‘Enough is enough!’ Striking UC workers say they are weary but won’t give up

During the fifth week of the historic strike by UC academics, hundreds of protesters rallied on the UCLA campus, calling for better pay and benefits and forcing the postponement of a regents’ meeting as picketers said they were determined the winter break wasn’t showing their momentum undermine.

Striking student workers gathered outside UCLA’s Luskin Center where the UC Regents were scheduled to meet Wednesday morning. They chanted “Shut it up!” and jammed along with Tom Morello, ex-Rage Against the Machine guitarist, who led the gathering on songs that included lines like “Si, se puede!‘ and ‘Hold the line!’

It was the latest action in the protracted standoff over wages and other issues between UC executives and 36,000 striking academic student workers as the 10-campus system went into winter recess and stalled negotiations prompted the union to agree to UC’s motion to a to engage an independent intermediary.

Standing on the bed of a truck, Rafael Jaime, President of UAW 2865, a union representing 19,000 graduate teaching assistants, researchers and tutors, spoke about what is at stake.

“We are in the midst of one of the most important battles for the future of public higher education,” he said. “Enough is enough! … We have the potential to blaze a new trail for UC that serves workers, students and the people of California.”

Negotiations entered a new phase this week when Darrell Steinberg, Mayor of Sacramento and former State Senate Chairman, stepped in to settle the industrial dispute.

Steinberg helped broker an agreement earlier this year between Kaiser Permanente and some 2,000 striking psychiatrists and was also credited for a agreement with the union Executives needed to advance the multimillion-dollar Aggie Square project on the UC Davis campus.

If the sides fail to reach an agreement with Steinberg’s help, they will return to negotiations without a mediator or request a deadlock, and the Public Employment Relations Board would step in.

Last Friday, union leaders representing postdocs and academic researchers – some 12,000 workers who were also on strike – agreed to a new contract with the university. The new agreement included pay increases that raised the minimum annual salary for these full-time employees from about $55,000 to $70,000 or more — including a $12,000 increase through next October.

The contract also required those employees to return to work this week.

About 36,000 academic workers, like Adu Vengal, a third-year math graduate student at UC San Diego, remain on strike.

The workers who continue to strike are all students — researchers and teaching assistants, the latter grading papers, conducting discussion classes and supervising exams. They reiterated their determination to continue the strike, even as some acknowledge the physical and mental toll of the strike on the picket line.

“I’m both tired and energetic,” said Anny Viloria Winnett, a sophomore in community health sciences at UCLA.

Over the past month, Viloria Winnett said she injured her IT band marching onto campus and lost her voice for yelling into a megaphone. On rainy days, she would hold an umbrella in one hand and her asthma inhaler in the other.

But she said she was also encouraged by the camaraderie she’s built with colleagues through talks on the picket line.

Viloria Winnett, a student researcher who studies the human and fiscal costs of incarceration in Los Angeles County, said she makes about $35,000 a year through a combination of grant money and her job as a student researcher.

She said she hasn’t been able to keep up with medical expenses, including paying for nebulizers and a $3,000 surgery earlier this year.

“I just didn’t have that much money saved,” she said. “Then you add up all the medicines, [it’s] Easily $5,000 a year for things that require a credit card because I have no other way to pay for them.”

Gloria Bartolo, a sophomore studying molecular biology at UCLA, said the time without research during the picket weighed on her. But she steadfastly sticks to the strike goals.

“This is not the end game to strike forever. We want this to stop,” she said. “But we want this to end with a fair contract.”

That union has requested significant pay increases to enable employees to afford housing in the high-price areas where most UC campuses are located, calling the system’s current wages and benefits “unaffordable” and detrimental to their mental health and ability to teach and to research.

While UC has made offers that include pay rises, the pay rises have fallen far short of union leaders’ demands. However, both sides have provisionally agreed on this new anti-bullying protections, expanded paid parental leave and some new commuting supports.

UC officials have repeatedly stated that it makes proposals that are “fair, reasonable and aligned with the union’s priorities.” Officials have also noted that student workers who work more than 25% of the time at UC also cover their full tuition, as well as tuition and health bonuses.

Bartolo makes $37,500 a year as a graduate student, which she says is on the high end of pay for her position.

In order to make ends meet financially, Bartolo receives food stamps. She and other residents who live in her university-owned apartment building also formerly operated an informal food bank at the complex, where they traveled to the grocery store weekly to collect groceries and canned goods for each other.

“I grew up in poverty. I grew up qualifying for food stamps,” said Bartolo, who has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. “It’s annoying — I feel like I should have stepped up.”

Morgaine Mandigo-Stoba, a third-year graduate student in UCLA’s physics department, stood amidst the crowd of striking workers outside the regents’ meeting and said she was enlivened by the demonstration — and by what she felt was inadequate UC contract proposals.

“We’re not ready to go home,” she said. “Their suggestions — their refusal to make us a serious offer — definitely lit a fire among people.”

Jackie Ku, a graduate student representing UC Irvine on the UAW 2865 negotiation team, said he is willing to strike for as long as it takes to reach a fair deal.

“If UC hopes to wear us out, if UC hopes to hold out to see if this wears off, they won’t,” he said. “As tired as we may be… not being able to pay the rent is more tiring.”

Before the regents’ meeting, a group of pickets delayed the meeting for hours by refusing to leave the room, UC spokesman Ryan King said. About 15 were summoned by university police and peacefully escorted out of the room, he said. Vengal said he was among a group who were handcuffed and subpoenaed for trespassing and unlawful assembly.

As the quarter drew to a close during last week’s Finals at UC Irvine, campus picketing eased slightly. Still, some striking workers said talks and debates about how the union should move forward have become more substantive.

“It’s exhausting, but if we don’t do it, who else will?” said Tia Wilson, a graduate student in materials science and engineering at UC Irvine. “I can’t live with the crappy contract so I’m in it for the long haul.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-12-15/hundreds-rally-as-uc-strike-drags-into-5th-week ‘Enough is enough!’ Striking UC workers say they are weary but won’t give up

Alley Einstein

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