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Lessons from the Picket Line at UC: Young Workers Offer Hope

Feb 2, 2023

Toward the end of last semester, the academic workers at the University of California went on strike for week demanding a significant improvement in their pay and benefits and, by most accounts, the wound up with a very successful settlement while it fell short of everything they were asking for put them in a much better place economically.  As the NPR report on the settlement outlined:

Wages will rise up to 80% for some of the lowest-paid workers, with all workers seeing a boost in pay, union representatives said. The contracts also improve benefits to help workers cover child care expenses and health costs and will help intentional students, they said.

“The dramatic improvements to our salaries and working conditions are the result of tens of thousands of workers striking together in unity,” Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, said in a statement. “These agreements redefine what is possible in terms of how universities support their workers, who are the backbone of their research and education enterprise.”  . . .

About 12,000 other striking workers, mainly postdoctoral students and academic researchers, already ratified an agreement that will boost their pay by 29%. They will also get better family leave, child care subsidies and job security.

UC Santa Barbara Professor and Labor historian, Nelson Lichtenstein, noted in the Guardian that the UC strike was the most important strike in “US higher education history.”

It mattered, Lichtenstein argues, because the strike was about more than just getting a raise for UC workers:

The UC strike is therefore not just an effort to raise thousands of academic workers out of near poverty, but a movement whose success will require a reversal of the austerity that has subverted the higher education promise in California and elsewhere. That is a cause that deserves our hearty endorsement.

The young workers at UC represent a new generation of union activists who are breathing life into the labor movement.

This is both inspiring and perhaps surprising to those who might have an image of men in hardhats or on a factory line when they think of unionized workers.  As Jay Caspian Kang observed in his New Yorker column on the UC struggle:

As I was leaving the strike, I saw a woman on stilts wearing a Rosie the Riveter dress and singing Woody Guthrie’s “Union Burying Ground” into a megaphone. After she was finished, there was some discussion among her group about whether the lyrics might have been a bit macabre, or perhaps too obscure. This scene, I admit, was the sort of funny observation that reporters collect in their notebooks and seed throughout their pieces in place of pure editorializing about how they feel about their reportage. The image of graduate students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world draping themselves in the images of home-front workers who built ships during the Second World War might carry a tinge of irony or, perhaps, misaligned nostalgia. Even so, the seventy per cent of Americans who support unions should understand that the future of organized labor won’t be in coal mines or steel mills but in places that might cut against the stereotypes, in spaces that might be hard to recognize. The Rosie the Riveter museum is situated ten miles north of campus, on the waterfront of Richmond, California. One can honor all that it stands for—the ships, the labor, the camaraderie—while still recognizing that it is a museum for a reason.

And these young workers at the UCs are no different than many other of their cohort who are fighting to find a foothold in an American workplace that has increasingly less to offer them.  The churn and burn ethos that informs the business models of the Walmarts, Starbucks, Amazons, and other corporate lords of the marketplace has taught them well to question value of the grind economy.

What’s in it for them?  Not much.

Raised in the wake of the triumph of neoliberalism, many young people in the United States simply aren’t buying the corporate line.  Hence, they know by experience, as Harold Meyerson points out in the American Prospect, that capitalism simply isn’t working for them:

The importance of this UC strike cannot be overstated. Like their fellow Gen Zers and millennials who work at Starbucks, the TAs and RAs are well educated and lowly paid. In this, they’re no different from the grad student employees at universities throughout the land, but by living in California, the fundamentals of a decent life—like adequate housing—elude them. They’re not even close to joining the middle precariat. It’s a mystery why anyone should think it’s a mystery that these generations are the most radical at least since the 1930s. Like the veterans of the Great Depression, they don’t need deep dives into Marxist classics to understand that capitalism isn’t working very well. As was not the case during the Depression, it’s not even working very well with unemployment at three and a half percent. An immense low-wage economy is so built in to 21st-century America that even something close to full employment doesn’t majorly diminish low-wage work.

Thus, the militant spirit of the UC strike is a hopeful sign that there has been a generational shift in attitudes about work and what level of economic insecurity and inequality is acceptable.  If the labor movement is smart, they will harness this energy beyond this strike, open the door for a new wave of workers from traditionally nonunion sectors, and begin think more deeply about how to address the challenges of our deeply inequitable society.



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