Thousands of academics strike in California: how is research affected? – Update Cali

Academic staff and their colleagues in the University of California system are holding signs and striking for better wages and conditions.

Protest on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles.Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty

Research has ground to a halt at the University of California (UC) as tens of thousands of postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and academic staff went on strike.

Since Nov. 14, some 48,000 academics across UC — which has 10 campuses and nearly 300,000 students — have halted their research and joined protests calling for higher wages and better working conditions in what they say is the largest strike in higher education in US history. .

They are seeking a higher minimum wage, which is adjusted annually based on the cost of living, as well as child care and transportation subsidies and more job security. Negotiations are ongoing, and the union and UC are close to reaching an agreement on stronger protections against harassment and on health benefits. But UC and the four bargaining units representing academics remain at odds over compensation.

“I’ve seen great researchers spend so much time stressing about finances,” says Raymundo Miranda, a neuroscience graduate student at UC San Diego who is on strike. “This should not be happening at one of the top research universities in the country.”

Growing frustration

The strike comes amid growing discontent among university staff that pay and working conditions have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

For example, salaries for doctoral students in the life sciences fall short of the cost of living at nearly all institutions in the United States, according to this year’s survey. Over the past five years, this frustration has led to a wave of graduate and student unionization at various universities and prompted many researchers to seek employment outside academia.

California cities have notoriously high rents, and rising inflation has only widened the gap between wages and the cost of living. “I’m going to graduate in my thirties with no savings to start thinking about a family,” says Nadia Ayad, a graduate student in bioengineering at UC San Francisco who joined the strikes. Ayad spent more than half her salary on rent for the last five years of her graduate studies.

Miranda says some of his friends, who are also UC graduates, have experienced homelessness or had to live in their cars.

Academics across UC are calling for minimum wage increases from an average of $24,000 (according to union data) to $54,000 for graduate students and from an average of $60,000 to $70,000 for postdocs, along with annual adjustments to reflect cost-of-living increases.

The university offered a more modest salary increase of less than 10% in the first year and a fixed 3% increase in each subsequent year, not directly tied to the cost of living and without a set minimum wage.

Part of the pay gap is that graduate students are classified as part-timers who, on paper, only work 20 hours a week and spend the rest of their time studying. But for many, this does not reflect reality. Ayad says she only had classes as part of her program for the first two years and has been doing research full-time for the past three years. Ro Sandoval, a neuroscience graduate student at UC San Diego, says every single graduate student they know works more than 40 hours a week.

On Nov. 15, UC Provost Michael Brown said in a letter to UC chancellors that he respects the workers’ decision to strike and recognizes the “significant challenge” of high housing costs in California. But the union’s demand to tie compensation to housing costs “could have devastating financial implications for the university,” he added.

Protesters say the UC system used unfair bargaining tactics. The union has filed at least 30 malpractice charges against UC with the California Public Relations Board for allegedly circumventing the official bargaining process, withholding information needed to negotiate and intimidating union members. The council filed a complaint in 14 cases. UC officials have publicly denied the allegations, and a university spokesman says the system “remains committed to continuing its efforts to reach agreements … as expeditiously as possible.”

Canceled lessons

Without academic staff, research in the UC system has mostly ground to a halt and many classes have been canceled as the university approaches final exam season.

The fight for a fairer UC is important, says Stephanie Wankowicz, a graduate student in structural biology at UC San Francisco, but she worries the strike could delay her graduation, which is currently scheduled for spring.

Miranda began breeding a cohort of laboratory mice weeks before the strikes began. “If the strike lasts much longer, I won’t have to use all the animals I’ve prepared, and that will probably set me back two months,” he says. “We all have to sacrifice our experimental timelines, but people are striking because they feel what we’re doing here is important.”

The strikes have also brought more work to faculty members as they struggle to keep classrooms and labs running despite staff absences. “Of course I’m worried about my lab,” says Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez, a biology faculty member at UC Davis who joined the protests on Nov. 18 with her children and one of her graduate students in solidarity with the protesters. “But I’m more worried about having an environment of integrity in my lab. He adds that the strikes have implications for future generations of scientists. “By not giving students a living wage here, we risk significantly losing diversity in the unified communications system.”

“I see the strike not only as a way to help individuals, but as a necessary course correction for science,” says Wankowicz. “I miss scientific research so much, but hopefully eventually this movement will produce better science.”


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