48,000 graduate student workers across the University of California system go on strike beginning today. (photo by Joe Orellana at UC San Diego)

Graduate student workers at all 10 campuses of the University of California (UC) went on strike today in what is being described as the largest academic strike in US higher education history and the largest work stoppage of 2022. In two open letters authored by faculty in UC Irvine’s (UCI) Art History department and by graduate students in its Visual Studies program, acquired by Hyperallergic and published in full at the end of this article, they reiterate demands that are being advanced across the UC system.

In total, 48,000 postdocs, researchers, and teaching assistants across three separate bargaining units are indefinitely refusing to work and picketing across California until UC leaders “bargain in good faith.” Students, who began picketing as early as 8am PST today, are demanding higher wages, lower rents, free transit, stronger childcare support, and better responsiveness to disability justice concerns. They condemn the university for what they say constitute unlawful labor practices, alleging that the school has illegally raised transit charges unilaterally, made changes to the bargaining process without consulting the union, and withheld crucial information about membership of the bargaining unit.

When reached for comment, a UC spokesperson told Hyperallergic, “The University has conducted over 50 bargaining sessions to understand the complex and unique needs of each of the four bargaining units represented by UAW and worked in good faith to offer a fair, multiyear agreement that recognizes the valuable contributions of our Postdoctoral Scholars, Academic Researchers, Academic Student Employees (teaching assistants/readers/tutors), and Graduate Student Researchers. These employees make valuable contributions to the University’s teaching and research mission in both part-time and full-time roles, and we believe our offers of fair pay, quality health and family-friendly benefits, among other proposals, are fair, reasonable, and responsive to the union’s concerns.”

Tausif Noor, a PhD student in the art history department at Berkeley, wrote to Hyperallergic as he was heading to the picket line this morning. “I have experienced firsthand how the high cost of living in the Bay Area — particularly with regard to housing — has made it difficult to make ends meet and to properly do our jobs as instructors and researchers,” Noor said, conveying that he hoped “others across the arts are in solidarity with us.”

In early November, graduate students authorized the strike with over 36,000 votes cast and the decision in favor of striking taking place by a 98% margin. Several faculty members expressed solidarity with striking graduate students. Andrea Fraser, professor and former chair of UC Los Angeles’ (UCLA) department of art — whose faculty also issued a statement in support of graduate student workers in mid-October — said she supported students fully. “Graduate student workers in the UC system are suffering from basic needs insecurity even while their labor is essential to the functioning of the UC system,” Fraser said.

UC’s standing offer is a first-year salary increase of 7% and 3% in each subsequent year, which students find unacceptable. “The salary increase offer on the table does not even keep up with inflation,” Fraser said. 

Gregory Levine, professor of art history at Berkeley and current department chair, told Hyperallergic that he believed that UC’s wage offer is “an ethical failure that hollows out all system-wide and individual campus statements regarding ‘principles of community’ and supporting DEIBJ [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Justice].”

Zachary Korol-Gold, a PhD student at UC Irvine, currently works as a graduate student researcher at UCI’s Institute and Museum of California Art, an incipient institution that will open in the coming years. He stressed that though he enjoys working there and feels respected for the work he provides the museum, “the wages are controlled by the university scale.”

“UC’s glaring failure to support fair wages and working conditions for academic student employees, student researchers, and postdoctoral fellows, and indeed for all employees, is a violation of its fundamental responsibilities as a public University system,” Levine said.

Read the two open letters of support from UC Irvine’s Art History faculty and Visual Studies PhD students below.

*** 

Dear Dean Miller,

We write to you as faculty members of the Department of Art History to support our graduate students in their effort to improve their working conditions as well as their financial wellbeing. The Department of Art History has benefited tremendously from our graduate students in the Visual Studies program. They serve as teaching assistants for our professors in large lectures, lead discussion sections, grade quizzes and exams. They also provide us with a wide range of expertise. Our students provide curatorial work for our new art museum, coordinate new research groups, and spearhead multiple communal projects to address social inequities. While their contribution to UCI is undoubtedly important to our teaching, we as faculty members are afraid that they are not compensated fairly. In our graduate students’ survey this summer, we find that:

  • All of our students are rent-burdened. Many of them live on campus and pay more than 30% of their income toward rent. Some even pay more than 70%.
  • 1⁄3 of our students take out loans to support themselves.
  • 2⁄3 of our students have to hold additional employment outside of school to support themselves. Many international students do not even have such opportunities because of their immigration obligations.
  • All of our students who are parents do not have health insurance benefits for their children.

As faculty members, we are concerned with our students’ living conditions. A graduate student body that is financially distressed decreases the quality of our scholarship as well as our instruction. It also makes it difficult for us to recruit diverse and high-quality students. It is our hope that the UC system will address these concerns of our graduate student workers, who have provided us with an immeasurable amount of labor for which we are very grateful.

With best regards,

Roland Betancourt, Professor, Art History
Matthew Canepa, Professor, Art History
Seungyeon Gabrielle Jung, Assistant Professor, Art History

***

Dear Dean Miller:

We in the Visual Studies program came to UC Irvine to pursue lifelong learning with a desire to contribute to academic scholarship. However, instead of focusing on our academic aspirations, we find ourselves struggling to make ends meet. Although the ongoing global pandemic is certainly one of the causes, this shared struggle among all cohorts (both before and during the pandemic) proves that there is a larger issue at the administrative level. Three years ago, many of us had voiced our support to our fellow students at UC Santa Cruz who were facing a housing crisis. At UC Irvine, we are also facing the same issue.

Below are some facts about students in the Visual Studies program:

  • All of the students who are tenants are rent-burdened. We spend more than 30% of our income to pay rent, while some of us even pay more than 70%.
  • 1/3 of us took out loans to support themselves in this PhD program.
  • Nearly half of us still have outstanding debts from our previous degrees.
  • 2/3 of us hold additional employment outside the school to pay our bills. International students do not even have such opportunities.
  • Our current health insurance does not extend to our dependents and the childcare reimbursement ($367/month) is far behind on the costs of childcare services that UC offers (APPENDIX A), creating extra financial burden on students who are parents.

As graduate student workers, we contribute tremendously to the university yet our wages have not been adjusted to the cost of living both on- and off-campus. Our current financial package for graduate students is far behind the funding opportunities being offered by California institutions in competition with the UC system.1 While the lack of stable funding has been a subject for many years, the university has not made any actions to resolve the issue. At UC Irvine, the new graduate student housing project, Verano 8, does not provide a solution to the existing crisis but further exacerbates it. The rent exceeds far beyond the 30% threshold of what academic student employees currently earn. Furthermore, there are yet no options (let alone the affordable ones) for students who request accommodations. At the undergraduate level, the lack of housing spaces has also created a new crisis marking UC Irvine as an unaffordable institution with inequitable housing opportunities. Undergraduate and graduate students have been sharing tips on how to sleep safely in their cars at various parking lots across Irvine. This current status quo is substantiating an unacceptable learning and living environment.

In the most recent report on UC’s operational budget, the Office of the President (UCOP) claims that its priority is to ensure a higher education for the younger workforce in California, which has been reported to have a lower educational quality than the previous generations. As ASEs, we want to support the university’s mission and we believe the university can improve the quality of its services by providing ASEs a healthier and more equitable academic environment. In the most recent graduate student experience survey (UCGSES), the university asks us what kinds of topics we would like the university to prioritize in regard to attention and resources. Our answer is very clear: financial support. However, the university’s acknowledgement of our priorities is totally opposite to the university’s actions during the ongoing contract negotiation between our labor union, UAW, and UCOP. Since the beginning of our bargaining process (Spring 2022), the University did not only reject the most important demands but also engaged in a series of unlawful actions that jeopardize our status as a represented bargaining unit.2

At the bargaining table, ASEs, Student Researchers, and Postdocs have proposed the following selection3 of demands, which are the most important ones to us in Visual Studies:

(1) a five-year housing guarantee on every campus,
(2) cost of living adjustment (the base 20 hour/week ASE wage be at least 3.33 times the highest median rent in any campus locality),
(3) secured employment for the normative time to graduation,
(4) full remission of nonresident supplemental tuition (NRST) for international students and undocumented students ($15,000/year),
(5) better childcare support ($2,000/month and fully covered health insurance for dependents).

UC has rejected the first four demands in their entirety, while proposed only a 5% raise in our stipends (around $511 per quarter) and an extra $250/quarter for childcare reimbursement. These numbers do not match the current inflation rate (~8.5%), let alone the already unaffordable cost of living on-campus and the expensive childcare services that UCI offers to its students.

There are concrete steps that you, as Dean of the School of Humanities, can take to ensure that our students can have a fair bargaining process and a healthier academic environment:

  1. Support our unions’ proposals at the bargaining table. We respectfully ask that you, as Dean of the SOH, write to Chancellor Howard Gillman and ask him to direct the UC’s bargaining team to respond to our proposals that have been unjustifiably rejected.
  2. We also request that you to write to Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Willie L. Banks, Jr. and ask his office to implement stronger policies on accessibility and offer immediate affordable options to the students who are currently on the housing waitlist.

In light of UC’s unwillingness to negotiate with us in good faith, your advocacy for us can make a significant difference. We believe that together we can build a more equitable UC.

In Solidarity,

Graduate Student Signatories

Brandon Blackburn, Visual Studies PhD Student
Dan Bustillo, Visual Studies PhD Candidate
sam a. carter, Visual Studies PhD Candidate
Zane Casimir, Visual Studies PhD Student
Kylie Ching, Visual Studies PhD Student
Tariq Edwards, Visual Studies PhD Student
Kathie Foley-Meyer, Visual Studies PhD Candidate Anthony Graham, Visual Studies PhD Student Ileana De Giuseppe, Visual Studies PhD Student Aaron Katzeman, Visual Studies PhD Candidate Justin Keever, Visual Studies PhD Candidate Zachary Korol-Gold, Visual Studies PhD Student Nastasya Kosygina, Visual Studies PhD Candidate Kiên Lê, Visual Studies PhD Student
Edward Mendez, Visual Studies PhD Candidate Quyên Nguyen-Le, Visual Studies PhD Student Bermet Nishanova, Visual Studies PhD Student
Lee Purvey, Visual Studies PhD Student
Raphael Rosalen, Visual Studies PhD Student Alexander Rudenshiold, Visual Studies PhD Student Luis Serna, Visual Studies PhD Student
Bryan Truitt, Visual Studies PhD Student
K. T. Wong, Visual Studies PhD Candidate
Elliot Bear Yu, Visual Studies PhD Student
Xinyue Yuan, Visual Studies PhD Candidate

Affiliate Signatories

Catherine Benamou, Associate Professor, Film & Media Studies
Arcelia Gutierrez, Assistant Professor, Film & Media Studies
Meryem Kamil, Assistant Professor, Film & Media Studies
Keiji Kunigami, Assistant Professor, Film & Media Studies
Catherine Liu, Professor, Film & Media Studies
Allison Perlman, Associate Professor, Film & Media Studies
Braxton Soderman, Associate Professor, Film & Media Studies

1There is a large gap between the TA salaries at UC and other institutions in California. At Caltech, TA’s salary is over $37,000 while at Stanford, it’s over $50,000. Furthermore, their PhD students in Art and Humanities also receive a much more affordable workload. At USC, PhD students receive an annual stipend of $30,500, with similar benefits but no teaching required for the first 3 years. At Stanford, PhD students only have to TA for only four courses during their time at the university. In addition to the stipend, each student also receives a one-time payment of $6,000 for the first two summers in addition to $7,500 for dissertation research. For more information about the data, please see Appendix B.

2Since January 2022, UAW has filed a total of 20 unlawful labor practice charges against UC. Instead of negotiating with our representatives at the bargaining table in good faith, UC has unilaterally implemented changes regarding compensation and appointments at certain departments and campuses, which undermine our collective bargaining power. The full list of our ULP charges can be accessed here.

3The full list of our proposals is available here.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.

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