UC Graduate Student Workers Strike Over Unfair Labor Practices

UC Irvine academic student-workers represented by United Auto Workers 2865 union, joined their colleagues from other UC campuses today in a system-wide strike against unfair labor practices (ULP).

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

According to union documents, UAW 2865 decided to go on strike after a filing a series of ULP charges against the UC ranging from “threats to international student’s visa status who participate in union activity, to unlawful videoing, and calling legal strikes illegal.”

UAW 2865 represents 13,000 graduate student-workers across the University of California system, including teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, readers, and both undergraduate and graduate tutors.

This past November, the student-workers’ contracts ran out and with it, the clause that mandated that they do not strike. Shortly after, members of the union voted to authorize the strike, with a 96 percent approval.

Leading up to the strike, some graduate students claimed they received emails from professors and supervisors asking whether or not they were coming into work. Explicitly asking union members whether or not they are striking is illegal due to protections afforded by labor laws. According to Jessica Conte, recording secretary for UCI’s chapter of UAW 2865, depending on the specific language of these emails, UAW’s lawyers may find them to be unlawful.

The picket started on campus earlier in the day with gatherings at the flagpoles.

AFSCME 3299 workers returned the support shown by UAW 2865 members this past November when the graduate students conducted a sympathy strike concurrent with the workers’ strike. Many showed up before their shifts or during their breaks. Filiberto Martinez, a worker from Mesa Court Commons, along with a handful of other AFSCME members, was one of the first people to be at the flagpoles at 10 a.m. before his work shift.

The strike drew support from professors and lecturers, many of whom cancelled their lectures. Professor Victoria Bernal cancelled her Anthropology 2A lecture, one of the largest general education classes, and told her TAs not to hold sections. Lucy Carrillo, an anthropology graduate student, said that support from the her department has been overwhelming. Faculty who were not able to cancel class came and went throughout the day to show support on the picket.

At noon, participants convened at the flagpoles for a rally to voice their concerns about recent unfair labor practices and bargaining issues.

Melissa Wrapp, an anthropology TA, said that she has discussion sections of upwards of 30 students but she cannot give each one of them the necessary one-on-one time.

“I’m sick of giving the shittiest comments on papers, just because I don’t have time,” Alex Raleigh, a political science TA, said.

Dr. Jeanne Scheper, assistant professor of gender sexuality studies, spoke during the noontime rally, detailing the history of graduate student-workers’ struggles for protections and benefits.

Undergraduate students came out to show solidarity to their graduate counterparts, aware of their educational stake in the improvement of labor practices for graduate-student workers.

“They’re often neglected as workers or to be seen as workers. So it’s important that students show up and say ‘Hey, they’re workers too. They work hours on our material, they give us feedback and should be recognized as such,’” Khaalidah Sidney, a third-year African American studies and Asian American studies double major and ASUCI legislative council representative for the School of Humanities, said.

During a stop in humanities plaza, Keith Danner, a lecturer in the English department and member of the American Federation of Teachers, announced that though the AFT was not striking, they supported the strike. He went on to say that the labor practices and limited resources that graduate-student workers face is directly correlated to the same conditions which lecturers have to deal with.

The majority of undergraduate students, however, were made of aware of the graduate students’ grievances for the first time as the strike marched through ring road. Many paused on their way to class to witness the chant-filled spectacle, taking pictures and recording videos on their phones. Some were hesitant to join the march, despite being invited by graduate students who stopped to inform them of the issues, while some cheered and applauded from the sidelines.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

At one point, the march left the sidewalk and took to the asphalt down West Peltason Drive, going toward Campus Drive. Upon reaching the intersection, approximately 150 people circled the middle of the intersection several times, shutting down traffic in all four directions.

Despite this type of traffic disruption being a criminal offense according to Assistant Police Chief Jeff Hutchison, only two motorcycle UC police officers were present for a brief moment. Normally, this type of criminal offense is warrant for the use of video recording of protests, but no recorded surveillance was observed.

When asked for his opinion regarding student activism, Hutchison was enthusiastic.

“It should absolutely be allowed. It’s the university experience,” he said.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

Yesterday, 20 UC Santa Cruz undergraduates were arrested for failing to disperse and being pedestrians on a roadway, the latter of which is the same behavior that UCI students demonstrated today. Two more UC Santa Cruz students were arrested today. No UCI students have been arrested. In response to past incidences of illegal police arrests, legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild were present in order to give testimony in the case of any incidents or arrests, illegal or otherwise.

Meanwhile, progress on the bargaining table between UAW 2565 and the UC regarding benefits in the new contract is unsteady. According to Conte, UC administrators responded to the November announcement of today’s strike with merely a consideration of improving class sizes with no real movement on the issue. A viable solution may take the form of a class size advisory commission comprised of TAs, faculty, and undergraduates to determine appropriate TA-student ratios. Additionally, the union is voicing opposition to a rule that prevents graduate students from working for more than 18 quarters. There has been, however, progress with childcare stipends for student parents, which are set to increase from $600 to $900.

One issue that has seen what Conte referred to as “a little bit of movement” is access to all-gender bathrooms. Although UAW’s members would like to see separate all-gender bathrooms accommodated by the UC, administrators do not want to be contractually and financially responsible for retrofitting restrooms. The compromise will require academic student-workers to request access to an all-gender bathroom if necessary.

Phuc Pham | Staff

Phuc Pham | New University

Considerations regarding undocumented graduate students have been tense. Currently, undocumented post-doctoral researchers can apply for fellowships and undocumented  undergraduate students have programs that help them fund their education. However, undocumented graduate students cannot apply for teaching assistantships or otherwise be graduate student-workers. According to Conte, administration issued what amounted to be an empty statement saying that UC and UAW simply agree that access to education for undocumented students is a good thing, but ultimately providing no allowances for employment to fund that education.