'Could have fought harder': Response to new contracts reveals a union divided

UAW 2865, SRU-UAW members split on labor contracts, election practices and strike strategy

January 31, 2023
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Hsi-Min Chan | Senior Staff

For weeks, 48,000 academic workers united in a UC-wide strike. In its wake, student researchers, or SRs, and academic student employees, or ASEs, find themselves split.

On Dec. 23, 2022, the strike ended with the ratifications of new labor contracts between the UC system and two local unions: UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW, which represent ASEs and SRs, respectively. Since then, members and leaders have disputed union election practices, strike strategy and the impact of the two new contracts on their thousands of representees.

Majority support, coupled with a sizable opposition

On Dec. 9, 2022, a majority of UAW 5810’s membership — consisting of more than 11,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers — had ratified two contracts with the UC system. The UAW 5810 votes suggested widespread support, with 89.4% and 79.5% of voters approving the new contracts for postdocs and academic researchers, respectively.

Support for the UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW contracts was not as clear-cut.

Number of votes from UAW 2865 by campus

UAW 2865
Number of votes

The interactive chart above plots the results of the UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW contract ratification votes across UC campuses.

Data come from an email sent by communications@uc-uaw.org, which was obtained by The Daily Californian.

Tentative agreements for SRs’ and ASEs’ new contracts were approved by 68.4% and 61.6% of voters, respectively, and most campuses voted in support of the new contracts.

Tarini Hardikar — UAW 2865 member, SRU-UAW bargaining team member and doctoral candidate in UC Berkeley’s department of chemistry — is among these thousands of supporters.

“This agreement goes farther than any comparable contract in addressing our struggles, both financial and otherwise,” Hardikar said about the new contracts in an email. She added that SRU-UAW’s new contract is its first with the UC system — one she believes will be “quite transformative.”

Yet, the UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW votes are still a departure from academic researchers’ and postdocs’ broader support for their contracts.

UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW are much larger local unions than UAW 5810. SRU-UAW represents about 17,000 SRs, and UAW 2865 is comprised of more than 19,000 ASEs. UAW 5810 only represents some 11,000 academic researchers and postdocs — less than one-quarter of the 48,000 strikers.

Data show a divide between campuses. On both tentative agreements, voters from UC Merced and UC Santa Cruz showed stiff opposition — as did UC Santa Barbara’s ASEs.

The relatively large sizes of UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW portend a large faction of supporters. But they also face a hefty opposition: more than 7,000 ASEs and 4,500 SRs voted against the tentative agreements.

One of these ASEs is Omari Averette-Phillips. Once a UAW 2865 steward and a union representative with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, he is now a member of UAW 2865 and a doctoral student in history at UC Davis.

“A refrain going into the strike was how the Union was ‘48,000 workers strong,’ ” Averette-Phillips said. “Unfortunately what we saw was that the bargaining team, despite these numbers, was willing to bargain against themselves and capitulate to the demands of the UC,” he alleged.

‘We made too many concessions too quickly’: Wages, accommodations, tuition remission and policing at the bargaining table.

While many call the newly ratified UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW contracts “transformative,” some union members believe their bargaining teams left potential contract gains unwon.

Over the life of the contract, ASEs will see their current wages increase between 55 and 80 percent, and SRs’ wages will rise between 25 and 80 percent, according to the UAW 2865 website.

By October 2024, UC Berkeley’s entry-level graduate student instructors can expect $4,249.06 each month for working 20 hours per week — about $38,200 for nine months of work during the academic year. Across the UC system, the minimum monthly salary for SRs working 20 hours per week will be about $2,880.38 in October 2024 — or about $34,560 for the calendar year.

In September and October 2022, however, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW bargained to increase base wage for SRs and many ASEs working 20 hours per week to an annual $54,084.

Out of SRU-UAW’s 21 total bargainers, Hardikar is among the 13 who moved to tentatively agree on the UC system’s Dec. 15, 2022 offer. She’s also one of more than 10,000 SRU-UAW members who voted to ratify the contract.

Hardikar recognized that the contracts did not win all they set out to achieve for academic workers, but she still sees plenty to admire.

“We have industry-setting protections against bullying, harassment, and discrimination, along with workplace safety and health protections,” Hardikar said about SRU-UAW’s contract in an email. “Worker's compensation and a solid leaves policy, on top of incredible raises makes this a very successful contract in my opinion.”

Concessions are, after all, an expected part of negotiation. Ideally, concessions are a step toward the other party — all in an effort to meet in the middle.

Yet, thousands believe there was more for academic workers to win. Nicholas Cruz, a UAW 2865 bargainer and doctoral student in political science at UC Merced, is one of them.

“I do think we could have fought harder for a lot of these articles,” Cruz said in an interview. “We made too many concessions too quickly.”

Following a UC system proposal on access needs, Cruz says he received dozens of emails from union members urging the bargaining team to reject the university’s offer. That offer was tentatively agreed upon by the UAW 2865 bargaining team and has been codified into their new contract.

The local unions’ two articles entitled “Reasonable Accommodation” remain the same as UAW 2865’s last contract aside from two changes. Firstly, an ASE or SR can invite a union representative to discuss reasonable accommodations with a university representative. Also, the new contracts touch on temporary work adjustments while the employee and the university arrange workplace accommodations.

The new contracts add access-related policies outside of the “Reasonable Accommodation” articles, as well. Upon being notified of their work appointment, ASEs and SRs are told to request accommodations, under the “Appointment Notification” articles. Moreover, the “Joint Labor Management Committee” side letters suggest agenda items for committees on workplace accessibility.

UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW’s first proposals on workplace accessibility, however, would have required that all technology and software used for ASEs’ and SRs’ work be accessible with no mention of medical documentation.

The ratified contract makes no such promises, explicitly. If both the university and the employee agree the work necessitates an accommodation, the contracts state that SRs and ASEs should discuss potential solutions with university representatives.

Julia Métraux is the founder and president of the Disabled Journalists Association’s Berkeley chapter, a member of UAW 2865 and a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

“It feels very ‘(human resources)’ and not very ‘disability justice,’ ” Métraux said about the new contracts’ access policies in an interview. “It's made to protect the employer, especially with having a university (representative) come in,” she alleged.

Like the last contract between the UAW 2865 and the university, the UC system may ask SRs and ASEs to provide medical documentation “identifying functional limitations and how such limitations affect the (academic worker’s) ability to perform the essential functions of the job.”

In some cases, the university may pay for a UC-appointed health care provider to examine the employee.

Métraux also critiqued the contracts’ policies on medical documentation.

“It's also an impossible process if you don't have medical documentation. For example, you're just really sick and don't know what's wrong.” Métraux said. “I went through that phase when I was in undergrad, and that caused me to leave my undergrad program.”

The contracts’ remission of nonresident supplemental tuition, or NRST, fell short of some academic workers’ hopes as well.

The ratified contracts remit three years of NRST for doctoral students ready to research and write a dissertation, which was a preexisting university policy.

Four international students on the UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW bargaining teams — including Hardikar — penned an open letter on NRST.

“Codifying existing remission policies … will allow us to enforce these remissions, and allow us to file and win grievances for other past practices, ensuring continuation of remission policies,” the letter reads. “We understand that this win on the NRST front is limited, and falls short of our initial bargaining demands.” While “limited,” the letter continued to call the contracts’ NRST remissions a “victory.”

If a nonresident doctoral student is not yet ready to work on their dissertation, the UC system can charge them up to $15,102 in NRST for the 2022-23 academic year, under the new contracts.

The local unions’ first proposals for tuition and fee remission, however, attempted to remit all tuition and fees — nonresident and otherwise — for each term an ASE or SR works 25% or more of full-time employment.

“I don't think the union fights for international student NRST remission enough,” alleged Yuanqi Lyu, an international doctoral student in UC Berkeley’s department of physics, a member of SRU-UAW and a UAW 2865 steward.

He explained that some departments help offset their international students’ NRST charges. For example, UC Berkeley’s math department covers NRST for an additional two academic years.

Average number of years to complete doctoral degree by campus

The chart above plots the average number of registered years it took students in the 2018-2020 graduating cohort to complete one doctoral degree across UC campuses. Data exclude periods of time during which students were not registered in graduate study at their campus. Data also do not include students in professional doctoral programs, such as J.D., M.D. or Pharm.D. programs.

Data come from the University of California website.

Across UC campuses, students often take longer than five years to complete their doctoral degree. UC Berkeley doctoral students took the second longest — with an average of 5.9 years.

“To see people advertise this … as a win is not quite pleasant and feels very condescending,” said Galen Liang, a UAW 2865 member and UC Berkeley international doctoral student in math, in an interview.

The union will organize to secure full NRST remission in the coming years, according to Hardikar.

In recent years, movements across the UC system have attempted to reform, disendow or abolish campus policing. UAW 2865 did, too, in its contract negotiations.

On Sept. 21, 2022, the UAW 2865 bargaining team proposed what would have been a new article: “Community Safety.” The article would have prohibited the university from calling external law enforcement to campuses and “(defunded) the budgets dedicated to (UCPD),” which totaled $155 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

If local, state or federal law enforcement ever made it to campus, the university would have been obligated to report the agency, size, location, purpose and duration of police presence to ASEs. Their presence was also grounds for ASEs to take time off work or avoid campus without penalty or reduction in pay.

After it was first introduced, neither party made further proposals on “Community Safety,” and no version of the article was included in UAW 2865’s contract.

While Cruz alleged UC bargainers “seemed to just not acknowledge its existence,” he also alleged the UAW 2865 bargaining team didn’t expect the proposed article to go far in the first place.

“It’s particularly rare for this sort of thing to end up on the table,” Cruz said. “For a lot of these long-shot articles that we don’t typically expect to win or to actually get or don’t expect to go very far, they’re still useful as bargaining chips.”

Cruz explained that the bargaining team had their sights set on other efforts. But ultimately, UAW 2865 and the university have conflicting attitudes toward campus policing.

The Federated University Police Officer’s Association — the union representing UCPD officers — ratified its own contract with the university in 2022. In response, UC executive director of labor relations Letitia Silas stated that “UC deeply values the commitment and contributions of our police officers to the university and the communities we serve, particularly during the many challenges of the past two and a half years.”

In contrast, a February 2021 report from the UAW 2865 Research Working Group urged organizers to pressure the university to defund, disarm, disband and abolish campus police.

For Averette-Phillips, the short-lived bargaining on “Community Safety” is telling.

“UAW (2865) refused to have the backs of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian and disabled workers by refusing to push this article. By not pushing this article the (UAW 2865) bargaining team showed a lack of courage, a lack of care and concern for their coworkers and a subservience to white supremacy,” Averette-Phillips alleged.

Averette-Phillips imagined that UCPD’s budget could be reappropriated for wages, housing and the needs of disabled students.

It’s clear that not all efforts made by the local unions were entirely successful, but Hardikar suggests that their demands could be realized in the future.

“I absolutely understand the frustration that we didn’t win everything we set out to win,” Hardikar said in the email. “It’s going to take a longer fight to transform the University in a way that fully addresses our needs.”

Union members rebuke SRU-UAW, UAW 2865 election practices

The UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW bargaining teams tentatively agreed on the local unions’ new contracts Dec. 16, 2022. After that, it was up to SRs and ASEs to ratify the contracts by a majority vote.

Following the local unions’ tentative agreements, many union members received calls, texts and emails multiple times a day, urging a “yes” vote on contract ratifications. Lyu, however, did not get many.

“I have been a very prominent ‘no’ vote organizer,” Lyu said. “So I didn't receive phone calls or text messages very often.”

Unlike “yes” voters, “no” voters such as Lyu were not allowed to organize their peers to vote “no” using UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW’s listings of member contact information. In fact, campaigning for a “no” vote could be grounds for the UC system to file an unfair labor practice, or ULP, case against UAW for bad faith bargaining.

After Kern High School District and California School Employees Association, Chapter #747, tentatively agreed on a contract for the 1997-98 and 1998-99 school years, two members of the association’s bargaining team campaigned against ratification — one of them donning a “VOTE NO” button at work. In 1998, the California Public Employment Relations Board, or PERB, filed a complaint against the association for its members’ actions, calling it a failure of the association to bargain in good faith.

While PERB complaints are not rulings or testaments to the union’s wrongdoing, ULP allegations can escalate to a formal hearing with an administrative law judge.

“They do not allow people to organize a ‘no’ vote, where they can use the same exact resources to organize a ‘yes’ vote,” Lyu said. “It's an extremely strange occasion that this happens in a democratic country.”

Lyu is not the only union leader frustrated by the policy.

Out of SRU-UAW’s bargaining team, 13 voted in favor of SRs tentative agreement, and 7 voted against it. An even stiffer opposition, UAW 2865’s bargaining team voted 11 to 8.

“I’m really upset about it,” Cruz said, who voted against UAW 2865’s tentative agreement. “Pro-‘yes’ vote people monopolized the canvassing resources, emails, text messages and what-not. That obviously put them at a significant advantage,” he alleged.

Hardikar, however, alleged union members and bargainers who voted “no” still campaigned for a “no” vote with union contact lists — which would be defying protocol.

Using union resources to campaign for a “no” vote could land the union in a sticky legal situation, but UC-UAW communications did attempt to inform members on why some bargaining team members voted against the tentative agreement.

A Dec. 17 email from communications@uc-uaw.org included statements by bargaining team members from both the “yes” and “no” camps. The majority “yes” statement recommended that union members vote “yes.”

Keeping with the PERB’s 1998 decision, dissenting bargaining team members did not urge a “no” vote in their statement — but rather recommended that union members discuss the offer.

Métraux voted “no” on UAW 2865’s tentative agreement. Still, she questioned the practice of recommending any kind of vote.

“There are many lawsuits in the United States about elections and allegations of poll workers encouraging people to vote in a certain way, which they're not allowed to do,” Métraux said. “So why is that allowed in this union?”

It is unclear what kind of anti-ratification action qualifies as bad faith bargaining, though.

A Dec. 14, 2020 PERB decision on union ULPs and bargaining conduct noted that “the level of dissenting bargaining team members’ active campaigning that would be sufficient to prove a union’s bad faith remains an unresolved issue.”

Still, the PERB’s 1998 decision set a precedent. To avoid ULP charges, union policy sticks to it.

The strength and sacrifice of the strike

Like UAW 2865’s last contract, the two new union contracts’ “No Strikes” articles prohibit strikes that interfere with university operations. Once the contracts were ratified, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW were contractually obligated to end the strike.

But with dissenters both at the bargaining table and on the picket line, a question arises as to why many bargaining team members tentatively agreed upon contracts that left thousands unsatisfied.

“The urgency behind trying to move towards the university's position quickly was this thought that our strike was weakening, because there were fewer people participating in it,” Cruz said. “The number of people standing out on the picket line every day was (many bargaining team members’) indicator for the strength of our strike,” he continued.

Averette-Phillips and Lyu concurred that many union bargainers saw picket line participation as tantamount to the strength of the strike as a whole.

Each week, union members were eligible for $400 in strike pay per week from the union upon completing 20 hours of picketing or other strike assistance. But as the strike wore on, union leaders reported fewer people checking into the picket line.

For some, that was a sign of a weakening strike. Others take issue with this interpretation, though.

“We all know that a strike — by its definition — is a work stoppage,” Lyu said.

The strike wedged itself around Thanksgiving and winter break. Given the timing, Lyu and Cruz believe it was reasonable for academic workers to use the strike as an opportunity to leave campus and not picket, but still abstain from working.

Even with dwindling picket line attendance, Cruz thought that prolonging the strike — blowing through grading deadlines and the next academic term — would have pressured the UC system to make more generous offers.

Hardikar is not so convinced. “Some people would have preferred to continue striking, but that would not have guaranteed us a better offer,” she said in the email.

Once UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW ratified their contracts, the strike had lasted six weeks.

For many students and academic workers across the UC system, it was six weeks of missed discussions, delays in grading or hampered research.

“Given the amount of sacrifice required by our students and workers ourselves, it's important to weigh the need felt by many to return to work with the need to improve our working conditions to the greatest extent possible before ending the strike,” Hardikar said.

For now, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW are prohibited from striking until their contracts with the UC system sunset in 2025.

What’s next for academic workers?

By 2025, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW should be back at the bargaining table with UC negotiators. These upcoming years, however, have already presented a number of challenges for the university and its academic workers.

The UC system may dock strikers' pay — sparking a cease-and-desist letter to the university on behalf of UAW 5810, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW. In light of planned wage increases, the UCLA Faculty Association sponsored a letter urging the UC Office of the President not to pass along the new contracts’ costs to departments, research centers or faculty. Last Thursday, a letter from UAW 2865 and UAW 5810 presidents Rafael Jaime and Neal Sweeney asked UC president Michael Drake to reconsider potential reductions in graduate enrollment.

UAW 2865’s last contract with the UC system lasted about four years. The UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW’s new contracts are set to expire May 30, 2025 — a more brief two and a half years.

The shortened period of time has given hope to many who see it as an expedited opportunity to advocate for demands left unfulfilled by this last bargaining period.

“We’re a lot stronger than we give ourselves credit for,” Cruz said. “Whatever we didn't get this time around in this particular contract fight, we can very much get in the next contract.”

Before their 2022 contract negotiations, UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW sent out surveys to gauge union members’ priorities and interests for the upcoming bargaining period.

With survey responses in hand, the UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW bargaining teams can fashion their negotiations with the UC system to address union members’ concerns. Yet some union members are not sure that union leadership will deliver on their demands.

Averette-Phillips thinks the shorter time period could be seen as hopeful, but he also believes it could be flawed. “My concern is, in two years, even with 48,000 members on strike again, how can we possibly hope to win the sort of advances that I fully believe can be won, if the bargaining team refuses to hold strong?” he questioned.

Lyu said that assembling 48,000 academic workers into a strike is not just historic. It’s rare.

Between 1993 and 2021, 606 strikes of at least 1,000 workers occurred in the U.S., but only 20 involved 45,000 workers or more, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I don't see why (a strike) would happen again in 2.5 years — especially now that with such a contract, it's actually created a lot of splitting with the union,” Lyu said. Following ratifications, Lyu had to convince multiple Chinese union members to stay in the union; with NRST remission short of expectations, they felt little need to cede 1.44% of their salaries to union dues.

If without the leverage of a strike, Lyu characterized hopes that bargaining in 2025 will yield more agreeable contracts for academic workers as “quite overconfident.”

Hardikar pointed out that union members can advocate for their interests even before contract renegotiations.

Off the bargaining table, academic workers have protested alleged workplace bullying, secured expansions to NRST remission and rallied to increase affordable housing. On Jan. 22, 2023, less than a month after contract ratifications, the UAW 2865 joint council — made up of elected head stewards and executive board members — voted to merge with SRU-UAW.

Unlike their recent bargaining season, SRs and ASEs will most likely bargain for one contract in 2025, according to Lyu.

In response to the vote, 34 UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW members — including Lyu — signed an open letter raising concerns about the merger, with representation of SRs in UAW 2865 leadership and approval from SRs and ASEs among them.

Despite pushback, the passed resolution is clear on the potential strength of consolidating the two local unions – drawing on years of ASEs’ and SRs’ joint efforts to unionize.

“Whereas, the last two decades have demonstrated that GRS (SRs) and ASEs win the most when they fight together,” the resolution wrote.

Union leaders and many academic workers insist on a more united “fight” following a historic strike. Its aftermath, however, reveals a union divided — with many questioning the efforts, practices and future of UAW 2865 and SRU-UAW.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cruz received dozens of emails regarding the UC system’s Dec. 15, 2022, offer and its policies on access needs. In fact, the dozens of emails followed a UC system offer on access needs from another date.

Cameron Fozi is a projects developer. Contact him at cfozi@dailycal.org, and follow him on Twitter at @cmrnfzi.

About this story

This project was developed by the Projects Department at The Daily Californian.

Data for this project come from UC-UAW email communications and the University of California.

Questions, comments or corrections? Email projects@dailycal.org.

Code, data and text are open-source on GitHub.

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