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Saturday, November 19, 2022

Academic workers on strike at University of California schools

Graduate students, postdocs, and other "academic workers" are on strike for higher wages and better working conditions at University of California schools but it's very difficult to understand what's going on.

Several locals of the United Auto Workers union are on strike. The groups include Academic Researchers, Academic Student Employees (ASEs), Postdocs, and Student Researchers. The list of demands can be found on the UAW website: UAW Bargaining Highlights (All Units).

Here's the problem. At my university, graduate students can make money by getting a position as a TA (teaching assistant). This is a part-time job at an hourly rate. This may be a major source of income for humanities students but for most science students it's just a supplement to their stipend. The press reports on this strike keep referring to a yearly income and they make it sound like part-time employment as a TA should pay a living wage. For example, a recent Los Angeles Times article says,

The workers are demanding a base salary of $54,000 for all graduate student workers, child-care subsidies, enhanced healthcare for dependents, longer family leave, public transit passes and lower tuition costs for international scholars. The union said the workers earn an average current pay of about $24,000 a year.

I don't understand this concept of "base salary." In my experience, most TAs work part time. If they were paid $50 per hour then they would have to work about 30 hours per week over two semesters in order to earn $54,000 per year. That doesn't seem to leave much time for working on a thesis. Perhaps it includes a stipend that doesn't require teaching?

Our graduate students are paid a living allowance (currently about $28,000 Cdn) and their tuition and fees are covered by an extra $8,000. Most of them don't do any teaching. Almost all of this money comes from research grants and not directly from the university.

The University of California system seems to be very different from the one I'm accustomed to. Is the work of TAs obvious to most Americans? Do you understand the issues?

I also don't get the situation with postdocs. The union is asking for a $70,000 salary for postdocs and the university is offering an 8% increase in the first year and smaller increases in subsequent years. In Canada, postdocs are mostly paid from research grants and not from university funds. The average postdoc salary at the University of Toronto is $51,000 (Cdn) but the range is quite large ($40K - $100K). I don't think the University of Toronto can dictate to PIs the amount of money that they have to pay a postdoc but it does count them as employees and ensures that postdocs have healthcare and suitable working conditions. These postdocs are members of a union (CUPE 3902) and there is a minimum stipend of $36,000 (Cdn).

Can someone explain the situation at the University of California schools? Are they asking for a minimum salary of $70,000 (US) ($93,700 Cdn)? Will PIs have to pay postdocs more from their research grants if the union wins a wage increase but the postdocs are already earning more than 70,000?

It's all very confusing and the press doesn't seem to have a good handle on the situation.

Note: I know that the union doesn't expect the university to meet it's maximum demands. I'm sure they will settle for something less. That's not the point I'm trying to make. I'm just trying to understand how graduate students and postdocs are paid in University of California schools.

1 comment :

Jonathan Badger said...

The issue, which you mention in passing, is that the world of science graduate students is very different than in most other fields. A TA in a science often just needs to spend a few hours grading and maybe run a quiz or lab section a couple of days a week, and as you mention gets a stipend in addition to their TA salary. A TA in many other fields like History may literally have to teach an entire undergraduate course as a replacement for a professor. And for that recurve no money other than their TA salary. Not understanding this makes one sound like the the pop culture version of Marie Antoinette that can't understand why these head students don't eat brioche if they can't afford bread.