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As The University Of California Strike Drags On, Many Students Don't Have Good Options

A man with light brown skin crouches to pick up strike signs that say, UAW, on strike, unfair labor practice.
UC Irvine doctoral student Angel Benitez is on strike. He works in a lab researching Alzheimer's.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
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Undergraduate education mostly continues at the University of California campuses as a strike of tens of thousands of university workers enters its third week on Monday. In the picket lines are grad students and lab workers doing important scientific research.

Since September 2019, doctoral student Angel Benitez has worked full time in a lab at UC Irvine, up to 70 hours some weeks, researching the effect of different proteins on neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Just before he walked off the job he was investigating whether certain molecules found in foods could slow or even reverse Alzheimer's. Finding that out would be huge.

“Our lab is a very unique lab,” he said.

His yearly salary for this work: about $24,000.

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It’s his fourth year as a researcher. He’s looking to hold on another year, when he expects to be done with his research and earn his PhD.

Food Insecurity

As food prices have shot up, Benitez said his salary has forced him to cut down on pricier food items. He picks up free food at the campus food pantry, and buys food that’s cheaper in bulk even if it goes bad before he finishes it. The stress of trying to make ends meet on his budget while focusing on his university work has taken its toll.

“I've been going to therapy which, fortunately it's covered by my insurance, and it's been helpful for me to at least manage some of this stress,” he said. But the stress hasn’t gone away, he said.

Benitez is a member of SRU-UAW, the union that represents 17,000 students who work in labs across the 10 University of California campuses. That union is the second largest of the three on strike. The largest is UAW 2865, which represents 19,000 UC teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, readers, and tutors. The third largest is UAW 5810. Its 12,000 members are UC postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers also working in university labs.

I've been going to therapy which, fortunately it's covered by my insurance, and it's been helpful for me to at least manage some of this stress.
— Angel Benitez, biomedical engineering researcher, UC Irvine

The three unions went on strike on Nov. 14 after more than a year and a half of negotiations failed to secure pay increases and other benefits that the unions would agree to. Union leaders point to experiences like that of Benitez to say that the workers need more than what UC is offering. For their part, UC administrators said their proposals are fair.

By one measure, California’s graduate student researcher pay falls way below states like Maryland, and Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. UC said its current salary offer would raise pay significantly.

“UC’s primary goal in these negotiations is multiyear agreements,” UC said in a written statement to employees days before the strike “that recognize your and your colleagues’ many important and highly valued contributions to UC’s teaching and research mission with fair pay, quality health and family-friendly benefits, and a supportive and respectful work environment.”

UC is urging the unions to accept a third party mediator to help both sides come to an agreement.

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Who’s To Blame For UC’s Low Paid Graduate Workforce?

The University of California, with its flagship campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles, is widely seen as the nation’s most prestigious public university system. The longer the strike continues to hinder or shut down some classes and academic research, and the more stories about worker hardships come to the fore, the more that reputation may be tarnished.

“The question is less ‘how I feel about [UC workers] walking off the job’ and more ‘how do I feel about a $46 billion operation, which is what the University of California is roughly, paying such incredibly low wages to people who are doing such incredibly important work?” said Gary Rhoades, a higher education professor at University of Arizona.

My lab at UC Irvine is fully operational with grad students, research staff, and a postdoc working because they love science and are more interested in getting results for publications.
— Gregory Brewer, biomedical engineering professor, UC Irvine

But UC doesn’t deserve all the blame for a low-paid workforce, Rhoades said. California lawmakers haven’t kept up public funding for the university system, so university administrators have had to rely on tuition increases and other funding sources like federal and private money.

Much of the money that funds scientific research comes from federal and other grants. The resulting findings from that research is in part what’s put the university system on a national pedestal.

Limits Of Impact Of Strike

The strike has not shut down research at UC Irvine. Labs at this university are using contingency plans for this strike — the ones developed for the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in 2020.

“All UCI principal investigators (i.e., lab directors), including those in our department (Biomedical Engineering), were instructed to develop research continuity plans in case their labs are affected by the current strike,” said Zoran Nenadic, chair of UC Irvine’s biomedical engineering department via email.

The word Strike!!! is written in chalk on a rust colored wall.
Unionized workers at UC Irvine joined the system wide strike on November 14, 2022.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

It’s unclear how many union members remain on the job at UC Irvine and other UC campuses. Some have decided to ignore their union’s call to go on strike. Biomedical engineering professors at UC Irvine said some research has slowed but continues.

“My lab at UC Irvine is fully operational with grad students, research staff, and a postdoc working because they love science and are more interested in getting results for publications,” said Gregory Brewer, a UC Irvine biomedical engineering professor, via email.

A man in a black shirt and a woman in a blue shirt both hold their fists up during a workers strike at UC Irvine. Both have light brown skin. They are holding signs that say UAW, On Strike, Unfair Labor Practice.
Angel Benitez, right, works as a biomedical engineering researcher at UC Irvine. Mia Villegas works on psychosis research for a UC Irvine psychology lab. Both are on strike.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Brewer oversees some of Benitez’s work and said he’s sympathetic to the high cost of living in Orange County that may require pay to be raised. However, the money to pay the researchers doesn’t come from yearly state funding, but rather “from limited grant funds that only change every 5 years,” Brewer said.

A Tough Job Market For PhD Graduates

The University of California and other university systems are graduating a lot of highly trained researchers. Too many, Rhoades said, to fill the shrinking number of full time, tenured jobs. Universities are increasingly hiring part time adjuncts and graduate students to teach classes.

Once I came to grad school and I started seeing all these faults in the system, it's kind of discouraging.
— Angel Benitez, UC Irvine doctoral student

The low pay and the scarcity of these stable, full-time jobs has soured some of the strikers to the idea of returning to the university once they’ve finished their degrees.

“I'm really passionate about mentoring other students, I believe that I can really help other minorities, especially the Latin American minorities, to get involved in science,” Benitez said. And that passion led him to want to stay in academia after earning his doctorate.

“But once I came to grad school and I started seeing all these faults in the system, it's kind of discouraging,” Benitez said. So he’s considering pursuing work in the private sector, such as a large pharmaceutical company.

He feels strongly about raising wages for himself and other university workers because he’s looking forward to the day when he can leave poverty behind. For the time being, Benitez said, he’ll stay on the picket lines, holding up a large, printed sign that says “on strike” in blue letters.

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.