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The University of California and workers reached a tentative deal to end strike

People participate in a protest outside the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, 2022.
Damian Dovarganes
/
AP
People participate in a protest outside the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, 2022.

LOS ANGELES — The University of California reached an agreement Friday with some 36,000 graduate student teaching assistants and other academic workers for increased pay and benefits that could potentially end a monthlong strike — the largest of its kind in the nation — at the prestigious state system.

The strike disrupted classes at all 10 of the university system's campuses. The agreement still needs to be ratified before the strike officially ends.

The bargaining units said some workers could see raises of up to 66% over the next two years. The contracts would go through May 31, 2025.

"In addition to incredible wage increases, the tentative agreements also include expanded benefits for parent workers, greater rights for international workers, protections against bullying and harassment, improvements to accessibility, workplace protections, and sustainable transit benefits," Tarini Hardikar, a member of the union bargaining team at UC Berkeley, said in a news release Friday.

The pay hikes and boost in benefits could have an impact beyond California. For several decades, colleges and universities have increasingly relied on faculty and graduate student employees to do teaching and research that had previously been handled by tenured track faculty — but without the same pay and benefits.

"These agreements will place our graduate student employees among the best supported in public higher education," Michael V. Drake, president of the University of California, said in a news release Friday. "If approved, these contracts will honor their critical work and allow us to continue attracting the top academic talent from across California and around the world."

The 32-day UC strike was being closely watched around the country, in part because it is the largest strike of academic workers in higher education, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York.

The strike at UC, like the others, is "providing guidance to indicate that strikes are very forceful means of accomplishing goals," he said.

The agreement comes weeks after the UC system reached a similar deal with postdoctoral employees and academic researchers who make up about 12,000 of the 48,000 union members who walked off the job and onto picket lines Nov. 14. That agreement will hike pay up to 29% and provide increased family leave, childcare subsidies and lengthened appointments to ensure job security, according to a statement from United Auto Workers Local 5810.

The academic workers had argued they couldn't afford to live in cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Berkeley, where housing costs are soaring, with the current salaries.

The strike was notable for its size and scale, but also because of what it could mean for other universities, said Tim Cain, associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia. If graduate employees and researchers ratify the contracts, it could prompt similar changes at colleges that compete with UC or where graduate workers are organizing unions.

Union organizing nationwide also stems from long-term changes at America's universities, which have increasingly come to rely on graduate students to teach classes and handle other duties traditionally done by tenured faculty.

"There's a fundamental shift in who's doing the academic work in higher education," Cain said. Wages for graduate students haven't kept up over time, he added, and many face increasingly tough competition for full-time faculty jobs.

The strike came at a time of increased labor action nationwide, not just in higher education but among workers at Starbucks, Amazon and elsewhere and a groundswell of unionization efforts among graduate student employees at other universities.

Just this year, graduate student employees at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clark University, Fordham University, New Mexico State University, Washington State University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute all voted in favor of unionization.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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