Academic workers in California have ended a nearly six-week strike, described as the largest ever to hit US higher education, after approving a “landmark” agreement for higher wages on Friday.
The strikes across the University of California (UC) system ground campus life to a halt, disrupting classes and exams as thousands formed picket lines and staged noisy protests to demand better pay.
The strike was groundbreaking in its size, bringing together 48,000 teaching assistants, researchers, tutors and other graduate student instructors across the nine-campus system, which includes famous universities such as UC Berkeley and UCLA. Striking workers said the low wages they earn make it impossible to live in the cities where they work.
Academic workers represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) will return to work in January after the winter break, union leaders said, after ratification votes by large majorities of two fractious UAW bargaining units.
“The University of California welcomes the ratification of these agreements with our valued graduate student employees,” executive director of systemwide labor relations Letitia Silas said in a statement on Friday.
“Today’s ratification demonstrates yet again the University’s strong commitment to providing every one of our hardworking employees with competitive compensation and benefit packages that honor their many contributions to our institution, to our community, and to the state of California,” she added.
When the strike began, the union said its members were working themselves into extreme debt with a base salary for part-time employees starting at $24,000 a year.
The thousands of striking academic workers began voting last week on whether to ratify the deal that was reached by union leaders and university administrators after a series of negotiations.
The agreement was hailed by union and university supporters as a landmark labor deal that would set a new national standard, boosting wages and working conditions for graduate students employed at public universities.
The agreement would provide wage increases of up to 66% over the two and a half-year life of the contract, according to leaders of the two UAW union locals representing the 36,000 graduate students covered by the deal.
By the fall term of 2024, the minimum nine-month salary for teaching assistants would rise to $36,500 at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UCLA, and to $34,000 at other campuses, according to the university. Graduate student researchers will make at least $40,000, according to union representatives, and workers can get childcare subsidies of more than $2,000 a semester.
Some detractors said the pact falls short in meeting the living costs grad students face in pricey cities where many UC campuses are located – such as Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego – and critics faulted the deal for giving up on union demands to tie wage gains to housing costs.
The university system applauded the new contracts, which it said will take immediate effect and run through 31 May 2025.
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