The University of California and the union representing tens of thousands of its striking academic workers agreed Friday to ask an independent mediator to intervene in stalled contract negotiations, hoping to reach an agreement to end the monthlong walkout that has forced much tumult across the 10-campus system.
UC administrators have for weeks urged 36,000 academic workers represented by the United Auto Workers to enter into voluntary mediation, where a neutral party would help the two sides resolve ongoing disputes. Bargaining team members voted to move forward with it one day after UC administrators told the union that they would not make any new proposals during negotiations, according to union leaders.
The massive walkout — the nation’s largest ever strike of higher-education academic workers — reached a critical point this week during finals when widespread disruption unfolded throughout the system. Exams were scaled back, study sessions canceled, papers left unread. Faculty — some honoring the pickets and others unable to handle the load alone — are withholding about at least 34,000 grades across the system.
UC leaders said they are pleased UAW agreed to the process. The workers are represented by two bargaining units of the UAW.
“We remain committed to securing a fair and reasonable contract with the union that honors the hard work of our valued graduate student employees,” said Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations. “With the help of a neutral mediator, we hope to secure that agreement quickly.”
Rafael Jaime, the president of UAW Local 2865, which represents about 19,000 of the academic student employees, said that while the unions didn’t want to work with a third-party mediator at the beginning of the strike, it now makes sense. He said they are still far from reaching an agreement on compensation and international student tuition.
“We’ve reached a very difficult period,” Jaime said, noting that it’s become time to “use all the tools at our disposal.”
“We’re still going to be fighting for the issues that are important to our members; that will remain the same,” Jaime said. “But we’re hoping this will be helpful in reaching a fair agreement.”
Both sides will meet to hammer out details about the mediation process, and must agree on a mediator and a timeline. If UC and UAW do not reach an agreement at the end of the process, the parties would return to the bargaining table or file for impasse, where the Public Employee Relations Board would appoint its own mediator.
“Our goal has always been to make UC a more just, equitable place to work,” said Tarini Hardikar, a student researcher at UC Berkeley who sits on the bargaining team. “We look forward to working with a professional mediator to resolve the issues still on the table. Until then, we remain on strike.”
Harry Bendekgey, who represents UC Irvine student researchers in bargaining, said he voted Friday in favor of moving forward with a mediator.
“I think a mediator is going to be helpful for forcing serious offers,” said Bendekgey, who is a doctoral candidate in the computer science department.
He said he knows it’s been a tough four weeks for many, but noted the progress already made in contract negotiations, including paid parental leave and transit subsidies. And while a mediator could help in salary discussions, he thinks the pressure from the ongoing strike and strength of their movement will have the largest effect on compensation.
“The wages we win in this contract will not be decided by a mediator ... but by our workers’ commitment to striking,” Bendekgey said. He and many other strikers on the picket line Friday said they remain committed to the effort, but there have been growing concerns about the possibility of the strike stretching into the next term.
The latest UC proposal offered to boost pay for workers by 12.6% or higher starting Oct. 1, 2023. For a first-year teaching assistant, that would amount to $28,992 annually. In fall 2024, base pay would increase to $29,000 to $36,000 for academic student employees, and $33,500 to $48,500 for graduate student researchers.
In a statement, UC said most workers would receive an average three-year salary increase of 26%, on top of increases based on experience.
The proposal still falls short of the $43,000 minimum salary for all graduate student workers that the union is seeking, down from the $54,000 it initially proposed.
Jaime said members do not feel UC’s current proposal is enough.
“It still falls woefully short of what members actually need in order to address the cost of living crisis that we all experience,” Jaime said. “We would like to see more movement from them toward us.”
Deryn LeDuke, a doctoral candidate in biomedical sciences at UC San Diego, said she attended a town hall early Friday about the mediation option, and was glad the union agreed to involve a third party.
She said she thinks an arbitrator will help push UC in a more equitable direction, and sooner. She worried that getting forced into mediation after an impasse could lead to further delays, which means more time spent away from the experiments she runs as a full-time researcher.
The mice she uses in behavioral neuroscience experiments have already outgrown their prime window for study, meaning results she hoped to have in January will likely not be complete until May. She will likely have to start over with a new cohort of mice.
Despite the time away from her work, she remains committed to the strike.
“I feel like I have a responsibility to my research, but I also have a responsibility to all of these ... grad students,” LeDuke said.
On Nov. 28, UC reached a tentative agreement with postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, who belong to two smaller UAW bargaining units. That accord does not apply to the vast majority of strikers who belong to UAW 2865, which represents graduate teaching assistants, tutors and instructors, and SRU-UAW, which represents student researchers.
The vote on the tentative pact was expected to end Friday night. If approved, the agreement would raise the minimum annual pay for their full-time positions from about $55,000 to $70,000 or higher with various adjustments by the end of the five-year contract — including a $12,000 raise by next October, making them among the highest paid such academic workers in the nation.
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