On Nov. 14, nearly 48,000 academic workers affiliated with the United Auto Workers union (UAW) at the 10 campuses of the University of California (UC) went on strike; the walk-out is scheduled to last the entire week. The joint action is organized by workers from three separate units currently engaged in bargaining with the university system—UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW, which represent graduate student instructors and researchers respectively, and UAW 5810, which represents postdocs. Together, they garnered over 36,000 “yes” votes to strike. It ranks as the largest strike in higher education in U.S. history.

While the strike is officially in response to an Unfair Labor Practices suit, workers’ key demands are primarily related to the high cost of living in California. They want a raise that would bring them out of rent burdens, child-care subsidies, job security, full funding for international students, smaller class sizes, as well as better protections from workplace harassment and climate-friendly policies such as university investment in free public transportation.

The union is currently asking for a wage increase of “at least 10% for the current academic year, and a defined pay scale for academic student employees. The UC is offering a mere 7% for the first year, an increase which is below the current rate of inflation. For the following three years of the contract, the union proposes a wage increase at the rate of “7%, or the highest year-over-year median rent increase in the locality of any UC campus, whichever is greater,” to make sure student-workers can afford housing. The UC is only offering 3% per year for the remaining duration of the contract. In absolute numbers, the union’s proposal would raise the base annual salary of academic student employees from $24,000 to $54,000 per year.

The current strike action is, in many ways, a continuation the COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) movement that took place in the winter of 2020 and was led by UAW 2865 activists at UC Santa Cruz. They organized a wildcat strike for better wages that later spread to other campuses across the state and was supported by workers in other campuses. In turn, the roots of this movement can be found in the widespread dissatisfaction with the concessionary contract pushed through by the administration leadership caucus during the summer of 2018.

The current balance of forces

This time around, the strike action has gathered the implicit support of CUCFA, the council that represents all UC Academic Senates, in addition to the usual support of independent faculty organizations such as BFA (UC Berkeley) and SCFA (UC Santa Cruz). The statewide Senate Council issued a statement and FAQ encouraging Senate faculty to publicly support the strike. In it, they argued that it is the administration’s responsibility to meet the workers’ demands in order to prevent the strike, and not the faculty’s responsibility to act as strike-breakers by coercing academic student employees into ending the strike: “CUCFA supports our fellow academic workers and calls on the UC to bargain in good faith. The disruption to the university’s core mission—teaching and research—will end through the administration’s efforts to settle the strike. Faculty are not responsible for its resolution, nor should we be expected to mitigate all its effects.”

CUCFA also explains that Senate faculty are covered under HEERA and have the full right to strike in solidarity with student-workers. Unfortunately, given management intimidation, many faculty members are not respecting the strike and are holding classes via Zoom.

In addition, the lecturer and librarian’s union, UC-AFT, has come out in support of the strike. The union is advocating that its members support the strike as much as they can within the limits set by reactionary labor law that prevents them from striking in solidarity. They issued a detailed strike solidarity guide for their members. In addition, many tenured, tenure-track, and lecturer faculty are planning to take their classes to the picket line. In response, however, the UC administration is carrying out an unprecedented campaign to intimidate graduate students, communicating the idea that the university should continue with business as usual, and trying to get department chairs to block solidarity statements and actions.

In terms of the internal union dynamics between the UAW admin caucus in the leadership, and the rank and file, there are many similarities to the COLA wildcat struggle of 2020. That said, there is a key difference this time in that the union leadership is organizing for a strike that has the potential to win important demands and increase the power and class consciousness of tens of thousands of workers. This strike must be fully supported.

One of the challenges is that the union leadership only began organizing for the strike at a statewide level in the fall, even though bargaining has been happening for many months. Organizing in different campuses and academic departments has been uneven; some departments have been organizing for months while others are just jumping into strike action. What is sure is that the democratic spaces that the union has implemented have been the direct result of continuing rank-and-file activity since the COLA strike in 2020 and afterwards.

Thus, in order to win this strike, the rank and file has to fight the battle on two fronts by keeping the strike going in the face of pressures by UC, while also keeping the current leadership in charge of negotiations in check. Many rank-and-file union members are conscious of this need to make sure they show active support for the core demands and show their commitment to fight. They learned valuable lessons through the debates and actions associated with the COLA movement since 2019. Divided energies and the need to coordinate between the on-the-ground struggle and the one in the bargaining room will make the fight a difficult one if there is not sufficient involvement by a critical mass of the rank-and-file workers. In addition, this ultra-precise mass of academic employees needs to keep working on individual research while sustaining a massive labor action. This is why the strike action itself, and the participation of workers on the picket line, will be key to involving more workers in discussion of the contents of bargaining, and in the active debate of union strategy, through dialogue and meetings to build power from below.

One of the most pressing debates at the moment is with respect to open bargaining. Last week, the university requested to speak with our bargaining team members in closed-door meetings. Unfortunately, the bargaining team voted along caucus lines to agree to attend these meetings with certain “guardrails” in place about discussing “high priority” and economic matters. While rank-and-file activists organized a swift response to persuade the bargaining team to ban these meetings, they were not able to convince enough of them to shift course.

We are in full agreement that these private meetings should not take place because they are undemocratic and alienate rank-and-file members from the bargaining process. These meetings between management and reps are a top-down strategy that excludes the powerful force of thousands of workers who expressed their willingness to go on strike to have their demands met.

Rank-and-file organizing and solidarity are the way forward

For the strike to win, it is very important to organize a maximum of solidarity actions from tenured and tenure-track faculty and lecturers. It is especially important that they commit to canceling their classes and joining the pickets. Student support is also key. Many undergraduate students who also work for the UC for around the minimum wage, and experience the same housing insecurity as graduate students, have been organizing recently. The slogan “teachers’ working conditions are their students’ learning conditions” should be put at the forefront of the strike. But most importantly, other sectors of labor must rally and support the strike, issue solidarity statements, join the picket line, and donate to the strike and hardship fund.

The second key to victory is organizing rank-and-file members democratically, department by department, lab by lab, and campus by campus. This is the best guarantee for sustaining the strike when the university starts to seriously try to break it, and for winning what is most needed to make workers’ lives sustainable. The UC will certainly intensify its attacks on workers once the strike is underway, as we have already been seeing surveillance of workers, and disinformation used to intimidate and sow discord between the strikers, students, staff, and faculty. A powerful rank and file will not only be able to respond to these attacks, they will be able to ensure the union leadership does all it can to make the strike successful.

We fully support the union, and especially the rank and file in its efforts to continue to organize a powerful, democratic strike to win all of its worthy demands. And we are committed to mobilizing other sectors of the labor movement and students to come out in strong support of the strike.

The authors are members of Workers Voice at UCLA and UC Berkeley.