Viewpoints: How Academic Workers’ Leverage Can Grow in a Long-Haul Strike

View from above of a sea of marchers outdoors, all carrying matching printed "UAW on strike" picket signs

University of California academic workers are now four weeks into the biggest strike of the year. At a rank-and-file forum on strategy, these two strikers argued that the impact of withholding grades and research will only crescendo as the weeks pass. Photo: Olive Eilbott

Forty-eight thousand academic workers have been on strike across the 10 campuses of the University of California since November 14. It’s the biggest strike in the country this year. The strikers are in four bargaining units—teaching assistants, student researchers, postdoctoral scholars, and academic researchers—all affiliated with the United Auto Workers.

The following speeches were written for and read out at the Strike to Win Assembly on December 6 at UC Berkeley. This assembly was put together by rank-and-file members from the humanities, social sciences, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in UAW Local 2865 and Student Researchers United (SRU-UAW) in order to develop strategies for a building a longer, sustainable strike across campus.

The Longer Instructors Withhold Grades, The More Desperate the University Becomes

by Jonathan Mackris

Thank you all for coming. This assembly was organized by a group of students from the humanities, STEM, and the social sciences united in the belief in the need for a new approach to our strike—an approach that will allow us both to sustain the power we have already built over the last month, and to diversify the kinds of power we express by bringing together the unique strengths of the units still in bargaining.

Today is the 23rd day since our strike began. In the two proposals UC has put forward in that time, the university has refused to budge in any substantial way on any of the core issues of our strike—a cost-of-living adjustment, nonresident supplemental tuition, childcare, and access needs—from the position they held before our strike began.

Their tactic is an obvious one: in pretending to be unwilling to concede, the university is waiting us out, baiting us to back down and to question the power we’ve built so far. They want us to doubt that, despite being 48,000 strong, despite participating in the biggest strike in graduate education in American history—despite all of this, they want us to believe that the power we have built is still not enough to beat them.

Everybody here in this room knows that this is not true, and it deserves to be said out loud: this is a watershed moment in the history of higher education in the United States, the result of 50 years of gutting public education, of financializing the university, of devaluing education for the sake of profit. The buck stops with us.

It is the aim of this assembly to work together to develop strategies to build a sustainable strike that can last as long as it takes for us to win the transformative contract we deserve and that we set out to win with the strike authorization vote.

Speaking on behalf of the humanities, this means for us in particular building towards the inevitable grade strike—the greatest power we are capable of exercising in this entire fight, and one that we expect to be decisive. As I know I’m addressing an audience that includes many from STEM and the social sciences, I’d like to put some numbers to this.

Graduate students in the humanities are offered three general kinds of employment. Some of us TA courses, as I am doing now, in which we serve in a subordinate role to a professor similar to how I know some of you do in the sciences. Many more of us in the language departments teach the intro-level language courses (French 1, Spanish 2, etc.).

Finally, the even greater majority of us teach the Reading & Composition courses, the primary focus of our teaching and what we spend the majority of our time doing.

A point of pride in the humanities is that the R&C course is the only one at the University of California that every undergraduate student is obligated to take, no matter their discipline. This semester at Berkeley alone, there are 233 R&C courses on the books; in the spring, there are 217 scheduled (including my own).

Each course serves between 17 and 34 students from across all disciplines in the university. When teaching these courses, there is no superior instructor—we design the syllabi and assignments, we choose the topics and the readings, and we, of course, do all of the teaching and grading. There is no one to replace this work, not just because there is no one empowered to take on that work in the first place, but because the kind of grading involved is extremely labor-intensive, entirely centered on reading and responding to papers that range from 4 to 15 pages in length.

We may extend this point even more broadly: the kind of work we do in the humanities is irreplaceable. An independent poll by the UC Faculty Association has self-reported that a grade strike would cause over 30,000 grades between all 10 campuses to be left blank.

This is not a power that vanishes once we have passed over the grade deadline. The longer we withhold these grades, the more desperate the university becomes, needing the submission of those grades in order to allow students to graduate, to place them in upper-division courses, to allow them to play on the sports teams, and for many other purposes.

We in the humanities know how important this is to the administration, and have been readying ourselves to embark on a strike long enough for the university to feel the impact of this withheld labor. For us, this is an exercise of power that far outmatches the teaching labor we have so far withheld, and meaningfully escalates the fight on our side. When we say “One day longer, one day stronger,” we mean it.

But it bears repeating: while this is a particular strength of UAW 2865, this is a power that we want to leverage for the benefit of every unit on strike with us. UAW-SRU has already made a colossal sacrifice over the past month, putting up with aggressive and unresponsive principal investigators and stopping work on their crucial research—research the world depends on, let alone the administration here at UC. But it must be emphasized: no more can the university afford to hire people to replace our grading labor in the humanities can they find researchers of your quality to replace the work you are withholding in the lab. They cannot find the people to replace the things we do, and they can’t afford it even if they wanted to—if they can’t pay us, how can they pay them?

We cannot undervalue ourselves in this moment. We cannot doubt just how important we are to the work done on this campus. Much like in the humanities, the longer student researchers withhold their work, the more desperate the university becomes as grant deadlines pass and as external bodies funding this research grow impatient waiting.

This is why it is not worth it in my opinion to dwell for too long on this or that aspect of the current proposals the UC is asking us to consider—we know they are inadequate. The UC put forward a deliberately convoluted contract because they want to distract us with the details and to make us forget that we still have tremendous power left to use—a power they fear even more than that which we have already exercised.

Those of us in the humanities know very well we cannot TA any contract put forward to us before the grade deadline. It doesn’t matter what it is; it will always be worse than what we will get after it, when the withholding of grades and of research bring the university to a complete halt. This is what the UC fears most of all.

A recent story in the Daily Californian [an independent, student-run newspaper] published yesterday details the absolute pandemonium the strike has already caused among faculty, who are being offered conflicting advice for how to deal with the strike. The administration pushed back the grade deadline to the absolute latest date they could in an attempt to outlast us, but they can’t. They’re putting pressure on department chairs to push faculty and lecturers to take over grading and final exam labor, asking them to work throughout the holiday to make up for our absence.

This means they are starting to feel our power. If we stay together, if we continue to hold the line for as long as we can, we will win. We will never know what we can win if we don’t hold the line until then, and we will always sell ourselves short. We have power nobody has ever seen before, and we have a responsibility to use it to win for everyone.

The university does not dictate what is possible for us to win, and we are not asking for their permission. We dictate what is possible when we spread the strike.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

We do this not just for ourselves and for those at the other campuses. We do this for the future graduate students at the University of California who we don’t want to suffer the indignities we’ve put up with to date. We do this for the other unions on campus, AFSCME and AFT, who stand with us now and who stand to benefit from the gains we make in our contract when they renegotiate with the university. We do this for the faculty, who can use our victory to push their own unionization campaign.

And most of all, we do this for the hundreds of universities watching this fight from around the world, who are counting on us now to set the standard for what higher education must look like in the United States. Thank you.

As Researchers, Our Power Is Ahead of Us

by Abrar Abidi

My world, like yours, has inverted in the last four weeks. I watched quiet, solitary researchers transform into legions of enraged workers, swarming across campus, roaring with indignation. I watched historians and linguists stand together with chemists and engineers to picket the entrance to a sprawling construction site. The construction workers, recognizing a common purpose in our fight with the UC, refused to cross, cheering us on, forgoing their wages, costing the university a hundred thousand dollars in lost labor.

I watched garbage truck drivers urge us to escalate our tactics. With honks of encouragement, they respected the pickets we formed along major byways and intersections of campus so we could paralyze the trash infrastructure of the university. And I continue to watch each morning as string theorists and sociologists circulate together at loading docks in chilly, predawn darkness. Each day they learn more effectively how to persuade even non-unionized gas delivery drivers that their struggle is the same as our struggle. Yesterday we learned enough deliveries were halted at one location that an entire bewildered department was forced to power down its lab equipment, while scabbing researchers cursed to themselves inside silent, sparse labs.

Alongside these breathtaking exercises of collective power and solidarity, I have also witnessed less encouraging developments. A small group of individuals in a drab conference room have negotiated away all of our central demands—the demands I once saw light a fire in the eyes of my co-workers, the demands that persuaded them to halt the research that they love and join me on this strike.

But the events of the last week have also catalyzed a shift in the temperament and mood of graduate workers on this campus. Many researchers who took on a more accepting and yielding posture toward negotiations felt their energy and enthusiasm wane in the last week. But after the previous, catastrophic round of negotiations, something strange happened. Many of these same workers felt overcome with a renewed engagement in the strike, a more personal investment in its outcome, a need to examine and reshape its democratic processes.

In addition, there has been a widespread, growing recognition of the need for researchers to create greater leverage through a long, sustained strike.

Instructors have a clear view of their leverage through the decisive, extraordinarily disruptive action of collectively withholding their grades at the semester’s end. In moments of doubt they take succor from the precedents of past academic worker strikes. Researchers like myself have much greater difficulty, especially early on in a strike, measuring the leverage created by our own work stoppage. We have few if any examples to draw from in the annals of labor history.

Instructors also have a clear separation between their teaching work and their dissertation research; they can halt one while continuing the other; they can disrupt the university without disrupting their progress as scholars. Full-time researchers, on the other hand, give up everything; their disruption of the UC is intertwined with their own academic progress.

Some of my scientist colleagues have reluctantly postponed their graduation dates; some have relinquished the final set of data they had intended to collect through the winter; a friend yesterday told me on the picket that she had reconciled herself to a “mediocre thesis.” The enormous sacrifice this entails of us has rung discordantly with the magnitude of the concessions at the bargaining table.

But the disheartening conclusions this seems to imply about our strike weakening—conclusions we have seen issued and broadcasted across so many mass emails and campus meetings and department town halls—are premised on a demonstrably false assessment of our strike power as researchers.

Before the strike we were often told that the size of our picket was a proxy for our leverage. As picket numbers swelled and fell, so we noticed panic from union staff flow and ebb. Their reaction might have been justified were it not for the nature of our work.

The day dock workers withhold their labor, ships can no longer land at a port, and chaos quickly ensues. As researchers, our labor is fundamentally different, gradual but tectonic, and so the acute effects of our work stoppage are felt not after three days or even three weeks—by virtue of the slowness of research, the UC can incorporate some weeks of slacking—but only after continuing through critical grant deadlines, after research programs panic from the losses, after more professors blanche at the prospect of falling behind their competitors. Then will we see the UC’s composure dissolve.

Remember, we researchers brought in over $4.6 billion dollars in grant money to the UC last year; without our labor, the UC would not receive those grants and it would cease to function.

Our picket is a public demonstration; it builds morale and confidence; I have hardly missed a shift since the strike began; but so far our pickets have only demonstrated a force that has scarcely been used. As researchers, our power is ahead of us, not behind.

To harness this power, we must self-organize and reinterrogate our tactics. Many departments, especially those in which researcher wages are low, have already begun doing this; some, like my own, are not as far along in our progress, but that is changing, that has changed before my eyes even in the last day or two.

I have spoken with dozens of people about renegotiating the parameters of our work stoppage so it becomes a tactic flexible enough to sustain a prolonged strike but robust enough to continue exerting pressure and cause serious disruption to the UC. These decisions will be made democratically, person by person, lab by lab, department by department, with a critical evaluation of what benefits us much more than it benefits the university; I trust us, together, to arrive at suitable boundaries that we will not trespass.

There are still many labs in my department in which nearly all grad students have continued a near-complete work stoppage. These labs must begin to meet regularly to assess their strategy and fortify their power; they will be the bulwarks of our department; they will create an atmosphere of confidence and resolve that will enable others in less unified labs to strike, receiving support and camaraderie not from within but from without their labs.

We must begin crafting and frequently distributing polls to evaluate the strike power of our department, to know where to focus our energies and to adjust and course-correct our strategy. Finally, we must come to the aid of our most vulnerable colleagues, those who are being bullied in subtle or overt ways and who are susceptible to retaliation. We cannot let this demoralize us: it is our most concrete evidence for the effect of our strike as researchers.

Yesterday something revealing happened in a large, high-profile lab, run by an abusive and retributive professor, in which a handful of researchers, a minority of the lab, have courageously remained on strike, braving mounting stress and anxiety. The harassment and pressure for them to return to work became so oppressive that a postdoc who had continued his research until that point finally decided, in response, he would join his co-workers on the picket. Before leaving, he had a last conversation with the graduate student he was collaborating with, announcing that he would have to continue the project alone until the strike was over. At that moment, the graduate student also decided the time had come for him to strike.

This is a harbinger of things to come. A new phase of the strike is beginning. The strike is shifting into our hands, its course and strategy determined by ourselves as the mass of workers, as the rank and file. This is a strike to win a new world for academic research and higher education. We can win. We must win. We will win.

Jonathan Mackris is a PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the film and media department at UC Berkeley, and a member of UAW Local 2865. Abrar Abidi is a PhD candidate and graduate student researcher in the molecular and cell biology department at UC Berkeley and a rank-and-file organizer in SRU-UAW.