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Graduate Education

University of California strike impacts chemists

The labor action by graduate student researchers, teaching assistants, and postdocs shuts down some classes and labs

by Andrea Widener
November 25, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 42

Students walking a picket line in front of a campus building holding signs about the strike. One hand-drawn sign says, "TAs are an integral part of undergrad education. We are at our limit."
Credit: Shutterstock/David Kn
Graduate students, postdocs, and other academic workers at all 10 University of California campuses are on strike, including these at UC Davis.

Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers at all 10 University of California (UC) campuses are on strike, a move that is impacting many chemists and chemistry departments.

The strike, which began Nov. 14, is over alleged unfair labor practices by UC, which the union representing the students and postdocs says is not negotiating new contracts in good faith. The larger issues underlying the contract negotiations center on wages and benefits for UC’s graduate students, teaching assistants, postdocs, and academic researchers, who fuel much of the UC system’s research and teaching. The union, the United Auto Workers, represents 48,000 academic workers on the campuses, making the strike the largest in higher education in US history.

“Clearly, 48,000 people across the state are really fired up about this,” says Khalid Mahmood, a chemistry graduate student at UC Berkeley.

Mahmood, who lives with six roommates, says that 40% of his income goes toward rent. In addition, there is little consistency in salary between departments or even from semester to semester. “We really care about our research, but we want the contributions that we make to the university to be reflected in our compensation,” he says.

So far, effects on departments are unclear. At UC Irvine, Chemistry Department chair Douglas J. Tobias says the effect on classes appears highly variable. “In some cases, it’s had a major impact, whereas in other cases, it’s had zero impact,” he says. But Tobias says he isn’t allowed to ask faculty members whether their students are teaching or coming to the lab, and faculty can’t ask students anything about the strike, in order to avoid the perception of intimidation. That has made responding to the strike difficult, he says.

The union has already filed a complaint against Tobias for sending an email telling students that they are expected to continue attending classes and doing their research in their role as students; the email was based on information he received from the university administration. A similar complaint has been filed against UC San Diego’s chemistry department.

Graduate students and postdocs in the US have been increasingly discontent with their salaries and benefits. While this strike isn’t the first, it is particularly important, says Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals and a former university administrator. “You’ve got 10 of the most powerful research universities in the world, all dealing with this at the same time.”

The strike reflects how the US research system is designed to rely on graduate students and postdocs, Thorp says. Research labs keep getting bigger, especially in the life sciences, but there aren’t enough jobs in science for all those future professionals, he adds. The growing frustration means that “the workforce is not going to be there if these things don’t get straightened out,” Thorp says.

Hannah Freund, a bioinformatics graduate student at UC Riverside, says they were fearful when they first heard about the strike because, like many of their colleagues, they cannot afford to stop working. It helped to know that striking workers would get some compensation from the UAW, but the the longer-term concerns over wages and benefits are what really drove Freund to join the picket lines. The union is also asking for childcare for academic workers with dependents, public transportation subsidies, and protections against bullying and harassment.

“This is an opportunity to change the future of higher education,” Freund says.


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