Michelle Wu / Daily Nexus

In the nearly six-week strike that began in November 2022 and would ultimately be the largest higher education strike in U.S. history, United Auto Workers Local 2865 — the union that at the time represented 48,000 University of California graduate student workers including teaching assistants and researchers — formed picket lines with hopes of addressing wage disparities and enhancing working conditions.

Within the first week, the strike instantly altered the climate of campus, leaving an immediate impact on students, faculty and administrators, according to fourth-year biology major and student worker in De La Guerra Dining Commons, Uma Clemenceau.

“I was really taken aback at how much disruption withholding labor could cause at the school, and I thought that, wow, that’s really powerful,” Clemenceau said. “A collective action of that magnitude is like a political consciousness raising event for a lot of students … I don’t think the campus had ever seen anything like that before.”

After five and a half weeks of work interruption, United Auto Workers (UAW) and University of California (UC) negotiators came to an agreement on Dec. 23, 2022, which included pay increases, anti-bullying measures and eight weeks of medical and parental leave for academic workers throughout the UC system. 

Now, more than a year removed from the strike, the UCSB community shared their sentiments regarding the new contract, evaluating changes in wage adjustments and overall effects on educational quality. 

Sentiment from teaching assistants post-strike indicate that the wage increases provided to academic workers were relatively noticeable. In a statement to the Nexus, Michael Keith, a teaching assistant in the mathematics department affirmed the sentiment. 

“I find the largest impact to be the revisions to the contract, which were largely beneficial to graduate students. In particular, the wage increases were quite helpful for many in my department,” Keith said. 

As a result of the strike, the minimum base pay among teaching assistants was to rise from $24,000 to $36,000 by the end of 2024 and also included a $2,000 per semester childcare subsidy. Salaries for academic workers also rose as a result of the strike settlement. 

The contract also brought changes to the payment structure for teaching assistants. Teaching assistants are now appointed at different places on a salary scale where experience is the primary determining factor of what place is assigned, according to Leila Rupp, interim graduate dean at UCSB. This structure would increase a teaching assistant’s salary if they had worked for at least six quarters at their given campus. 

“A teaching assistant with at least six quarters of experience at 25% [employment] or higher at the same campus shall be placed at salary point 2 or higher, including when this threshold is met during a multi-quarter appointment,” Rupp said.

Madeline Vailhe, a third-year materials graduate student researcher, said that they felt additional security due to the increase in wages, specifically surrounding her housing and living conditions. 

“[The raise] has at least alleviated my concerns in terms of just knowing that I had to move off campus. I felt a lot better in terms of housing security,” Vailhe said. 

However, some teaching assistants expressed continued dissatisfaction with the way salaries were determined for student workers, highlighting the precarity still facing many student workers. Keith underscored the tension present at the time among academic workers. 

“I think a majority of students in my department welcomed the changes, but there were a vocal few who felt dissatisfied because they thought the changes weren’t enough. Also, a few of us chose not to strike but still supported our friends. This initially caused some tension in our cohort even though we agreed to respect each other’s decisions prior to the strike,” Keith said. “However, the winter break following the strike seemed to give people the time to reflect and relax, so the tensions have largely dissipated.” 

Michelle Wu / Daily Nexus

In particular, the current high rate of inflation has caused some distress among some academic workers, regarding the viability of their wages moving forward. 

Cedar Brown, a doctoral candidate in the linguistics department, shared their concerns regarding the pay structure in a statement to the Nexus, emphasizing its potential failure to address inflation and rising housing costs.

“The wage increase was not tied to the cost of living, leaving grad workers vulnerable to inflation and rising housing costs. However, for many workers, I know [the wage increase] has relieved some of the embodied stress and anxiety around money,” Brown said.

Following the strikes, there have been worries about the potential negative long-term effects either on the university's end or for undergraduate and graduate students. Specifically, there is a fear that the increased salaries could lead to the university cutting back on graduate students' admissions and decrease the number of sections, or increase the ratio of undergraduate students to teaching assistants.

Despite these apprehensions, as of Winter Quarter 2024, the school has yet to see any significant decline in teaching assistant and class size metrics. In the 15 main quarters  — fall, winter and spring — leading up to the strike, there was a median of 1934.5 classes — sections, seminars, labs and studios — that were led by a graduate student. In the four quarters post-strike, the median remained essentially unchanged at 1934 and generally remained between 1800-2100 classes. 

Moreover, examining another key indicator of teaching quality – the ratio of undergraduate students to teaching assistants – reveals that over the past eleven quarters, including six pre-strike and four post-strike quarters, the ratio has remained at approximately 21 undergraduates per teaching assistant. This is in contrast to the consistently higher ratio of about 22 to 23 undergraduates per teaching assistant that was common from winter 2018 to spring 2020, and has not been approached since.

Clemenceau said that she has observed that academic workers have been better off since the new contract.

“I wouldn’t say the teaching style or interactions I have with them through my studies are very different, but on a personal level, I think academic workers in general who I’ve met have been better off.”

Keith added that provisions were put in place to ensure workers were not mistreated as a result of participating in the strike.

“[T]here are contract changes to ensure students aren’t retaliated against due to the strike or changes.”

Despite the fractiousness of the initial conflict, the communications strategist for the UC Office of the President, Heather Hansen, stated that the University of California believed that the contract reached with the UAW provides UC employees with fair wages.  

“The University of California is committed to recognizing all employees, union-represented and non-union-represented, with valuable compensation and benefit packages. The settlement reached with the UAW unit reflects those values and commitment,” Hansen said.

Hansen added that the University appreciates its employees and that the University hopes that future contract negotiations occur through existing bargaining processes rather than through strikes.

“The University is grateful to our UAW-represented employees for their dedication and hard work in support of our campuses, our students and faculty, our medical centers, and toward our larger missions of education, research and public service,” Hansen said. “We are committed to negotiating agreement terms through the existing bargaining process, which involves thoughtful proposals and meaningful discussions to reach a resolution. Work stoppages disrupt this process.”

Hansen stated that the UC viewed the increase in employee compensation as a positive investment in its workers.

“Regarding financial decisions, employee compensation is an investment in our people, driving retention and recognition. We make financially responsible compensation decisions that support our commitment to our valued workforce,” Hansen said.

While the ramifications of the new contract remain preliminary, initial data suggests a favorable outcome for the academic workers involved, as graduate student workers not only gained increased financial security but have also been able to simultaneously maintain the number of teaching opportunities. However, the true measure of the strike's effectiveness will unfold over time while the university welcomes new cohorts of graduate students to replace the current group.

“Me and my coworkers were already organizing last year before the strike started in the dining hall, but seeing what they won and seeing the kind of industry standard-setting contracts that the academic workers here won definitely inspired us to want to affiliate with UAW and join that union,” Clemenceau said.

Michelle Wu / Daily Nexus

Despite the increase in wages in the new contracts for academic workers, Brown noted the lack of change for some marginalized workers.

“Unfortunately, the issues of many of the most marginalized workers were not prioritized in this current contract. It is important that protections for disabled workers and international student workers are centered,” Brown said.

Though there are still issues to work on for future contracts, Clemenceau appreciated and emphasized the power of the UAW’s efforts to secure better working conditions.

“A side effect of the strike is that a lot of new organizing came out of it. And I think that’s really inspirational,” Clemenceau said.

Due to recent developments surfacing around the mistreatment of pro-Palestinian protesters at multiple UC campuses, the union currently representing academic workers — UAW 4811, formed as a merging of UAW 2865 (which represented student workers) and UAW 5810 (which represented academic employees and postdoctoral researchers) — has once again voted to authorize a strike, thus highlighting ongoing and unresolved tensions between graduate student workers and the UC as a whole.