Nov 30, 2022

Why do we fight for fair wages in UC labor strike?

We are entering into the third week of our strike for a fair contract. The strike began on November 14, when graduate students at the UC system walked off their jobs. There are 48,000 of us, including teaching assistants, researchers, post-doctoral students, and others represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW). This morning I woke up to an e-mail sent out by the bargaining teams that there is a tentative agreement between UC and the union in which postdocs and academic researchers will receive higher wages, but the agreement does not include teaching assistants.

When I read it I thought, what a terrible deal! The bulk of the work is being done by TAs and the fact is the majority of people who are on strike are TAs. Why would they be left out of the deal when they are the ones who are doing the majority of work for the university? We, as TAs, are required to work 20 hours a week but sometimes, we work beyond those hours. I personally respond to e-mails on weekends and spend hours on students' work to provide quality constructive feedback and never think of how many hours I am spending and yet the amount of wage I am receiving is a livable minimum wage that is not even enough to enjoy the peace of mind and convenience. 

If this diagram is correct, UC wages are amongst the lowest.
Click to enlarge the diagram. source: here
To put it in perspective, UC Irvine pays the teaching assistants a little over 21k for 9 months, not the entire year. That is a little over $2,300 a month, of which more than 60% goes to rent. Some students even pay up to 75% of their wages towards rent. Today, I met with a student who told me she pays nearly $1300 for UC subsidized housing, also called (ironically) affordable, which is unaffordable given the unfair pay. She is often left with $700 or less to pay for her car insurance, gas, food, travel, and bare minimum necessities, forgetting leisure and eating out, and joining other social conventions. The sad part of this reality is that we pay more than half of our wages as rent back to UC. In a sense, the UC system is benefiting from us in multiple ways. They benefit from our scientific endeavors, from our labor in exchange for minimum wage, and benefit from us living in their housing and paying them back. This is called exploitation without fair compensation.

International teaching assistants suffer the most because they do not have the same advantage that Americans have. I know an international PhD student who is financially struggling. He is married, his wife has no job and they have two kids, aged 2 and 4, all uninsured except the father. Since more than half of his salary goes toward housing, he is left with very little to buy food and clothing for his wife and children. A few times I brought this issue up with a few faculties, they spoke of state-subsidized child care, which I don't think international students' spouses and children qualify for.

I myself have to look for a weekend side job to cover my cost. I recently started website maintenance job by stretching my limited time over the weekend to make a few extra bucks. Since the fall of Kabul to the hands of a terror group, the Taliban, it has become harder for me because of what is happening in Afghanistan. I have to send money to my family and relatives who are not only struggling with food insecurity but also the ongoing genocide against the Hazaras. Some are fleeing the Taliban atrocities while others are trying to find enough to feed themselves. No one understands such a condition, neither my fellow students nor the UC system. My brother, nephew, and niece are now kept at the refugee camp for nearly 14 months. They are languishing at the camp as a result of the long wait for evacuation. The worst part is when no one in the US government is ready to help despite the sacrifice and service that I made for this country. Forget the various degrees of emotional toll and suffering I endure on a daily basis as a result of cumulative grief and trauma. In any respect, like myself, some students suffer from numerous issues, and food insecurity is one of them that is directly linked to unfair wages at UC.

At the beginning of our strike, UC came up with a humiliating offer that was insufficient because it did not meet the current inflation rate in the county, let alone our demands. The offer indicated that the pay would increase, ranging from 4-7 percent in the first year of the contract and incremental raises in subsequent years. The inflation rate, in July 2022, in the LA area and Orange counties was recorded 8.6%, the highest in 40 years. 

The recent agreement is a terrible blow to teaching assistants who constitute the core of this strike and they are in higher numbers compared to other groups; of course, this is not to disregard the fight that first began by postdocs and academic researchers almost 19 months ago. What this recent deal does is to cajole strikers into giving up their efforts, which is not a bad idea but what I observed and learned from my conversations with students on the picket line today was that they are more determined to continue fighting for fair wages even if takes longer.

The tentative agreement dated November 29 carries a reassuring attestation that UAW maintains a higher degree of power when it comes to collective bargaining. Today, I went back to the picket line to amplify the power of our strike to demand a fair contract from the UC system and also to renew our commitment that no matter what, we will continue our fight even if it spells over to the next quarter. The ongoing strike, which began on November 14 and is considered the largest strike by academic workers in US history, is laying the groundwork for labor rights and possible strikes in the future against unfair wages and labor exploitation by employers. 

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