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Striking Univ. of California Grad Students Speak Out on Nation’s Largest-Ever Higher Education Strike

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The largest higher education strike in U.S. history has entered its third week in an effort to secure livable wages, more child care benefits, expanded family leave and other demands. Some 48,000 academic workers at all 10 University of California campuses are on strike, including teaching assistants, postdoctoral scholars, graduate student researchers, tutors and fellows. We speak with a professor and graduate students at three campuses in the UC system, as a tentative deal with postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers was announced Tuesday by the University of California that does not cover graduate student employees who make up the vast majority of those on strike. “We are the ones who are producing the work. We’re teaching the classrooms. And yet, most of these student workers qualify for food stamps,” says UCLA doctoral student and local union head Enrique Olivares Pesante. UC Davis student researcher Aarthi Sekar describes how international graduate students have also been impacted. We also speak with Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to look at the largest higher education strike in U.S. history. Some 48,000 graduate student workers at 10 University of California campuses have entered their third week on strike in an effort to secure a livable wage, more child care benefits, expanded family leave and other demands. On Tuesday, the University of California announced a tentative deal with postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, but the deal doesn’t cover graduate student workers who make up the vast majority of those on strike.

Still with us, labor historian and University of California professor Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the school’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. He recently wrote an article for Dissent titled “The Largest Strike in the History of American Higher Ed.”

We’re also joined by two striking grad students. Enrique Olivares Pesante is a fourth-year doctoral student in English, teaching assistant at University of California, Los Angeles, at UCLA. He’s the head steward of his local union, UAW 2865. And Aarthi Sekar is a student researcher in the field of genetics at UC Davis. She’s a member of Student Researchers United, has been deeply involved in organizing with them since their unionization efforts began two years ago.

Professor Lichtenstein, let’s begin with you. Just give us the overall picture. I mean, you just wrote this piece that is so important about the largest strike in U.S. higher education taking place right now.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yes. Thank you. Yes, it’s remarkable, and it’s the largest strike, because it’s not just the teaching assistants and tutors and readers, who have been organizing in Columbia and Harvard and the UC. They’ve been there for — they’ve been organizing. They’ve held strikes. But it also includes postdoctoral scholars, who are several thousand of them, who have been organizing over the last decade, and then, most recently, academic researchers — that is, people who work in the labs and other places — and they were just organized just last year, several thousand of them. So, all together, all the contracts expire at the same time, or new contracts, and they’ve all gone out. And it’s quite remarkable.

Enormous public support. Also, again, you know, here’s a disruptive strike, a public institution. Sometimes in the past that’s been, you know, “OK, oh, you’re ruining the education of all our sons and daughters.” But in this case, tremendous public support. All the undergraduates support it. The Los Angeles Times has endorsed the strike — endorsed the demands of the strike, anyway. And the faculty, of which I’m a member, is very much in support.

So, the UC did offer a five-year contract to the postdocs and to the academic researchers. They offered the postdocs a substantial wage increase. In part, that’s — and partly because a lot of that funding comes from the federal government. The academic researchers were offered somewhat less, and they haven’t made an offer at all to really the backbone of the strike, which are the graduate student teaching assistants and associates and tutors and readers. And I think that’s a danger, because they’ve taken a hard line when it comes to these TAs, and the TAs were the ones who really were the power, and they sparked the initiative for the strike, because they were the ones who were suffering the most from the rising housing costs and the stagnation in their wages from really the last — and more than that, actually the erosion of their wages over the last two years because of inflation. So, we’re really coming to a crunch time here, and it’s more important than ever that those who have been offered a contract settlement stay out on strike and back the teaching assistants, who are still — who have not — no settlement has been reached with them at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Lichtenstein, I’m wondering also if you could put this in the context of the evolution of the neoliberal model of higher education, where increasingly universities are less dependent on tenure faculty —

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — and more dependent on contingent workers and on grad students and TAs to do all of the teaching.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. And, yes, that’s just, I mean, the number — the proportion of tenure track of teachers has just declined, declined, declined. Public funding for all state universities, public higher education, has declined, declined, declined over the last four decades, at the very least. And here is a strike which is saying, “Look, we are at the heart of the university, and we deserve to be paid.”

And here, it would have a salutary impact if the cost of all these contingent workers, who really make the university go, the researchers who are at the heart of, you know, why UC is a sort of research powerhouse in the world, and the teaching assistants, of course — if the cost to the university and to the state of California goes up for these people — and they deserve it. You know, this is not the ivory tower with elite upper-class people who are teaching; this is a working-class institution. You know, when we’re talking about diversity and talking about recruiting new people, we’re talking about working-class people. And they’re now the staff, and many of them are TAs and grad students. You know, if the cost to the state goes up, that will reduce the incentive for this — precisely what you said, this continuing rise of the contingent workforce, because it isn’t going to save them as much money. And that will mean that the incentive to have a more permanent, more well-paid, more dignified work, both for the — you know, will be enhanced.

And these grad students, of course, who I’ve taught generations of them, I mean, they labor for five, six, seven years to write a dissertation. The expectation used to be, OK, you know, you spend your twenties in poverty, but then you get a good job. Well, that bargain has been totally broken, and we need to either restore that bargain or just — or simply say, “OK, you’re a worker, and you deserve to have an income and a schedule which will enable you to live a dignified life.”

And everyone recognizes in California there’s just this enormous housing crisis. From the governor to the legislators, everyone recognizes it. And the grad students and others have said, “Look, if we have this crisis, you have to pay us or do something about it.” And that’s what this strike is about. It has enormous implications way beyond the university, way beyond the status even of grad students. The UC is a national institution, really. It’s the General Motors of higher education. And what happens at UC is going to have a huge impact everywhere.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Enrique Olivares Pesante into the conversation. You’re a fourth-year doctoral student in English and teaching assistant at UCLA. What led you to join the strike? And could you talk about the actual economic conditions that you and others like you face?

ENRIQUE OLIVARES PESANTE: Hi. Well, actually, there’s many reasons why I became more actively participating in the strike. Ever since I came here from Puerto Rico in 2019 to study at UCLA, I felt that participating in worker-led movements, such as like joining your local workers’ union as a TA, was like a necessary part for organizing not only as students but as student workers. So, automatically, when we went on strike, there was that sense of, like, fighting for the rights and well-beings of my fellow workers.

But on a material level, the kind of living and working conditions that a lot of graduate student workers, including from my union, UAW 2865, TAs, tutors, readers and graders, they live in untenable living conditions, right? So, for example, most of us would get paid 24K a year, and it’s very difficult to kind of match with the cost of living here in Los Angeles. So, for example, I live in graduate housing, so I pay roughly around $1,600 a month and get paid $2,400 a month. So that means that more than half of my paycheck goes back into the university. So, the university is not only one of the largest employers of the state, it also happens to be one of the largest landlords in the state — leaving only around $800 to kind of make ends meet.

And I think this is kind of important that a lot of other student workers are in the same kind of material conditions. You know, we are the ones who are producing the work. We’re teaching the classrooms. And yet most of these student workers qualify for food stamps. So, addressing a kind of cost-of-living adjustment with a higher base pay, it becomes more and more pressing right now as we’re seeing a lot of austerity measures and changes at the public university.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk — for instance, you say you came from Puerto Rico. How are the conditions there for grad students versus what you saw in — what you see in UCLA, in the California system?

ENRIQUE OLIVARES PESANTE: Well, I think one of the largest differences — right? — I am a product of higher — public higher education. I went to University of Puerto Rico. I studied for a bachelor’s and master’s. I also taught for around three to four years as a professor in the General Studies Department. While I was a grad student, I was only able to work as a kind of teaching assistant for one year. And this was around 2011 and ’12. And right now a lot of academic student positions have been cut down.

So, one of the main reasons that a public institution such as UCLA became so attractive when applying to grad school was because they had promised job security, employment, tuition remission for the duration of my doctoral studies. All of these were protections that were hard won by the union. And even here, when thinking on paper that these were idyllic conditions so you can have a sustainable life and working conditions, living in Los Angeles is quite a very different story. So, it’s always important — it’s kind of almost like a culture shock — right? — thinking that you’re going to the number one public university in the world, that’s kind of touted in all these publications, and then you realize that 24K is not enough, right? Having tuition remission is definitely a very important right and benefit that we have as workers, thanks to our workers’ union, but it’s still not enough. Working conditions are learning conditions for everybody in the university community. But yet, that’s — we still have a long way to go.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to Enrique Olivares Pesante at UCLA, we’re joined by Aarthi Sekar. She is a student researcher at University of California, Davis, member of Student Researchers United. Aarthi, thanks so much for joining us. So, in a historic breakthrough, UC postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers reached a tentative agreement Tuesday on what union leaders described as their largest — as their highest-ever salary increases. But workers are not returning to campus, in solidarity with some 36,000 graduate student workers who remain on strike. What’s important to understand here, Aarthi?

AARTHI SEKAR: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Amy.

I think, you know, what’s really important to understand here in this moment is that this is a really historic and transformative moment for a fight for us as academic workers within UC. Postdocs and academic researchers have reached this tentative agreement, but they are staying out on strike in solidarity with us student researchers and with us academic student employees because our fight is not over. We are still fighting for a contract that gives us fair living wages that we deserve, as both the other speakers mentioned. As a student researcher and within the University of California, I myself have experienced, you know, incredibly challenging living and working conditions.

Student researchers are negotiating for their very first contract, which is a huge moment for us, considering that before 2021 we did not have a union. We democratically elected, by supermajority, to form our union, Student Researchers United. And then, now, in 2022, we are fighting for a fair contract that gives us the basic needs and protections in our workplace.

And, you know, really, student researchers are in a place — a very vulnerable place within UC, where even though we contribute to the cutting-edge research that UC boasts about, and we are the backbone of the research that happens within UC, ranging from medical research, climate science research — really all of the science and the patents that UC can claim really comes out of, yeah, you know, a lot of this labor that student researchers provide. And in this moment, we’re negotiating for a contract that really allows us to make ends meet. So, we have so many different, diverse researchers within UC, including international researchers, including parents, including caregivers. And we’re fighting for a compensation that really compensates us fairly and reflects the labor that we provide to UC.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Aarthi, can you talk about the work that you do? I mean, you are in the field of genetics. Explain what happens and how you’re compensated.

AARTHI SEKAR: Right. So, I work as a student researcher within the genetics program here at UC Davis. And so, you know, I do research within the field of human genomics, which is something that is incredibly competitive and really well funded. However, the research and work that I have provided, I do not get fair compensation for the labor that I have provided in terms of my research. For example, I, myself, like over 90% of researchers within UC who pay over 30% of their stipend to rent, have at times paid over 50% of my stipend to rent to live, essentially, near where I work in Davis, California. I have struggled to make ends meet, while working easily over 50 hours a week, even though our contracts as graduate student researchers stipulate that we are doing 50% of the labor. But we’re working much, much longer hours than that to contribute to this research.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Aarthi, many of the student researchers are also international students or immigrants on visas. How has that affected their ability to take labor action?

AARTHI SEKAR: Yes, this is — you know, this is really an important moment for international researchers, as well. We have thousands of international researchers within UC, and many of them are out on the picket line. We are striking together because this is very important for international researchers, considering that they have an additional fee — it’s the nonresident supplemental tuition — that they have to navigate. And that can be, at minimum, $10,000 or up to $15,000 out of pocket that some researchers may have to take out loans to pay or some — or are limited in terms of the research opportunities or research labs that they join because of this extra tuition stipend that they have to unjustly pay in order to work within UC. And so, this is something that we are fighting for, is a remission of this nonresident supplemental tuition for international researchers. And we stand united on the picket line to fight for this within our contract.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Aarthi Sekar, we want to thank you for being with us, student researcher in the field of genetics at UC Davis, member of the Student Researchers United, and has been deeply involved in organizing for the last two years, on the picket line since the beginning. Enrique Olivares Pesante, fourth-year doctoral student in English and teaching assistant at UCLA, he is the head steward of his local union, UAW 2865, been on strike since mid-November. And thanks to professor Nelson Lichtenstein, who’s at UC Santa Barbara.

When we come back, we go to a journalist from Puerto Rico who is talking about the injustices from how hurricanes are dealt with to the rolling blackout. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Por la Frontera” by Rupa and the April Fishes. Musician Rupa Marya is also a University of California, San Francisco doctor. She’s among 300 signatories of a solidarity pledge not to cross the UC picket line. Other signatories include Angela Davis, Robin D. G. Kelley and Judith Butler.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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