
This strategy by management was made much easier by UAW agreeing to have four separate negotiations and bargaining teams: postdocs, academic researchers (both in Local 5810 but bargained separately), student researchers, and the workers in Local 2865 (mostly Teaching Assistants). This opened the door for UC to drive a wedge between each group of workers where they literally met each local on separate days, undermining the ability of workers to have a cohesive impact. This gave the employers a huge advantage and should never have been accepted by the unions involved. One table with the employers on one side and the unions on the other would’ve dramatically increased the power and potential for the UAW.
One of the most important battles of the strike was over the withholding of grades. Without grade submissions, UC cannot issue degrees and their enrollment process (and therefore the tuition collection process) is disrupted. The union needed to put forward a strong, unified strategy of not submitting grades, boldly centralizing it as a primary battle. Instead, the leadership largely left the decision to withhold grades up to individuals, merely offering advice on the best way to do so, and they also did not put forward a call for faculty to withhold grades in solidarity with the union. This half-hearted approach meant that by the end of the strike likely fewer than 50% of grad students were still withholding grades, although only UC knows the true number.
Picket Signs And Picket Lines
Pre-strike picket sign making parties across campuses were quashed by UAW staff and lawyers who insisted workers should not use home-made signs with their own demands, but rather all signs should be legally acceptable and exclusively focused on Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges. ULP charges are technical violations of rules by UC rather than crucial demands over wages and living conditions. Many strikers and most of the public – who the union needed to win over – did not understand what “Unfair Labor Practice picket signs” meant.
Despite the ban on home-made signs, workers often posted them in their department windows, and where union staffers were not present this rule was often ignored. In reality, the picket signs’ intentional uniformity expressed the top-down framing of the strike that union leaders preferred.
The leadership’s code of conduct for picketing cautioned against actually effective picketing in favor of passive picketing. Effective picketing would include engaging and convincing students, truck drivers, or other UC workers to not cross picket lines. Such engagement not only disrupts the UC system but also builds genuine solidarity, which, together with the right tactics can win strikes.
As the leadership’s concept of a short, flashy strike unraveled, union members increasingly looked for ways to impact the direction of the strike. The daily rallies were essentially about keeping up energy and were not venues for discussions on critical questions, such as the abandonment of the COLA demand. As opposition to this strike strategy developed, chat rooms exploded with criticism and debate. Some workers even turned to publishing their own small daily newspapers. At UC Berkeley, rank and file leaders organized four Strike to Win Assemblies which had peak attendance of 500 workers.
The Vote On The TA
The union leadership did not shut down the picket lines during voting on the Tentative Agreements (TAs), but they also did not encourage picketing. They pulled staff from the picket lines, implying that the strike was now over. Letting their foot off the gas at this critical moment sent a message to the rank and file and to management. While the leadership also initially allowed the sizeable “No” vote minority on the bargaining team the right to send out an email alongside its own position, this was followed by a five-day barrage of “Vote Yes” communications to the members. This definitely inhibited a genuine debate over the contents of the contract.
The 46% raise, while being one of the highest wage gains for a contract in recent memory anywhere, is also significantly below the over 100% raise the union was initially demanding.
UC workers, especially those on coastal campuses, pay huge portions of their wages towards rent, while suffering the twin burden of student debt. The demand for a $54,000 salary was arrived at by answering the question “what wage would it take for a worker to not be rent burdened in California?” The demand for a $54,000 salary was incredibly ambitious, but was also not beyond UC’s ability to pay, nor is it extravagant by workers’ standards. Had the union taken up the militant strategies outlined above, winning this demand would not have been out of the question.
The truly enormous leaps between what was initially being offered, what was won, and what could have been won, demonstrates just how much potential energy was locked up in this struggle and could have been won with a more militant leadership. This untapped potential to win more and widen the struggle is why Socialist Alternative argued for a “No” vote on the contract despite the significant gains it genuinely represented.
Does Prestige Pay Constitute Two-Tier Pay?
One way in which UC was able to take advantage of the weaknesses of the union leadership’s strategy was to offer $2,500 more per year to grad student workers at the most prestigious schools in the system: UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and UCLA. Their claim is that these extra wages are based on cost of living. However, they conspicuously exclude UC Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, and San Diego – areas with an equally outrageous cost of living. While this allowance is not a traditional two-tier wage, it is deliberately divisive.
It is no accident that Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara campuses were excluded from the $2,500 payment. It was specifically in Santa Cruz that the demand for COLA emanated and where workers led the wildcat strike of 2019 against the maneuvers of the UAW leadership. The leadership accepted the exclusion of campuses like Santa Cruz from the pay differential, even repeating UC’s justification for it. This is an effective collaboration with the employer and undermines cross-campus solidarity in the union.
The prestige pay, cloaking itself as a legitimate pay differential based on local rent conditions, should be applied to all areas of California where rents are above average.
The Negotiation Team had made COLA the key demand in the eight months up to the strike. It is a great unifier. As inflation eats into workers’ purchasing power COLA is emerging as an important demand in the labor movement at large. This is why Socialist Alternative stands for a COLA raise that is tied to housing, food, and gas costs and is automatically adjusted each year. COLA is the first demand UC bosses wanted taken off the table because it creates a certain economic stability for workers which goes against the entire culture of capitalist economic relations.
Codify Top-Ups Into The Contracts!
In the wake of the contract, many grad student workers are concerned the UC departments will roll back the practice of offering “top-ups.” A top-up is a grant the UC departments offers to grad student workers explicitly intended to offset living costs. These non-binding top-ups can be used by management to hold a stick over workers. They are also a living reminder of the pre-union, paternalistic relationship the employers preferred to have with their academic employees.
These top-ups range from $12,000 per year to zero. Grad Student workers in profitable and in-demand STEM fields see the highest top-ups, while humanities and arts see far lower. The reality is just like tips, top-ups are a casualized form of wages. They are a way for the university to weaken the unity of workers and undermine and sideline the union’s authority and exclusive right to bargain wages.
After previous contract battles, the UC has lowered top-ups as retaliation for raises won. In this contract, the bargaining team shamefully accepted only a verbal promise from UC that top-ups will not be lowered. This is not good enough. On December 15 the UC and the bargaining team agreed to a side letter which states “The UAW and the University shall meet on January 18, 2023, to discuss the process for converting student support funds (‘top-ups’) into wages.”
At the time of writing the UAW has not organized mobilizations ahead of and during this meeting to keep the pressure on UC and not let them get away with their imminent threat to claw back victories of the strike. No cuts to top-ups!
UAW Rank And File: More Confident And Militant!
The new contract is the best contract in the union’s history with the UC. The strike, as most workers’ first ever, has created an incredible confidence and consciousness among UC academic workers. They know they have power and they have flexed it, despite the caution of their leaders.
This strike’s results are sending shockwaves nationwide through the ongoing campaigns for union recognition involving over 30,000 grads students. The economic gains have become a pole of attraction for academic workers looking at the union.
Other university administrations watched the UC strike closely. At the private University of Southern California, where workers are organizing into the UAW, the university has preemptively raised grad student worker wages by 17%. A similar process has unfolded at Cal Tech. This is, in part, from pressure to keep wages competitive with UC, and in attempts to undermine the need for a union. In reality it was the UC unionized strikers and USC organizing workers that won those raises for the workers.
At the University of Washington, contract negotiations with the post-docs are starting from an elevated level, with UW offering an above 20% raise at the beginning of negotiations. University of Pennsylvania has also announced increases in their doctoral stipends of 24% and similar stories are playing out across the country. The University of Pennsylvania moved to increase base pay from $30k to $38K in fear of losing future employees to the unionized universities. The battle against low pay in academic work is taking huge strides forward as the union gains breadth.
Academic workers in the UC are already seriously weighing up what happened during the strike: what works and what does not. But workers need to also decide what kind of union they are fighting for: a solidarity based, militant union or one that continuously seeks the approval and fake respect of management.
As the UPS Teamsters contract battle is escalating and Amazon workers continue to struggle for union recognition, this strike should serve as a host of lessons. Bold demands can win big raises, newly organized workers are ready to fight, and the demand for COLA is a key to shutting down workplaces and putting bosses on the back foot. The work for a future strike must include the development of solidarity with the entire web of workers that keeps the UC moving and the communities in which campuses are based.
UC UAW workers must also draw the lesson that a fighting leadership that recognizes the reactionary direction of UC management is critical to winning the next strike. Whoever wins the next UAW officers elections will be in a key position to shape the next contract discussions and strike preparations. This is where the lessons of this critical strike will be applied.
A big thanks to all UAW activists across several UC campuses who helped contribute to this article.