UC strike: Postdocs and researchers reach tentative deal

The University of California and its postdoctoral fellows and academic researchers reached a tentative agreement Tuesday that will raise their pay to one of the highest in the nation — but they still won’t return to campus in solidarity with about 36,000 graduate student employees , who continue to strike.

“We are proud to have reached agreements that address the rising cost of living and reflect the value of our contributions to UC,” said Neil Sweeney, president of United Auto Workers 5810, in a statement. “These agreements represent a new, best-in-class model that will improve the quality of life — and the quality of research — for U.S. scientists.”

The tentative agreement involves two smaller bargaining units and does not resolve the uncertainty roiling campuses across the system about how to handle grading and final exams as fall deadlines approach. That’s because the workers who do such hands-on work with students make up the vast majority of those on strike—assistants and researchers in two major unions, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW. They remain far apart in terms of salary offers.

At a news conference Tuesday, Sweeney said the tentative deal would put UC’s postdocs at higher average pay levels than even pace-setter Stanford. Union members still have to ratify the agreement, but once that happens, they will be contractually obligated to return to work — even if others are still on strike.

UC welcomed the settlement and thanked faculty and students at the 10-campus system for their “flexibility and patience” during the strike.

“Our dedicated colleagues are vital to UC’s research activities, and we are very pleased to have reached agreements that respect their very important contributions,” Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations, said in a statement. “These agreements also maintain our tradition of supporting these employees with compensation and benefits packages that are among the best in the country.”

Postdoctoral fellows and academic researchers make up about 12,000 of the 48,000 union members who launched the country’s biggest strike by academic workers three weeks ago. They say the pre-deal will greatly improve their quality of life by raising the minimum annual pay for their full-time positions of about $55,000 to $70,000 or more with various adjustments until the end of the five-year contract — including a $12,000 raise until next October.

“It’s going to be pretty transformative for me,” said Adam Caparco, a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego who is researching how to make environmentally friendly pesticides, develop drought-tolerant plants and improve waste management.

Caparco said he lucked out with a reasonably priced apartment during the pandemic and is only spending 30 percent of his $3,500 monthly salary on rent. But he still lives paycheck to paycheck, he said, having to rely on credit cards for unexpected expenses like a $1,200 car repair earlier this year.

The wage increase in the preliminary agreement, which Caparco said he intends to ratify, will give him more financial security — and freedom to think about saving for a new car or getting a gym membership.

Faculty members say they value their academic workers and want them to earn enough for a secure living. But many are concerned about where the money will come from to pay for the higher wages and benefits.

Postdoctoral fellows and academic researchers are supported largely by faculty-provided grants. Federal subsidies have remained unchanged for years and often limit the share that can be paid on wages or how the funds can be spent. It’s unclear, the faculty said, whether the funding agencies will allow the grants to be used for child care subsidies, e-bikes or public transportation — some of the new benefits included in the tentative deal. They also wondered what would happen if they do not have funding for another clause in the agreement, extending appointments from one to two years.

“We want the people who work for us to be supported, but we’re concerned that it’s on our shoulders to do it and we don’t have the resources,” said a faculty member.

Sweeney, the union leader, stressed that UC must redouble its efforts to reach a deal with the student assistants and researchers.

“We think the university can and should start making serious proposals to the other two units and they should reach an agreement as soon as possible, as early as this week,” he said.

But UC and graduate students remain far apart in terms of salary offers. The university has asked for a neutral mediator to step in, which the union opposes.

While the postdocs agreed to a roughly 20 percent increase in the annual minimum wage — from about $55,000 to $66,000 — the graduate students are demanding a 145 percent increase from $22,000 to $54,000.

George Blumenthal, director of the Center for Research in Higher Education at UC Berkeley, said graduate students need and deserve more support, but that such salary demands are “far from possible” given UC’s budget and salary agreements with other groups of employees. He said postdocs and academic researchers also have a strong incentive to settle, as their contracts are usually only for a few years and they must show performance to secure renewal or their next job.

Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, said his union’s bargaining team must decide whether to return an offer to members with a lower wage demand. But they need much higher pay to survive and continue the critical teaching and research they provide UC, he said.

“The kind of salaries that graduate students are getting makes it really difficult to continue in academia,” he said. “All we want is for UC to appreciate the work we do and pay us decent wages.”

For postdoctoral fellows, the preliminary contract includes:

— A 20%-23% wage increase (up to $12,000) through October 2023 for most union members. The current lowest-ranking postdoc will receive a 57% increase over five years.
— Annual increases of 7.2% for on-scale postdocs and 3% for above-scale for 2024-2027.
— An increase from four weeks to eight weeks in paid parental and family leave.
— Child care subsidies that will start at $2,500 a year and increase to $2,800 a year — their first such subsidy.
— Longer appointments for more job security, greater protection against harassment and for workers with disabilities.
— Transportation benefits, including a commitment to free transit cards within three years and a 15% discount on electric bikes.

For academic researchers, the agreement includes an average 29% salary increase over the five-year contract. They will also get eight weeks of paid family leave, longer meetings for better job security, improved transportation benefits and more protections against harassment and for workers with disabilities.

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