NewsUSAPoverty in the academic Olympus of the United States: the strike that shakes the University of California

Poverty in the academic Olympus of the United States: the strike that shakes the University of California

More than 48,000 workers on the University of California campuses have joined the demonstrations demanding better conditions.Jill ConnellyBloomberg

Pablo Quilez arrived in San Diego a month and a half ago. This 31-year-old physicist from Zaragoza, with experience at universities in Madrid and Hamburg, began a three-year postdoctoral stay at the prestigious University of California, one of the most important public institutions in the United States. Dr. Quilez landed almost squarely in one of the largest academic strikes seen by the country. Some 48,000 academic workers, almost 18% of the faculty, have joined the protest demanding better salaries and living conditions. “It amazes me that there are PhD students living out of their cars or paying 85% of their salaries in rent. Rents are through the roof and wages are miserable,” Quilez, who is part of the strike, tells by phone.

The strike has affected ten university campuses throughout California since November 14. It is made up of researchers who are studying for a doctorate, those who have already achieved it, and researchers in general, who work in one of the 800 research centers. Excludes tenured faculty and master class developers at institutions in: Berkley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. Some of these venues are among the 20 best in the country.

Tenured professors have shown solidarity with those who have gone on strike. These are the ones who support the bulk of the academic weight in the day-to-day life of an institution with 280,000 students. Researchers often serve as associate professors, dealing with interaction with students outside of the classroom. If a student has doubts about what the head of a subject teaches, it is highly probable that these doubts will be cleared by the assistants in person or through an email.

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The problem is that this faculty can barely live on what they earn. The situation has been serious for years, but in 2022 everything became unsustainable. “The great rise in inflation was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it was the fact that made the workers organize,” Quilez said by phone, who said he was surprised by the long lines at the campus food bank. San Diego, crowded by academics and students. “It is normal for them to collect food at one of the most prestigious universities in the world,” he points out.

This summer, the San Diego campus made a milestone public. It became the youngest educational center in the country to reach a collection of donations that exceeded one billion dollars. In more than a decade, it totaled 3,050 million granted by more than 163,000 employers.

The figure has resurfaced in recent weeks in the heat of the demonstrations, which call for an increase in wages and solutions to the housing crisis for members of the university network. The minimum pay for associate professors and non-PhD researchers is $24,000 a year. For one with a doctorate it is 55,000, which comes out to about 3,700 net dollars per month. The figure may vary according to experience, hours worked and the faculty to which the teachers belong.

Everyone seems to agree that wages are insufficient to pay for a roof in very expensive California. In Santa Cruz, a city 115 kilometers south of San Francisco, income is $15,000 short of covering an average apartment. The problem becomes more acute in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego or Berkeley, where the price for a one-bedroom apartment (and close to campus) can easily reach $2,600 per month. Quilez underlines the perversity of this scheme, since much of the housing that is occupied by academic workers is owned by the educational center. “The university decides the salary, poverty, but also the astronomical rents. It’s crazy, ”he assures by phone.

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Academic workers picket outside UC headquarters in Los Angeles on November 15.
Academic workers picket outside UC headquarters in Los Angeles on November 15.MARIO TAMA (AFP)

Rents can eat up 50% or more of an associate professor’s income. Izzy Muise, a UC Davis academic, claims that 75% of her salary goes to rent. To make ends meet and be able to cover utility bills or buy food, she needs the support of her parents. “This is a luxury that the vast majority of employees do not have,” says Muise, from the Chemistry faculty. In almost all cases, the ceiling of 30% that the federal government recommends allocating to income is easily exceeded.

Pradeep Khosla, the chancellor of UCSD, has attributed the plight to the ravages wrought by the pandemic and market forces. The collective contract is negotiated every five years. And this is the first discussion after the pandemic. The offer made by the institution to workers is a 7% increase for those who are in their first year and a 3% increase in subsequent years. This has been rejected. Instead, a base salary of $54,000 for associate professors and pre-doctoral researchers and $70,000 per year for post-docs has been put on the negotiating table. The researchers demand a 14% increase and that subsequent increases go hand in hand with housing costs.

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Michael Brown, UC’s executive vice president in charge of academic affairs, made it clear in a letter that it would be hard to cave to the demands of the workers, who are unionized within two sections of the powerful organization that represents U.S. workers. automotive, aerospace and agricultural machinery sectors. “Tying compensation directly to housing costs could create an overwhelming cost for the university,” says the document, dated a day after the strike broke out. A review of the petitions indicated that the requested increase would inflate the institution’s liabilities by “several million dollars.”

With the exception of salaries and housing costs, the negotiation between the parties has led to agreements on other requests that have been made. Among these monetary supports and subsidies for staff who are mothers or fathers, extend maternity or paternity leave and health insurance plans and support for parking facilities.

The strike has put a brake on the investigation that has made the UC a world reference. But the more short-term impact will come in the coming days, when the tens of thousands of students on the ten campuses begin final exams. Correcting these, along with reading the end-of-semester essays, are largely the responsibility of the 48,000 academic workers and researchers who make up the protest. The delay in the notes could lead to chaos and derail spring revenue. It is when you will see the strength of this teacher movement that might seem invisible.

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