For PhD student and single parent Konysha Wade, the financial battle is daily.
More than half of her monthly earnings from her two on-campus jobs at UC Irvine go toward renting her college apartment, where she lives with her 11-year-old son.
She brings home about $2,700 a month after taxes by working as an instructor for African-American studies and as a researcher for graduate students — all while taking at least two classes for her doctorate in Culture and Theory and raising her son. She said their rent is over $1,500 a month, leaving just over $1,000 a month for all other expenses.
“It’s so, so tough,” said Wade, 29. “We’re barely making it. We try to survive on limited savings. It is about constant budgeting.”
Wade is one of 48,000 University of California academic employees — including postdoctoral scholars, graduate teaching assistants and researchers — who left their jobs this week in a strike billed as the largest at an academic institution in history.
The work stoppage is intended to expose long-standing employment practices at UC and other universities across the country, which are increasingly under scrutiny for how graduate and academic workers are paid in an era of rising inflation and growing trade union activism.
These employees conduct much of the teaching, assessment and research in the state’s most prestigious public university system.
In some ways, the strike underscores the growing economic pressures facing low-wage workers, especially in places like California where the cost of living is high.
“People are already dealing with high rents and struggling to make ends meet on the kind of wages they have,” said Paula Voos, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “This is a time when there is a lot of organizing and a lot of strikes, especially by younger, lower-paid workers who have been taking it out for a while.”
Significantly higher compensation for academic employees would certainly change the budgets of large universities such as UC, where high tuition fees are already a major problem.
But strikers argue California has an opportunity to address economic inequality and set a better example for other universities.
“The university prides itself on our world-class research, but it doesn’t show in the salary it pays us,” says UC Irvine PhD student Edward Mendez. “We don’t earn enough to live in the cities where these schools are.”
Union leaders are calling for large pay increases for academic workers, noting that housing costs on and near many UC campuses have continued to rise, leaving the majority of their members with “rent burden,” or more than 30% of their income in rent spends .
They want all graduate student workers — who are teaching assistants and tutors — to earn a base salary of $54,000, more than double these workers’ average current salary of about $24,000, according to the union. For graduate workers, the union has called for a minimum salary of $70,000, which would be an average raise of $10,000, said Rafael Jaime, a UCLA doctoral student and president of United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents 19,000 teaching assistants, teachers and other academics. workers on strike
Surveys conducted by the UAW found that 92% of college graduates and 61% of postdoctoral scholars had rent burdens.
“We need help,” Wade said as she joined her fellow students and other academic staff for the second day in a row. “We do work that is supposed to contribute to the greater society – to liberate and enlighten.”
UC officials have offered a pay grade increase of 7% the first year for certain graduate student workers and 3% each subsequent year — an offer that union leaders say falls short.
Ryan King, a spokesperson for the University of California system, said UC believes the current offerings are sufficient. He noted that most of these college graduates work part-time while earning a graduate degree.
“Reimbursement is just one of the many ways they are supported as students during their time at the university,” said King.
But for Safa Hamzeh, a second-year international doctoral student in UCLA’s history department, that base salary is far from enough.
She said she earns about $24,000 annually as a teaching assistant and lives in an apartment in the Palms offered by UC Housing, paying $2,000 a month, shared with a roommate. Because of her visa, she said she is limited in taking on extra work.
To pay for food, she applied for CalFresh, known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to get $100 to shop at Kroger stores with her roommate. But even that wasn’t enough to cover the rising cost of groceries due to inflation, she said.
“I watched as grocery prices continued to rise,” she said. “And that’s something you have to do every week.”
Hamzeh was on the picket line at UCLA on Tuesday, calling specifically for the university to scrap the $15,000 non-residential tuition that graduate student workers like her often face — though she currently has a fellowship that covers it.
“This is the strongest tool we have against the government,” said 26-year-old Hamzeh. “When we go on strike, we are not grading, we are not taking courses, we are not attending lectures, we are not having consultation hours. When that happens, all educational progress stops. … When we strike, you can see that we are doing most of the work because all the work stops.”
The UCI’s Mendez said he was unable to participate in the picket line on Tuesday – despite his interest – due to his newborn’s sleeping schedule. The first-generation student pursuing his doctorate in visual studies at UC Irvine said he and his wife looked into using on-campus childcare but couldn’t afford the $2,000 monthly fee — something what union members would like to see reimbursed for college graduates and academics like Mendez.
“I want to make sure people don’t have to sacrifice their lives to get to high school — and to get on the career path they want,” Mendez, 30, said. He pointed to the UC’s huge budget, which he says doesn’t match the small payments made to workers like him. He said that while working on his dissertation, he teaches an introductory English class and earns about $25,000 for nine months of classroom instruction, prep work, responding to emails, office hours and grading.
He said that both he and his wife supplement their day jobs — for him by co-editing the film section of a New York magazine, and for her by entering the gig economy by filling Instacart orders.
Jaime said it’s not rare to hear about graduate student workers and other academic workers struggling to make ends meet as they try to find additional jobs despite already being overworked. He said it is especially painful to see the UC chancellor receive six-figure raises earlier this year, which the board of regents said was “fair and competitive” compensation — something Jaime has not seen elsewhere.
“When it comes to grad students and postdocs, for some reason that doesn’t translate to them,” Jaime said. “We’ve seen a pattern over the years as public universities become more and more privatized, the value that scientists and researchers provide is increasingly undervalued.”