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UC's Rank-And-File Student Workers Have Mixed Opinions About First Deal To Emerge From Strike

A man and a woman, each with light brown skin, both hold their fists up during a workers strike at UC Irvine
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
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By the time union leaders who represented postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers announced a tentative agreement on Tuesday, many rank-and-file members at the 10 UC campuses already knew what was in it.

“I think there's big improvements in working conditions or living conditions for [members of] the 5810 unit,” said Gerrald Lodewijk, a postdoc researcher in biomolecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz. He’s also the recording secretary for UAW 5810 on his campus.

He said the salary increases will work out to be between $10,000 and $12,000.

There’s another major victory in the agreement, he said. UAW 5810 members will be able to use the grievance process against bullying and abusive conduct by supervisors who create hostile work environments, such as through “deadlines that are completely unachievable, discrimination, or sexism, it's all there, unfortunately,” he said.

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Now UAW 5810 has the task of convincing its 12,000 members that the agreement it has reached after months of negotiations is the best deal possible. That effort may be complicated by the ongoing negotiations of two other UC workers’ unions whose members are wondering what kind of agreement they’ll receive, and whether they want more than what's in the postdoc union deal.

This is what the union had told its 48,000 members it was seeking for them:

  • $54,000/year minimum salary for all Grad Workers
  • $70,000/year minimum salary for Postdocs
  • 14% salary increase for Academic Researchers
  • Annual cost of living adjustments and experience-based increases

The yearly minimum salaries will be achieved, the union said, by the end of the five-year contract. But missing from Tuesday’s announcement: COLA, the annual cost of living adjustments. That stood out like a sore thumb for some union members.
“There is a lot of anger in the community … if we were to be one-issue voters on the contract, COLA would be our one issue,” said Leen Arnaout, a UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco bioengineering graduate student who’s a member of SRU UAW, the union of graduate student researchers.

If we were to be one-issue voters on the contract, COLA would be our one issue.
— Leen Arnaout, bioengineering graduate student, UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco

Is it a deal breaker?

“I've been told by many friends and colleagues that they will be voting no on their tentative contracts,” she said.

Two factors loomed over negotiations after the strike began on Nov. 14: UC workers stopped teaching classes, grading papers, tutoring, and doing research while UC requested an independent mediator to resolve the two sides’ differences.

Did those factors influence union negotiators to accept a UC offer that didn’t include COLA?

“The COLA was more an issue for the other two units,” said a union spokesperson via text.

The contract expires in 2027. Union leaders said they’ll negotiate more after that.

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“I think that this just sets the standard for what we can do moving forward,” said Jade Moore, a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Francisco, during a Tuesday news conference announcing the agreement.

All three unions remain on strike, even though not all members have walked off the job. But enough have done so to create big headaches for faculty who depend on their work and for the people who make up UC’s biggest constituency.

“The undergraduate students are very upset,” Arnaout said — their fall term coincided with this massive strike, and that has left their exams, their homework, grades, and their short-term futures in limbo.

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.