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UC students on strike say they are overworked and underpaid

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly 50,000 academic workers across the University of California system walked off the job this week. It is the U.S. labor movement's largest work stoppage this year. After more than a year of bargaining, teaching assistants, researchers, post-doctoral students and others represented by the United Auto Workers left their classrooms and labs, demanding significantly higher pay and better benefits. NPR's Eric Westervelt has the story.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The ongoing strike is starting to disrupt undergraduate classes, research and grading at the University of California system's 10 campuses as they move toward final exams and holiday breaks. At the system's second-largest school, UC Berkeley, hundreds of striking academic workers picketed a main entrance while passersby cheered, and a supportive band jammed on the lawn.

ANTHONY FUENTES: The core demand here is to raise our wages to alleviate the rent burden here.

WESTERVELT: Anthony Fuentes is a graduate student, researcher, Ph.D. candidate and undergrad teacher in the Earth and Planetary Science Department. Fuentes says that rent burden means grad students can barely afford to pay that and other living expenses. A one bedroom can go for 2,500 a month or more, whether it's LA, the Bay Area or some places in between.

WESTERVELT: The goal is that no more than 30% of our salaries will be devoted to rent since the rent here is so high. Many students across the UC have $24,000 a year to live on, which barely covers rent.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING, CHEERING)

WESTERVELT: Strikers are asking that base salaries for all academic student employees go from 24,000 to 54,000. The strike reflects longstanding grad student grievances. They say they're overworked and underpaid, but it's in line with a new labor awakening in 2022. After decades of union membership declines, workers this year launched unionization campaigns at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and elsewhere. Nationally, applications for union elections are approaching their highest level in a decade. UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Gold Okafor says she and others here are fed up doing much of the heavy academic lifting for minimal pay and benefits.

GOLD OKAFOR: I would be hard-pressed to find any professor on campus who writes their own grants, who does their own research 100% by themselves, or even writes the paper, the first draft. Let's be real. That's all us.

WESTERVELT: Okafor, who teaches social psychology at Cal, says in theory, they're only supposed to work 20 hours a week maximum. In reality, she says, that's a fantasy that amounts to an unfair labor practice. She says they do everything from creating syllabi to writing grants.

OKAFOR: Grade assignments for hours and hours. We also do all the research as well, designing the studies, collecting the data, analyzing the data and then writing all that up. It's wild. So we work full time, if not more than full time. However, we only get paid 50%.

WESTERVELT: The striking academic workers say it's not uncommon for them to have to find moonlighting jobs in the gig economy to make ends meet. In that sense, strikers say, the UC system has a chance now to do something concrete about economic inequality and set an example for other public universities. But the sides are miles apart. Strikers are asking for the starting pay for academic student employees to double, and the UC system is offering an average raise of 8.2%.

LETITIA SILAS: We are far apart, no doubt about that.

WESTERVELT: That's Letitia Silas, the executive director for systemwide labor relations at the University of California. She says the UC's offers on the table to the four bargaining units are good ones.

SILAS: Under our proposals, wages for U.S. academic employees would be among the top for pay among the top public research universities and more comparable to private universities such as Harvard, MIT and USC. So what we're offering is not only fair, but it's competitive and at the top.

WESTERVELT: Silas says given the lack of negotiating progress, they've asked the UAW to agree to third-party mediation. The union so far has said no. With inflation running close to 8%, the UAW says the UC's offers are totally insufficient. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berkeley, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.