The University of California—a system of higher education encompassing 10 campuses, 280,000 students, 230,000 faculty and staff, and an operating budget greater than that of 25 states—has offered several reasons why graduate student workers deserve to be underpaid. The jobs are apprenticeships; hardship will be retroactively remedied by future employment. The jobs are part-time, meant to complement workers’ role as students. But as prospects in higher education constrict, graduates face more contingent and contract work. Part-time pay means workers must fill the gap with generational wealth or by decades of servicing debt. On a school schedule, academic workers get nine paychecks a year. The rent, of course, is due in all 12.
According to internal researchhalf of grad workers in the U.C. system pay half their incomes in rent. Ninety-two percent are “rent-burdened,” meaning their landlords claim more than 30 percent of their pay. While U.C. President Michael Drake enjoys a $6.5 million six-bedroom in Berkeley paid for by the university,* grad workers sleep on couches, in cars, or in shelters. They pile into overcrowded housing or commute from hours away. On November 15, 19,000 graduate students joined three other UAW organizing efforts, representing postdocs, student researchers, and academic researchers, to inaugurate a strike of 48,000 people—the largest strike of academic workers in U.S. history. “Either you’re striking for yourself because that’s the position you’ve been put in, or you’re striking for your comrades, your classmates, your departmentmates,” Magally A. Miranda Alcázar, a striking teaching assistant in Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, told me.
There’s more to the academic workers’ struggle than salaries. At stake is the privatization project that has for decades entangled the public university with for-profit enterprise, particularly in real estate. As the strike’s focus on rent burdens and its initial demand of a cost-of-living adjustment make clear, workers are not just fighting for what they live on, but against an institution that constrains where and how they live.
High rents have been central to U.C. grad worker organizing efforts from the start. At U.C. Santa Cruz, a group of grad workers spent 2018 canvassing for Measure M. That citywide attempt to protect tenants from evictions and cap yearly rent increases in line with the consumer price index was defeated after real estate lobbies outspent advocates 12-to-1. The group turned its attention to building a U.C. Santa Cruz tenants’ union—organizing the tenants within U.C. housing, one of the largest landlords in the city. But this project fizzled too. After these setbacks, Sarah Mason, a head steward at UAW 2865 and a teaching assistant in sociology at U.C. Santa Cruz, explained, “The clear path forward was to articulate ourselves as workers directly to our employer.” Grad workers couldn’t intervene to make rent prices affordable, so they sought a raise to be able to afford rent.
In the fall of 2019, Mason joined a core group of fed-up grad workers to withhold grades in protest of their compensation. By winter, they’d walked off the job without union authorization, in a strike known as a wildcat. “The main demand was that we should be paid enough to live where we work,” explained Jack Davies, wildcat striker and current member of UAW 2865 bargaining team. During the monthslong standoff, U.C. Santa Cruz spent $300,000 a day policing the picket line. Eighty-two workers were either fired or barred from future university employment. Though formally against the unsanctioned strike, the union supported the grievance process through which every worker was reinstated.
For Davies, the idea of rent burdens managed to capture “the most humiliating, dismal, difficult part of workers’ lives here,” from “how hard it is to triage” living expenses to “the kinds of concessions you make to abusive landlords” and objectionable living situations. While the immediate gains of the wildcat were modest—U.C. Santa Cruz grad workers won a housing stipend of $2,500 a year—the action galvanized workers across campuses and shaped the vision of the current strike. On November 7, UAW 2865 went to the bargaining table for its 19,000 members, demanding a base salary of $54,000 a year—the amount it would take to lift the median worker out of rent burdens across U.C.’s 10 campuses—as well as annual wage increases pegged to local area rents.
The university claimed the cost-of-living proposal was a nonstarter. In a letter to colleagues, Provost Michael T. Brown decried the “overwhelming financial impacts” of “tying compensation directly to housing costs … with inflationary pressure and no cap.” As Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, told me, the “open-ended … uncertainty of pegging yearly increases to the price of rent was too much for the university.” So the bargaining teams went back to the table with “definite numbers,” namely yearly raises of 7 percent—the median rent increases in the places where they work. But the university’s position on rents is based on more than unpredictability and the need to budget in advance: Driving up the cost of living is part of its business model.
Only 10 percent of the U.C.’s $44 billion budget is now funded by the state of California. The U.C. system generates revenue not only by depressing wages in its role as the state’s third-largest employer but by extracting rents as a landlord to some 106,000 students. The U.C. has expanded far beyond the business of education, into health care and real estate. If McDonald’s is a real estate company that sells hamburgers, the U.C. system is a real estate company and hospital administrator that sells degrees. Property sales from its real estate portfolio, worth $6.4 billion, generated almost $2 billion last year.
According to UAW, the total pay increases sought by the union would raise workers’ claim from 2.5 to just 4 percent of the U.C.’s budget. “The money is there; the question is the priorities,” said Jane McAlevey, organizing scholar and current U.C. Berkeley academic researcher on strike with UAW 5810, in a webinar. Instead, the U.C. maintains a glut of administrators and boasts salary gaps between workers like those at Fortune 500 companies. Its own students furnish a central revenue source, through rising tuition, fees, and on-campus rents. Leading a rally on a UCLA picket line, Hannah Appel, a professor and a co-founder of Strike Debt, framed those increases as a political as well as economic project. Wearing an L.A. Tenants Union T-shirt, Appel quoted Ronald Reagan. “Those at the University of California system there to agitate,” he once warned in a gubernatorial stump speech, “might think twice about how much they want to pay to carry a picket sign.” Reagan posed tuition increases as a form of counterinsurgency, an attack on the radicalization public education makes possible.
The use of students as a source of revenue puts the University of California increasingly at odds with its mission and its students’ needs. This was made particularly clear during the first year of the pandemic, when Covid-19 severed U.C. tenants from the income they needed to pay U.C. rents. Carmen Batalla, now a public school teacher, received undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees from UCLA and has worked in a U.C. medical center. Over 15 months, Batalla withheld rent from UCLA family housing, joining a rent strike of UCLA tenants. (Batalla is a pseudonym because she has not paid the university back.) UCLA pressured strikers into payment plans for rent debt and retaliated by blocking their access to course enrollment, transcripts, and facilities on campus. Finally, organizing efforts forced the university to accept state-funded pandemic rental assistance. To Batalla, living in the U.C. system was like living in a nineteenth-century company town. “We’re stuck in this web,” she said. “The University controls our education, our livelihood, our academic loans, our health care for many of us; some people have their kids in childcare there, live there.”
Universities can access a unique tool to generate wealth, Davarian L. Baldwin, author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, told me: their nonprofit status. That status has implications for how the institutions interact with both private industry and the state. For the U.C., tax exemptions on land holdings help funnel private investors into “innovation” districts and glitzy development projects around campuses—often derided in the refrain, “U.C. stands for ‘under construction.’” The U.C.’s exemptions in California’s Constitution allow it to supersede local tenant protections and evict long-term residents to maximize portfolio gains, a tactic revealed by residents of 1921 Walnut Street in Berkeley. Universities help produce the housing crisis their students experience: They off-load housing needs to communities in which they are situated while driving up property values. By acting as “land baron,” “political boss,” and “city manager,” Baldwin argued, they ensure that all residents become citizens of “univercities.” Sarah Mason made this point about Santa Cruz: When U.C. “raises their prices on campus, it has an impact on local rents.” In other words, you don’t have to be a student or staff to be subject to the university’s power.
“These new labor actions allow us to see the connective tissue of [the U.C.’s] extraction,” Baldwin said. “It’s coming into full focus now through struggle.” Many strikers saw the transformative potential of a cost-of-living demand in the way it stitched “labor organizing and tenant organizing together,” in Davies’s words. Tethering wage increases to rent increases attacked the university’s business model from two directions at once, targeting its role as both employer and speculator. And if the university were to stop gouging its real estate investments, rents would be constrained for more than just university workers. For Alcázar, such a demand would have ensured “a really transformative contract, a contract that can reevaluate both who and what is included in what we’re bargaining for”—binding the promise of higher wages to that of a more just university.
The grad worker bargaining team dropped the cost-of-living demand from an early proposal. Last week, they reduced asking wages to a starting rate of $43,000 a year. But even these concessions have failed to meaningfully move the U.C. Tensions have risen on the line. In part, fissures have opened between STEM and humanities fields, whose schedules and requirements diverge as the semester comes to a close. The removal of articles for disability access and bans on UCPD—a policing agent with jurisdiction over the entire state—has left some feeling betrayed. But the biggest difference is in strategy: How long can the strike last? On November 29, U.C. reached a temporary agreement with postdocs and academic researchers, a move some fear has put a timer on the strike by grad workers, who have the most to gain and thus the most to lose. Accommodating “different roles, different timelines, different pace of work, different pressures … is going to require a compromise mentality,” said James Boocock, a human genetics postdoc at UCLA, former UCLA rent striker, and member of the postdoc bargaining team. For Boocock, there is a trade-off between “the vision that people united on to strike” and “the realm of the possible.”
As the strike enters its fourth week, what is possible is still up for grabs. Many strikers have moved from picket lines to high-profile actions targeting the U.C. president, regents, and administrators at their homes and places of work. In a strategy session held over Zoom this Tuesday, U.C. Santa Cruz grad workers shared resources for maintaining the strike over the long haul. It doesn’t matter how many bodies can be counted at pickets, they argued; what matters is the economic damage to the university, measured over time. After all, a strike isn’t symbolic protest; it is withheld labor, the irreplaceable work of specialized research and instruction. That power can increase with the solidarity of faculty members, who have pledged to withhold 34,000 grades so far; of delivery unions, who have already deprived labs of necessary resources; and of building trades unions, who have ceased construction at multiple U.C. development projects, linchpins of the U.C.’s self-image and its bottom line.
The first cost-of-living adjustment clause in a labor contract was made to quell another historic UAW action, the 1945 strike of General Motors: 320,000 workers struck for 113 days, demanding wages high enough to be able to afford the cars they made. The demand of U.C. strikers to be able to afford to live where they work makes an elegant postindustrial correlate. As capitalists find new ways to exploit land and labor, tenants and workers find new ways to organize. U.C. academic workers have updated cost-of-living adjustments “from an earlier generation of attempts to keep people out of inflation … for a different age,” Davies said, “for a time when owning portfolios of assets is a major part of a capital accumulation and where people’s cost-of-living increases have been driven by rising rents.” On the UAW 2865 website, a ticker tape has calculated the amount of rent academic student workers have paid since bargaining first began. That tally now tops $900 million.
*This article originally misidentified the source of the funds used to purchase U.C. President Michael Drake’s house.