Former union organizers recall their experiences representing UC employees
Holding signs reading “pay us enough to live here” and “COLA 4 all,” graduate students began participating in strikes for cost of living adjustments (COLA) in Dec. 2019. The protests began with a grade strike at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) and continued in the spring with in-person protests set to the beat of drumming and chants. The movement sparked a series of solidarity protests at other UC campuses, including UC Davis.
Referred to as “wildcat strikes,” graduate students worked outside of the student union, United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, as striking is prohibited for graduate student employees while their UC contracts are in effect. On Feb. 28, 54 teaching assistants (TAs) were dismissed and 28 were not appointed at UCSC for withholding grades. After an escalation of the protests including a UC-wide May Day strike, the university rehired 41 students on Aug. 11.
According to Brian Malone, a former UCSC graduate student and organizer for UAW from 2008 to 2014, the discrepancy between the cost of living and salary for UCSC TAs posed problems when he was a student.
“I still live in Santa Cruz, and it is really hard to live here,” Malone said. “It was really hard to live here when I was a graduate student. What they paid me was not sufficient to really have a kind of life here.”
Anna Muraco, an organizer from 1997 to 1999 and former UC Davis graduate student, experienced issues with housing insecurity.
“When I was a graduate student, there was no way I could live off of my TA salary and any financial aid I received, so I took out loans,” Muraco said. “I’ll be paying off my graduate and undergraduate loans until I retire.”
The UC system negotiates with 14 unions that represent more than 79,000 employees. UC Berkeley employees formed the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in 1948. Two years later, Berkeley custodians held the first strike in UC history and achieved the first employee benefits package at the UCs.
The union then expanded to include clerical and technical workers, guards and patient care workers. AFSCME is currently the largest UC employee union, representing over 25,000 employees.
Graduate students also began organizing at Berkeley. Amid the wide-scale protests against the oppression of free speech during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) in the 1964-1965 school year, graduate students formed the first graduate employee union.
Labor organizations for both unions spread to other UC campuses, bolstered by the passage of the Higher Education Employee-Employer Relations Act (HEERA) in 1979 that extended collective bargaining rights to state college and university employees.
Following HEERA, AFSCME members won the first statewide union contract in 1984.
HEERA also provided more opportunities for student workers, and Berkeley graduate students established the first UC TA labor union, the Association of Graduate Students Employees (AGSE), in 1983.
The first UC-wide graduate student strike occurred on Dec. 1, 1998, during finals week, after a culmination of efforts over 15 years to gain union recognition. Muraco, who was involved in the strike, stated that the UCs had not officially recognized the UAW as the representative for unionized graduate students until the 2003-2006 contract, as a result of this strike across all eight campuses.
That same year, AFSCME also became officially united when their 22 campus groups formed the statewide AFSCME Local 3299.
Although the 1998 strike proved effective, it consequently increased faculty workload. In Maruco’s experience, it can be difficult to navigate the tensions between organizing and maintaining long-term relationships with professors.
“If we withheld work while we were TAs, the professors teaching the class were directly affected,” Maruco said. “Even though many supported the unionization efforts, in theory, it was difficult to manage the reality of withholding labor.”
Graduate students held a second UC-wide strike on Sept. 24, 2009, in response to a 20% budget cut, a 32% increase in student tuition and a 4-10% pay reduction.
Malone became involved in labor organization in 2008 to push back against the cuts and was elected unit chair of the Santa Cruz branch in early 2009.
“There were significant cuts on each campus,” Malone said. “There were double-digit tuition increases, and it was a really unsettled time.”
Organizations participating in walk-outs and protests at UC regents meetings culminated in state-wide action on March 4, 2010, driven by both undergraduate and graduate students, including a campus shutdown at Santa Cruz.
AFSCME also held numerous system-wide strikes, the most recent on Nov. 13, 2019. The strike included workers from several UC medical centers and resulted from the alleged outsourcing of jobs by the UC system.
“We won’t stand to have our jobs contracted out and lose the things we’ve fought so hard for in the past,” said Matthew Mussar, a UC Davis Medical Center employee, in an interview with The California Aggie last year.
Striking was the most effective method to gain bargaining leverage, according to Sara Smith, a former UCSC graduate student who was involved in UAW from 2004 to May 2014.
“Our most powerful tool was our ability to stop business as usual,” Smith said. “The university simply couldn’t function without us. That gave us power.”
As a contract negotiator for the union, Malone also found that strikes provided a significant advantage. According to him, the UC would often settle with the union before scheduled strike dates.
“Those strikes […] they were a pressure point,” Malone said. “The UC hated them. You can negotiate all day, you can try to appeal to the heartstrings of the labor relations negotiators, you can make whatever arguments you want, but the thing is those people aren’t making the calls. If you are just sitting in the room with the UC labor relations people, you have no leverage.”
Similar to previous strikes, the wildcat strikes this year grew out of contract grievances, specifically around minimal changes in wages to compensate for increased housing costs.
“It was not a surprise to me that Santa Cruz graduate students were feeling really on the edge of being able to even live here,” Malone said. “That kind of financial desperation seemed really familiar to me.”
Members of AFSCME also had wage disagreements with the UC, relating to the cost of living. The union ultimately came to a tentative agreement on Jan. 22, achieving a 3% annual wage increase for all workers as well as a 2% wage increase based on experience.
As a result of frustration with UAW and failed 2018-2022 contract negotiations, students acted without union support which, according to Smith, was historically unique.
“Workers went on strike outside of contract negotiations and won their jobs back,” Smith said. “That is rather historic, and provides inspiration for calling more wildcat strikes in the labor movement.”
Written by: Sophie Dewees — firstname.lastname@example.org