Thousands of graduate students who work at UC Irvine are on strike this week – with no end in sight – demanding wage increases to be able to afford the increasingly expensive costs to live in Orange County.

They’re joining tens of thousands of other grad student workers across the University of California system who are picketing for higher pay as teaching assistants and researchers.

“We’re all coming together at once to demand that we have fair contracts that pay our workers enough to work and live in our communities,” said Mark Gradoni, a third year doctoral student in history at UC Irvine who is a steward with the student workers’ union, a local chapter of United Auto Workers.

He and other graduate student workers said they currently make a little over $20,000 per year, and are asking that to be increased to $54,000 annual pay for graduate student workers and $70,000 for postdoctoral researchers.

“[Among] graduate workers at the University of California, 90% of them are rent-burdened, 26% of them are food-insecure,” Gradoni said.

“And we even have uncomfortably common cases of people becoming unhoused because the cost of living is too high.”

The strike started Monday and stretched into its fourth day Thursday, with large crowds of graduate students picketing on campus.

Undergrad student Mia Jimenez (left) marches among the crowd at UC Irvine in solidarity with graduate students on Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: JULIETTE HUY, Voice of OC.

Up to 2,000 grad student workers have been striking each day, according to Gradoni.

University officials say they’re working hard to reach an agreement.

“Academic student employees, graduate student researchers, postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers are valuable members of the UCI community. We look forward to reaching an agreement,” said a statement provided by UC Irvine spokesman Tom Vasich.

“Our students’ success remains our highest priority, and we are committed to working towards that end.”

But the union says the university continues to offer only a 7 percent raise – which they call a pay cut given inflation has been reducing the value of the dollar by more than 8 percent.

“Those low levels of compensation both hurt our ability as researchers, as teachers, as students,” said Gradoni.

“Graduate workers…do the vast majority of the teaching and the research at the University of California institutions,” he added.

Voice of OC requested to interview UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman about the strike. University spokesman Tom Vasich said the administration was not granting interviews.

The overall UC system’s president, Michael Drake, is leading the administration’s negotiations with the student workers.

His office said the grad student workers are part-time, and that the university system’s offer would put them near the top scale of pay among research universities nationwide.

“It is important to note that our graduate student employees work strictly on a part-time basis while earning their graduate or doctoral degree, and that compensation is just one of the many ways in which they are supported as students during their time with the University,” Drake’s office said in a statement.

“Under our proposals, wages for UC academic employees would be among the top of the pay scale among the top public research universities, and more comparable to private universities such as Harvard, MIT, and USC,” the statement added, pointing to the university’s offer details.

Drake himself was UC Irvine’s chancellor from 2005 until 2014, later rising to the statewide university system’s top post in August 2020.

Pedro Puentes cheers with high energy after many hours in the sun at UC Irvine on Nov. 17, 2022. Credit: JULIETTE HUY, Voice of OC.

“The way it’s operating right now is just privileged the affluent people who have financial support from family ,or they themselves are wealthy,” said Katelyn Malae, a UCI graduate student in sociology who’s serving as a strike captain leader.

“I went to grad school without much savings. I don’t have family who can support me over the summer when I don’t get paid. And I’m financially contributing to my family back home.”

Gradoni said the students’ pay requests are the level at which students would pay 30 percent of their pay toward housing costs, based on federal housing guidance .

Christian Okubo (middle) chants among fellow protestors at UC Irvine on Nov. 17, 2022. Christian is a first-year grad student on fellowship in the History department at UCI. Credit: JULIETTE HUY, Voice of OC.

“How can I get fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, when 60% or more [of my income] is going to my rent? I can’t afford fresh fruit, because I need to pay, gas is going up, everything,” said Angie Monreal, a second-year Ph.D student in sociology at UC Irvine.

“They have the money. They really have the money to pay us more. They just don’t want to.”

The strike is open-ended and will continue “until the university makes substantial progress in meeting us on our very reasonable proposals,” said Gradoni.

Alex Rudenshiold, a first year graduate student in visual studies, said once he starts working for the university he’ll be paying 55% of his income back to the college just for rent.

“And that’s of course not including things like car insurance, and gas and out of pocket health problems – which have all been really stressful for me,” he said during Thursday’s picketing on campus.

“I rely on the food pantry to make ends meet, as far as eating goes,” he added.

“But I believe that with all of us together, we’ll win,” Rudenshiold said.

“We’re stronger together, as workers, as researchers.”

Juliette Huy contributed reporting.

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