Academic workers picketing on the UC Irvine campus, November 28, 2022. Credit: Steven Allison

As the largest university strike in US history enters its third week, the University of California administration keeps insisting that research and teaching are continuing as normal. They are not.

When 48,000 graduate and postdoctoral workers walk off the job, research, teaching, and all aspects of university life suffer. Although postdocs are nearing a contract deal, ongoing tensions with graduate students threaten lasting damage to the labor foundation of higher education in California.

I’ve dedicated my entire professional career to the University of California, first as a postdoctoral scholar and then as a professor at UC Irvine. I share a deep commitment to our academic mission of research, public education, community service, and inclusion. Yet the UC’s behavior toward striking workers makes me worry that my loyalty is misplaced.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, we academics united to face a common threat. Faculty and administrators worked together to continue our mission while caring for the most vulnerable members of our community, especially students and postdocs. We reshaped policy, slashed budgets, and showed empathy. We focused on mental health and basic needs, trying to keep the virus from tearing apart the fabric of academia.

Today, as we reckon with another set of social ills—inflation, the housing crisis—the university is throwing those same vulnerable people under the bus because they had the audacity to ask for a living wage. Still recovering from Covid, our fragile community is buckling under UC pressure to break the strike.

During the pandemic, academic workers designed creative ways to continue teaching and research in the face of a deadly disease. Ironically, the UC is now deploying some of those same “continuity” strategies against striking union members. With the strike, the UC expects faculty and non-union colleagues to do scab labor, pitting professors against their own graduate students and team members against one another. These tactics undermine the ideals of teamwork and collaboration that foster a thriving academic workplace.

Graduate students and postdocs, who do most of the UC’s research and teaching, would be right to wonder if the university’s Covid empathy was a farce meant only to ensure the survival of an inequitable system that exploits their labor. And they might feel betrayed knowing that the Covid continuity plan they so thoughtfully crafted was a test run for busting their union.

Though the administration and many faculty may not realize it yet, UC’s bargaining tactics are causing serious damage to our academic culture. And the long-term damage from alienating the UC’s academic workforce will be far more costly than any concession in a contract negotiation.

Providing fair compensation for academic workers will cost money, perhaps several hundred million dollars. That sounds like a lot, but it’s only a few percent of the UC’s core budget. This year, erroneous financial projections prompted UC Irvine administrators to cut the campus core budget by 3%—roughly the amount needed to offer a fair contract for academic workers. There was surprisingly little fuss about cutting $30 million to cover the accounting errors, so why can’t we find a similar amount to pay graduate students a living wage?

Anyone who cares about higher education should stand up and demand that the UC negotiate a fair union contract—now. Faculty, students, administrators, and lawmakers can do much more to show solidarity with UC academic workers. Join the picket line. Cancel classes and withhold grades. Skip class and protest. Send more state funds.

No matter what the UC administration says, operations do not continue as normal when 48,000 essential workers go on strike. The only path back to normalcy is for the UC to negotiate in good faith before worker trust is shattered beyond repair.

Steven Allison has been a professor of ecology at UC Irvine since 2007. He currently supervises a team of 15 academic workers.

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