UC workers say they are struggling to survive in California. Will the strike bring change?

For PhD student and single mother Konysha Wade, the financial struggle is daily.

More than half of her monthly income from her two on-campus jobs at UC Irvine goes toward renting out her college apartment, where she lives with her 11-year-old son.

She brings home about $2,700 a month after taxes working as a teacher of African-American studies and as a graduate student-researcher — while taking at least two courses for her doctorate in culture and theory and raising her son. She said their rent is over $1,500 a month, which leaves just over $1,000 a month for all other expenses.

“It’s so, so hard,” said Wade, 29. “We are barely getting there. We try to survive with limited savings. This is constant budgeting.

Wade is one of 48,000 University of California scholars – including postdoctoral fellows, graduate teaching assistants and researchers – who walked off the job this week in a strike considered the largest in all academic institutions in history.

The work stoppage aims to challenge long-standing work practices at UC and other universities across the country, which are coming under increasing scrutiny for how Graduate workers and university employees are getting paid at a time of rising inflation and growing union activism.

These workers do much of the teaching, grading, and research in the state’s most prestigious public university system.

In some ways, the strike underscores the growing economic strains faced by low-wage workers, especially in places like California with high living costs.

“People are already dealing with high rents and struggling to make ends meet on the kind of salary they have,” said Paula Voos, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “It’s a time when there’s a lot of union organizing and a lot of strikes, especially from younger, lower-paid workers who have been taking it on the chin for some time.”

A significant increase in academic compensation would permanently alter the budgets of large universities like UC, where high tuition is already a big problem.

But the strikers argue that California has an opportunity to confront economic inequality — and set a better example for other universities.

“The university is proud of our world-class research, but it’s not evident in the paychecks they give us,” said Edward Mendez, doctoral candidate at UC Irvine. “We don’t earn enough to live in the towns where these schools are.

Union leaders are calling for big pay rises for university workers, noting that housing costs on and near many UC campuses have continued to rise, making the majority of their members “burdened with rent” or spending more than 30% of their income on rent.

They want to see all graduate student workers — who are teaching assistants and tutors — earn a base salary of $54,000, more than double the current average salary for such workers of around $24,000, according to the union. For postdoctoral workers, the union has demanded a minimum wage of $70,000, which would represent an average raise of $10,000, said Rafael Jaime, a UCLA doctoral student and president of United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, tutors and other academics on strike

UAW surveys found that 92% of graduate workers and 61% of postdoctoral fellows were burdened with rent.

“We need help,” Wade said as he joined fellow graduate students and other university employees on the picket line for the second day in a row. “We do work that is meant to contribute to society at large – to liberate and illuminate.”

UC officials have offered a pay scale increase of 7% in the first year for some graduate student workers and 3% each year thereafter – an offer that union leaders say falls short.

Ryan King, spokesman for the University of California system, said UC believes its current offerings are sufficient. He noted that most of these graduate employees work part-time while earning a graduate degree.

“Compensation is just one of the many ways they are supported as students while in college,” King said.

But for Safa Hamzeh, a second-year international doctoral student in UCLA’s history department, that base salary isn’t nearly enough.

She said she made about $24,000 a year as a teaching assistant and lived in an apartment in the Palms provided by UC Housing, paying $2,000 a month, shared with a roommate. Because of her visa, she said she could not undertake any additional work.

To pay for her food, she applied to CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, for $100 to buy groceries at Kroger stores with her roommate. But even that was not enough to cover the rising cost of groceries due to inflation, she said.

“I’ve seen grocery store prices continue to rise,” she said. “And that’s something you have to do every week.”

Hamzeh was on the picket line Tuesday at UCLA, specifically calling on the university to drop the $15,000 non-residential tuition fee that graduate students like her often face — although right now she has a scholarship that covers it.

“It’s the most powerful tool we have against the administration,” said Hamzeh, 26. “When we’re on strike, we don’t take notes, we don’t attend chapters, we don’t attend conferences, we don’t hold office hours. When this happens, all progress in education stops. … When we go on strike, you can see that we do most of the work because all the work stops.

UCI’s Mendez said he was unable to join the picket line on Tuesday – despite his interest – due to his newborn baby’s nap schedule. The first-generation student working on his doctorate in visual studies at UC Irvine said he and his wife were considering using on-campus child care, but they couldn’t afford the monthly child care fee. $2,000 – something unionized workers would like to see reimbursed for college graduates and employees, like Mendez.

“I want to make sure people don’t have to sacrifice their lives to go to college and get the career path they want,” Mendez, 30, said. He pointed to UC’s massive budget, which he says doesn’t correlate with small payouts to workers like him. He said that while working on his thesis, he teaches an introductory English course, earning around $25,000 for nine months of classroom teaching, prep work, answering emails, office and rating hours.

He said he and his wife supplement their day jobs — for him co-editing the film section of a New York-based magazine, and for her, entering the gig economy filling Instacart orders.

Jaime said it’s not uncommon to hear of graduate students and other college workers struggling to make ends meet, trying to find extra jobs when they’re already overworked. He said it was particularly distressing to see UC chancellors receive six-figure raises earlier this year, which the Board of Regents said was to provide “fair and competitive” pay – something that Jaime didn’t see it apply elsewhere.

“As far as graduate students and postdocs go, for some reason that doesn’t translate for them,” Jaime said. “We’ve seen a trend over the years that as public universities are increasingly privatized, the value that academics and researchers bring is increasingly undervalued.”

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