A strike by approximately 48,000 academic workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses is in its second week. The main issue is compensation, with graduate workers and others calling for major pay increases, improved parental leave and benefits, subsidies for public transportation, research funding, support for international scholars, and increased support for disabled researchers.
The following guest post was put together by Dallas Amico, a graduate student in philosophy UC San Diego. It includes comments from philosophy graduate students across the UC system and further information about the strike.
Reports from Striking University of California Philosophy Graduate Students
Laborers across the University of California system have gone on strike. Below you will find stories from philosophy graduate students who have gone on strike. You will also find information about the nature of the strike, why it has near universal support amongst union-represented workers, and about the University of California’s illegal behavior and woefully inadequate economic proposals.
Stories from Philosophy Graduate Students (part 1)
During my time in San Diego I’ve always spent more than 50% of my income on rent. My landlord recently raised my rent so I’m now paying about 75% of my income on rent. I simply can’t afford that. I’m trying to find a place to move, but it’s nearly impossible to find a place. Not just a place that’s safe or reasonably close to campus. It’s nearly impossible just to find a place, any place, that I can afford with my stipend. I work full-time over the summer and try to find ways to make extra money during the academic year, all just to be able to pay my bills. It’s undeniable that I would be a better philosopher and better teacher if I had been able to spend those countless hours doing what I came to UCSD to do instead of spending that time trying to survive. It harms grad students, our departments, the students we teach, our universities, and the discipline of philosophy as a whole when grad students are forced to spend inordinate amounts of time making extra money instead of focusing on our work. That’s why we need more money. ~ UCSD Philosophy Graduate Student
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In my first year in the PhD program, I rented a room 25 miles away from the university where housing is cheaper. It was a 4 bedroom, one bathroom house with seven people living in it. I couldn’t afford a car, so my daily round-trip commute was 4 hours by train and e-bike. There weren’t public transportation options to get to and from the train station, so it was over 20 miles of biking per day round trip. It was exhausting. Because the commute took so much time, I would often leave the house at 5:30am and not get home until after 8pm. There weren’t many bicycle lanes on my route, and it was nerve-wracking to have to bicycle on the shoulders of busy roads in the dark. My daily commute also involved crossing a drainage ditch and climbing over a low chain link fence with my bike because the only alternatives were the freeway, where bikes aren’t allowed, or a 2-mile detour. I had hardly any time for my own research because in addition to the commute, I was the only TA for a class of 120 students in which I was doing more than the 20 hours per week that we are paid for.
When the pandemic started and the university switched to remote learning, I moved into a van. For about 6 months I either stealth camped along roads or parked on public land. When the logistics of finding a place to park every night became too time consuming, I parked outside a family member’s home in a different county. They have no driveway, so the parking spot is on a public road and living there in a van is illegal.
If I were paid more, I would rent a room instead of living in the van. The roof leaks and I have to cover it with a tarp when it rains. I constantly have to hide the fact that the van is being lived in. I still have a long commute because there aren’t places to park a van overnight near my university. It’s also stressful; vandwelling is criminalized in most cities in California and it’s mentally taxing to have a living situation that is technically illegal. I’ve had the police knock on my door twice. Living in a van means never fully “turning off”; you are always slightly alert, ready for someone to knock on your door and ask you to move.
However, I also feel very lucky to have the van, since the alternative is living paycheck to paycheck. Living in a van has given me a degree of financial security that I could never have while renting a room, even if I were to get off the 1+ year waitlist for grad student housing.
The current strike action has opened discussion about how many UC grad students are living in their vehicles. If the UC continues to refuse to increase wages, an alternative way for the UC to support its academic workers would be to create safe overnight parking programs for the employees who live in vehicles. Such programs have already been adopted by other California colleges like Long Beach City College ~ UC Philosophy Graduate Student
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I am a graduate student and a teaching assistant, but I often feel like I have to choose between my well-being, my teaching, and my research. I have had to take on a second-job which takes away from my studies and my teaching. That being said, I am someone who is so lucky to have people who can support me financially if (and when) I need it. However, this is not the case for the majority of people and the lives of grad students shouldn’t depend on whether they have a support system like this. We all work so hard and we care so deeply about what we do. We should be able to feel like all this work allows us to support ourselves while also feeling appreciated by the university we work for. ~ UC Riverside Philosophy Graduate Student
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One particularly difficult month, my 2003 auto needed a fairly expensive repair (~$500.00) and my dog needed veterinary care and medication for recurring seizures. (~$400.00). While these expenses may seem minor, they put me in a serious hole. I was unable to make rent after paying them, and I didn’t have anyone to turn to at the time. As a result, I was forced to explain my situation to my landlord and beg him to allow me to work for him in order to make up the difference. Fortunately, he allowed me to work for him. Immediately thereafter, I picked up a job as a part time landscaper, to avoid having to ever experience the humiliation of having to beg a landlord again. ~ UC Philosophy Graduate Student
About the Strike
This is an unfair labor practice strike (‘ULP’). The United Auto Workers union, which represents graduate students, post-docs, and undergraduate graders and tutors across the University of California, has filed 25 unfair labor practice charges against the UCs. The California Public Relations Labor Board has lent credence to 6 of these and filed complaints against the university; decisions remain to be made on numerous further charges. The university’s unlawful tactics include unilaterally altering working conditions, threatening retaliation to strikers, and refusing to provide information necessary to bargain.
As a result of this being a ULP strike, academic workers on strike have significant legal protections. For example, we can not be permanently replaced.
- This is the largest current strike in the United States—the UAW represents 48,000 graduate students, undergraduate students, and postdocs.
- This is the first time in history that postdocs have gone on strike.
- 98% of members who participated in the strike authorization vote voted to go on strike.
- The California Labor Federation has sanctioned the strike—meaning 1,200 California unions support the action.
- The Teamsters union has also declared support for the strike (including UPS drivers), and will not cross the picket lines.
Facts on the ground:
Disclaimer 1. The following is primarily focused on the plight of philosophy graduate students although undergraduates and postdocs face serious issues as well.
Disclaimer 2. The following is primarily focused on the plight of philosophy graduate students at UCSD (as that is the case the author is most familiar with). That said, even though the exact details vary slightly across the state, what follows echoes true in spirit for graduate students across the UC system.
The current pay rates for graduate students from UCSD are as follows (we use San Diego as an example, but the facts are very similar across the UCs):
- Graduate Student Researchers (‘GSR’): $2,192 per month ($19,728 per 9 months)
- Teaching Assistants (‘TA’): $2,582.95 per month ($23,246.55 per 9 months)
Those rates reflect the pay rates agreed upon in 2018 by the union and the university. At the time those pay rates were agreed upon, the median 1 bedroom apartment in San Diego cost ~$1,740 per month (per Zumper.com). Even at that time, it was extremely difficult for a graduate student to afford a 1 bedroom apartment in the city they’re asked to live in. But things have gotten significantly worse. San Diego’s rental market has spun out of control. The current per month price for a median 1 bedroom apartment in San Diego is estimated to be $2,500. This is a 4 year housing cost increase of 43.6%.
One thing the university has offered to some graduate students (there is not sufficient space for all graduate students) is subsidized housing. However, over the last 4 years, while graduate students’ rent checks have only increased by 3% each year, the university has increased the price of graduate housing by 35-85%. And many of these rentals supposedly for graduate students are too expensive for graduate students. As an example, a 480 sq. ft 1 bedroom apartment in UCSD’s Nuevo East apartments costs $1,977 per month. This is straightforwardly unaffordable given current salaries.
Given these facts, one might expect the university to make very generous economic offers at the bargaining table. Not only has the rental market in the city exploded (not to mention inflation), but, for those graduate students who live on university property, the university has begun taking back a significantly larger portion of their income. But UC has not done this. Instead, they’ve offered small increases and recommended that graduate students double and triple up in apartments, they’ve opened food banks on campus, and many graduate students have been encouraged to look into low-income housing (the city of San Diego deems any income below $27,350 per year to be “extremely low” and eligible for a wide range of poverty benefits).
More specifically UC’s initial economic proposal was for 4% raises the 1st year of the new contract and 3% raises thereafter. They have since increased those offers as follows:
- GSRs: On their current proposal “most GSRs will see 9-10% percent increases in year one of the contract, with a 3% percent increase in each subsequent year.”
- TAs: “Within 90 days from contract ratification, Teaching Assistants and Associate Instructors would receive a 7% pay increase; Teaching Fellows would receive an 8.33% increase. Hourly-paid ASEs would receive 5-8% increases. Next fall, TAs and Associate Instructors will be eligible for experience-based increases on top of their 3% increases annually.”
Even on this new proposal, the university is offering us a massive purchasing power pay cut. This is especially insulting for those students who live in graduate student housing. For those students the university has raised their rent by 35-85%, offered them a wage increase of 7-10%, and then repeatedly described their proposal as “fair and generous”.
It’s also worth noting a very obvious fact. In real dollars, 10% increases for GSRs and 7% increases for TAs is miniscule. On the university’s proposal GSRs and TAs should expect real dollar increases of under $200.00 per month, and per year raises of ~$1,800. These offers are pitifully low, and don’t even make it feasible for a graduate student to rent a small 1 bedroom apartment from the university.
These facts explain why the strike has near unanimous support amongst the union members.
Most of us want to get back to work. We applied for graduate school because we love to teach and we love to research and we love philosophy. But in order to do those things, we need to be able to afford basic necessities. We need to be able to afford modest apartments. We need to be able to afford food without having to rely on food banks. And we need a university that will bargain in good faith, and that will treat us with respect and dignity.
Below, you’ll find a number of further stories from current graduate students that emphasize the stress and difficulty of our current conditions.
Stories from Philosophy Graduate Students (part 2)
During recruitment, especially toward undergraduates, philosophers urge women, people of color, and other underrepresented people to apply to, and subsequently enter graduate programs to improve and diversify the discipline. This obviously often becomes extra labor through service to the department and the discipline (which many of us do indeed take on gladly because we love philosophy!). But this recruitment becomes especially disheartening when we get to graduate school and come to see that much of this has been lip service to an ideal that many in our discipline refuse to take more action to realize on a systemic level–such as by supporting our strike. When we cannot afford housing, groceries, childcare, and decent standards of living, all that support of us ‘underrepresented’ folks starts to ring hollow. I truly love philosophy and am committed to contributing to my discipline. But how can I believe that I, and others like me are truly valued, let alone respected when my peers and I cannot afford to live? ~ Woman of Color UC Philosophy Graduate Student
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With my spouse and I having suddenly separated, I had to face the harsh reality of having to pay four grand to live in a one bedroom apartment (including utilities) by myself. Although I managed to secure a place to live, my new apartment is nonetheless exorbitantly expensive and swallows up my entire paycheck. Without the support of my parents, I would incontrovertibly either be living out of my car or couch-surfing ~ UC Philosophy Graduate Student
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Faculty members in our department have told graduate students that we should not expect to make a living wage while in the program since our appointment is only 50%. As an international student, I am not allowed to get a second job. As a person whose financial background does not include generational wealth, I cannot rely on my family back home for financial support. Remarks like this are not just insensitive, they are heartbreaking. Their direct implication is that international students who are not financially well-off should not pursue a philosophy Ph.D. at UCSD. To me, they also mean that the people I look up to think I should not be in this program. ~ An International UC Philosophy Graduate Student
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The rent for the “university sponsored” graduate/family housing was more than $1500, and my monthly income was $2100 — excluding Summer. I am an international student, so I can’t take up any jobs off campus, due to visa restrictions.
The financial burden meant that I had to move back in with my family (outside of the US), and I’m now continuing my PhD (I’m ABD) remotely. This year, I was able to use my one-year fellowship that I was offered with my acceptance letter. At least this means I can pick up other part-time jobs to fund my PhD. This was the only way possible since the non-resident tuition fee waiver expires 3 years after candidacy, and so I must defend my dissertation before it expires.
$600 a month is not really a liveable cost for an international student with a family. If we want to see our relatives and survive the summer, we have to be saving throughout the 9 months when we have some income. When I need to TA again after the fellowship, I don’t know yet how it will be possible. I just hope that I can finish my dissertation this year, so I won’t have to return to campus to TA. ~ UC Philosophy Graduate Student
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With a stipend of $24k, my average monthly income is 2k. My rent is $1235/mo. (I share a 2-bed apartment with a flatmate, 50 mins public transportation away from campus.) That leaves me $765 each month to pay for everything else: electricity and internet, meals, medical bills, car (insurance, gas, on-campus parking), everyday supplies (shampoo, tissue, etc.), books, and money saved for conference travels not covered by department travel fund, and other unexpected small expenses. It’s an impossible financial juggle. I can’t take a second job because it messes with my international student visa. I didn’t take summer TA jobs because they are often heavy workloads and I really need time for my own research.
Earlier this fall, my apartment had a water pressure issue due to our old building’s outdated plumbings. For two months, I had no usable running water in the kitchen and unstable water in the shower. I had to get takeout much more often and a few times skip shower or shower in a friend’s place or the university gym. I thought about moving out, but then realized I couldn’t. If I move to on-campus housing, it will be cheaper (~$950), but the waiting list is for months, and after 14 months I have to move out to off-campus again (The university has a 2-year time limit for grad housing and I’ve used 10 months.) But then with my income I won’t pass any landlord’s income check for a new tenant. At least for the landlords in areas safe for a single woman to live. I am able to stay in the current apartment because of an outdated income record. I have no intention to ask and make the leasing office notice it as long as they don’t ask me ~ UC Philosophy Graduate Student
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I live with a chronic medical condition that has a number of associated costs (e.g. medical care not fully covered by insurance). After I pay for housing and medical care, I have ~$600 to pay for everything else each month, including food, transportation, school supplies, etc.. Faculty, please look at your own monthly budgets and try to imagine what it is like to live this way.
A living wage for my county is defined as more than twice my current compensation (see this site for information about living wages in different California counties). Earning a living wage for my area would be life changing. Striking graduate students are asking only to be treated as human beings rather than as sources of cheap labor. Please support us. ~ UC Philosophy Graduate Student
How to Follow and Support the Strike
Ways to keep up to date on the strike:
Ways to support or get involved:
- Respect the picket line. What this means:
- Don’t pick up labor that union members have struck (e.g. don’t grade papers that graduate students ordinarily would).
- FAQs for UC faculty from The Council of UC Faculty Associations
- UC-AFT 19966’s guide for strike solidarity (for UC lecturers and librarians)
- Don’t give or attend talks on UC campuses.
- Postpone or move conferences scheduled to appear on campuses.
- Don’t pick up labor that union members have struck (e.g. don’t grade papers that graduate students ordinarily would).
- Donate to the UAW hardship fund.
- Sign the petition to President Drake.
- Support workers and unions that support us!
- Use your platform to raise awareness, and encourage others to respect the picket line.