Selling Blood, Skipping Meals, Sleeping in Cars: Why Academics Strike

Photograph Source: eilidh_wag – CC BY 2.0

Last week, thousands of railroad workers ready to strike got stabbed in the back by Biden and congress. These trainmen, constantly on call and without even one paid sick day, object to being worked to death. They aren’t the only ones. Another massive strike in another business sector was already underway: Forty-eight thousand academic workers struck in California November 14. They walked off the job in one of the biggest labor actions of the century and the largest in higher education history, due to starvation wages. Their employer, the University of California, has not reacted well, has in fact taken a divide and conquer approach, according to Nelson Lichtenstein in the Guardian December 5. This means offering some spoils for those who are already better compensated and a very hard line toward those at the bottom of the pay scale, namely graduate students. Because of course.

The striking researchers, postdocs, graders and teaching assistants want a minimum annual salary of $54,000 for graduate students and $70,000 for postdocs – something commensurate with the cost of living in California, where the average annual rent in Los Angeles surpasses $36,000 a year. For teaching assistants earning $24,000 that often means sleeping in their cars. Lots of these workers resort to selling blood to make ends meet. Welcome to the lousy underside of academic labor in America, famishing scholars so parasites in university administrations can bloat up on six-figure salaries.

United Auto Workers bargains for these workers. Its president of “Local 5810, which represents more than 11,000 UC postdocs and academic workers,” according to the Washington Post November 14, accuses the university of acting unlawfully at the bargaining table. This is probably a gross understatement. Negotiations have already dragged out over a year, so you can imagine the sorts of brazen shenanigans pulled by university poohbahs protecting their pelf. For those besotted with a tinsel image of these hacks, who cry, No! However on earth could it be? University luminaries twisting the financial knife with bargaining mischief? Shocking! To such people I can only say, the blood of impoverished intellectuals waters the groves of American academe, literally, and has done so for decades. The fact that “the University of California strike is also the largest strike in higher education in U.S. history, according to the UAW,” per the Post has more than a little to do with the nonsense labor has had to tolerate at the bargaining table.

The tenure-track model for these workers is a thing of the past. According to one academic striker quoted by the New Yorker November 29, “You don’t make very much as a grad student, and you’re expected to do menial tasks for your professors…for many of us, that same deal [eventual tenure] that made the whole thing function is really no longer on the table, which means that the way we’re paid in the meantime is much more significant.” In other words, these academics have accepted the reality that they are working stiffs.

“The University of California Strike Has Been 50 Years in the Making,” headlined a story in New York magazine November 18. In addition to higher wages, New York reports that these workers demand childcare stipends, transit passes and paid leave, the sorts of things essential to the survival of your average prole and one his or her bosses fiercely resist providing, “in a state where the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years.”

The roots of the strike, however, reach back, according to New York, to Proposition 13, the property tax-slashing law adopted in California 44 years ago. “This bled the state of much-needed income,” with a recent estimate “that if just the state’s commercial-property owners were taxed at fair market value, it would provide California an additional $11.5 billion in annual tax revenue – most of which would be paid by giant corporations.” Without that money, the state struggles to support amenities like its flagship university system, and thus, at the bargaining table, officials claim poverty. Such protestations, however, omit the wildly expensive metastasizing class of university administrators who pull down small fortunes and whose utility is negligible. After all, prior to the late 1970s, most schools got along just fine without them. Universities ran much more cheaply and could afford to give postdocs and grad students salaries more in line with the cost of living. Those salaries were, in absolute terms, smaller than what they get today, but so were expenses.

So far, the rank and file has rejected the university’s stingy pay increases. “Many teaching assistants would earn less than $30,000 a year,” with what management offers, according to the Post. The proposed annual childcare stipend “would barely cover a month of childcare,” workers were quoted. One wonders what their employers expect these parents to do for the remaining eleven months? Lock their kids in the car and hope they’re alive when they return from the job? “Teaching assistants at UCLA earn an average of $24,000 a year,” the union told the newspaper. Students’ parents shelling out many tens of thousands of dollars a year in exorbitant tuition thus pay a fortune for instructors who must sleep in their vehicles. As for the children of those teachers, well, they’re not the university’s problem, or at least that’s the official attitude.

Lest you think this gigantic strike is somehow an isolated one-off, think again. All over the country, education workers have walked off the job. Massachusetts teachers defied a strike ban by walking out illegally three times recently, and six thousand Seattle teachers struck September 7. “The top issue was the district’s proposal…to end student-teacher ratios for many categories of special education,” labornotes reported. Almost a week later, bargaining got results, and members ended the strike. And 2022 featured other job actions in education as well.

Back in California, a wave of wildcat strikes hit UC Santa Cruz and other UC campuses in 2021. “Workers demanded cost-of-living stipends to account for the soaring price of housing in the state,” according to the Post. “Following the strikes, UC Santa Cruz agreed to increase housing stipends for teaching assistants.” Those assistants told the Post they commute hours for affordable housing. They, doubtless, are the lucky ones who actually have roofs over their heads.

One doctoral student described donating “blood plasma twice a week for roughly $200 in extra income.” Another teaching assistant mentioned skipping meals. So it’s no wonder that in August 2021 UAW “gained 17,000 student researchers, in the largest union victory of that year.” More recently, this month, “UAW announced that 97 percent of more than 36,000 workers who voted across the UC system had authorized an unfair labor practice strike.”

The UAW is now an old hand at organizing traditionally non-blue-collar workers. Years ago, as a UAW shop steward in the newspaper business, regularly filing grievances, I saw close up how this union works. People may complain about its performance lately in the more traditional automobile organizing field, but in journalism and academe, it has thrown desperate workers a life-line. The union officials who decided to expand in this way were prescient, correctly perceiving that employers who expect their underlings to survive on their jobs’ prestige exploit labor almost as badly as sweat shops. UAW’s expansion in these areas rescued a whole class of desperate employees. Lots of previously abused workers, who labor with their brains for a pittance, are grateful.

That’s why it was dismaying to read in Truthout December 2 that UAW negotiators told striking academics their original demands were “unreasonable.” This week, “the bargaining team sacrificed workers with disabilities, for zero concessions from UC and with zero accountability in addition to slashing child care in half and dropping dependent care,” according to Magally A. Miranda Alcazar, who cites other givebacks very unpopular with a rank and file now united under the banner of “No COLA, no contract!” The union hierarchy should listen to this protest. Especially at this dangerous juncture with the strike in its fourth week, and, as noted in the Guardian, management trying to split the strikers by dangling a decent offer to a smaller group of them, while leaving the largest cohort, that is grad students, out in the cold (literally). The union certainly has no business siding with the boss, not least because such a failure will only prolong the strike. The UAW must do what it’s there for: representing the interests of rank-and-file workers with unshakable solidarity. Anything else is a betrayal.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.