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The UC Strike

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While the University of California has come to an agreement with one of its three striking unions–the postdocs–the other unions remain on strike. Fundamentally, this is a straightforward issue–the University of California is a tremendously wealthy institution. The cost of living is very high. The pay is low. The future for at least the humanities graduate students is dicey. The workers are demanding significant cost of living increases. Nelson Lichtenstein places it in context:

The UC strikers are part of a whole strata of college-educated workers, including Starbucks baristas, museum curators, journalists, and retail workers at REI and Apple, who are revolting against a wage standard and dead-end work regime that promise to keep them in near-poverty for decades. In academia, an impoverished apprenticeship was once considered a brief prelude to a more secure and prosperous career. But that promise has been utterly discounted by the university itself, which has constructed an enterprise model that requires a huge class of precarious adjuncts to toil alongside a shrinking number of tenured professors who receive high prestige and pay.

It is almost ironic that the UC strikers, a twenty-first-century workforce of the most variegated racial, cultural, political, and gendered character, have put at the center of their struggle a wage demand that, except for its size, would have been entirely unexceptional in 1955. In response, UC administrators have offered pay raises ranging from 4 to 7 percent in the first year of the contract, with smaller subsequent increases. One could imagine General Motors executives making the same sort of response.

But the familiarity of the contest should not detract from what’s at stake. In an economy where universities, hospitals, technology companies, and other employers of well-educated labor have systematically sought to create a precariat to do the work, a radical enhancement of the remuneration on offer will have a salutary twofold impact. First, it will make life far more viable for those whose real standard of living has been eroding for more than a generation. As the trillions so quickly appropriated and spent during the pandemic has shown, there is no substitute for getting money into the pockets of the people who need it. But equally important, a truly substantial wage increase will drive a stake through the heart of the business model that UC and so many other employers have constructed, animating a more democratic workplace and creating a new basis for working-class power in American society.

That it is humanities students leading this strike is hardly surprising. As Jay Caspian Kang notes, the manufactured crisis in the humanities is very real.

Some strikers expressed a worry about a potential divide between science and math workers, and their colleagues in the humanities. This, at least to me, seems like the most concerning potential breaking point for the strikes. The difference is less ideological, and more a reflection of the state of job markets. STEM graduate workers are not beholden to the academy to pursue a career in their fields; in fact, many have little interest in staying in the academy after they receive their degrees when they can instead use their credentials to enter high-paying careers in tech, pharma, aerospace, or finance. The system still works, in large part, for them.This is not true for humanities workers. Their degrees will likely help them find employment, but the connections between their studies and their labor will be far more tenuous, or, in many cases, more or less nonexistent. Right now, the great point of leverage that the strikers seem to have is the simple fact that finals are coming up, and it’s difficult to see how undergraduates and faculty will be able to finish up their semester without the mass of graduate students who do everything from proctoring exams to grading papers. But, once that passes and the new year begins, how many STEM graduate students who have six-figure jobs waiting for them will grow tired of delaying their research and their dissertations? How long will solidarity last between people who, for the most part, have entirely different incentives for their graduate work?

One would think that, in a country where people are overwhelmingly in favor of unions, there would be broad support of the U.C. graduate-student strike. The comparison of average salaries and rent should be enough. But although there hasn’t been much outward public resistance, there’s still an undercurrent of head-scratching about what, exactly, a strike of graduate students actually means. Auerbach and his fellow humanities graduate workers, of course, signed up for this arrangement; the precarity of the academic job market isn’t exactly new or something that has materialized over the past three years. If there simply aren’t enough jobs for humanities doctorates, should it follow that universities should enroll fewer humanities doctorates, over all, and that the ones remaining might receive better pay and benefits as a result? There are also questions about how seriously we should take claims of precarity from the academic élite—perhaps a doctoral student might not be able to find a job as a tenure-track professor, but their educational background would set them up for any number of stable positions in other fields.

These questions, whether fair or not, linger at the edges of the strike. I have heard them around campus, and in private conversations with friends and colleagues. They bring up the central contradiction at the heart of the country’s perception of labor: people want to support unions, but their sympathies are limited by their ideas of what unions should be.

But the surplus of humanities doctorates, of course, is not an accident. Around the turn of the millennium, the number of students pursuing undergraduate degrees was exploding, and, as Kevin Carey wrote in a thorough breakdown for the Times, the proportion of stable teaching jobs wasn’t keeping up. Adjunct faculty and graduate students were employed to make up for the shortage. If universities cannot function without a fleet of low-wage workers who are exploited under a false promise of better future employment, the solution seems relatively simple: abandon the apprenticeship model and all its sentimental trappings, and simply treat and pay graduate workers as professionals first, students second.

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