Update, Dec. 12:
As of Monday, postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers have ended their strike and resumed work. On Dec. 9, both groups voted to ratify new contracts, with 89% of postdocs and 79.5% of academic researchers in favor.
Over 30,000 academic student employees and student researchers are still withholding their labor, which includes not submitting grades. Their respective bargaining teams and the University of California have agreed on Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg as a mediator to help break negotiation gridlock on items such as wages, non-resident tuition and childcare and dependent healthcare.
Details about the mediation schedule remain under discussion.
Three years ago, the close of fall quarter at UC Santa Cruz marked the beginning of a strike that spread throughout all 10 UC campuses.
Frustrated by attempts to negotiate with administration for a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, and dissatisfied by the union contract that was ratified in August 2018 while many workers were on summer break, some graduate students withheld grades at the end of fall quarter and stopped all labor in February — a “wildcat” strike, conducted without the permission of their union, UAW 2865.
The current work stoppage across UC schools is reaching that same critical juncture. The strike, which began Nov. 14, is legally-protected and authorized by a vast majority of UAW 2865, UAW 5810 and SRU-UAW members. Organizers say they look to continue the strike through the end of fall term as bargaining teams representing assistant student employees and student researchers continue negotiating with UC.
As of Dec. 7, close to 400 faculty have signed onto a pledge of solidarity in support of the striking workers and committed to withdrawing their academic labor, including grades.
Here’s what a grade strike might look like in action and what could happen if the strike continues into the next academic term.
How many grades may be impacted?
According to responses from a survey circulated by the UC Faculty Association, at least 33,000 grades across UC will not be submitted come the end of fall term. Given the limitations of spreading the survey, the amount of responses may not reflect the full number of grades withheld.
What happens to undergraduate students if grades aren’t submitted?
At UC Davis, a letter sent out to faculty, students and staff on Dec. 2 by Provost Mary Craughan notes that all non-submitted grades will be listed as No Grade (NG) on a transcript prior to the start of Winter Quarter.
“[No Grade] will not impact your financial aid status, GPA, academic standing, NCAA eligibility, veteran benefits or visa status,” Croughan wrote. “UC Davis respects the protected activities of employees and is committed to not retaliate or take adverse actions against those engaging in legal labor action. This includes international students who are here on visas.”
Professor Joshua Clover, who’s been part of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UC Davis for over 20 years and helped draft the UC faculty pledge of solidarity, acknowledged the disruption a strike causes.
But “if a strike doesn’t pose any problems for an employer, it’s not a strike,” he said.
Some campuses have pushed grade submission deadlines to January in response to imminent grade withholding, including UC Davis, which has moved the deadline from Dec. 14 to Dec. 28.
In Croughan’s letter, she asks academic advisors to work with students who were not in good academic standing prior to fall quarter, for whom a No Grade would mean their academic standing could not be improved.
“Grades will be submitted after the strike ends, and your blank grades will be updated to reflect the grades you earned,” an FAQ for undergraduates made by striking workers at UC Davis states. The FAQ also encourages students to go to final exams as planned.
Why withhold grades?
With striking workers stopping all academic labor, not submitting grades — especially for workers who have not graded student assignments for several weeks — is an extension of that stoppage and a strategy to pressure the university.
Ross Hernandez is a sixth-year PhD student in the department of Comparative Literature at UC Davis.
“It seems like our department funding is tied to grade submission …and it also communicates to the university what course outcomes look like,” he said. “There’s real material impact in withholding grades.”
Clover, the UC Davis professor, says faculty who aren’t grading work and refusing to submit grades are doing so knowing that “the item with the most weight on it is the work of grading.”
“If you have to figure out what products people are buying for their tuition money, it’s grades,” he said. “Withdrawing our ability to deliver that product or interfering with that product is the strongest way to support the strike.”
How is this different from the COLA wildcat strikes?
Because the strike was authorized via a union member vote, UC cannot retaliate against striking workers without facing consequences. The current strike is an unfair labor practice strike, in which strikers have their jobs protected while they’re withholding labor “absent serious misconduct,” per the National Labor Board of Relations.
That’s compared to the wildcat strike, when over 54 of the UC Santa Cruz teaching assistants who withheld Fall Quarter grades were sent notices of dismissal at the end of February 2020.
There are also far more people involved in the current work stoppage than in 2019-2020, given four different bargaining units are striking instead of a limited coalition of UAW 2865 members.
A cost of living adjustment is the main common demand between the wildcat strikes and the unfair labor practice strike, though both strikes have officially listed demands that go beyond wages and fair compensation.
Given the ongoing pandemic, for example, lowering barriers to having access needs met and instituting public health protections are two elements of worker demands in this strike absent from the original COLA movement.
Hernandez, the comparative literature student, helped organize actions in support of COLA at UC Davis two years ago.
He says differing levels of undergraduate involvement also set the two movements apart, especially since the People’s Coalition — a group of queer, BIPOC undergraduate students — was the bedrock for COLA organizing at UC Santa Cruz.
“I’d like to say to undergrads, ‘We can make demands together,’” Hernandez said. “It could start with demanding tuition refunds for fall quarter… We can’t make demands for them, but we can fight with them.”
He added that undergraduate students only got part of the quarter they paid for because their TAs and student assistants were striking, and could put additional pressure on administration by voicing frustration.
This strike’s focus on academic researchers, postdoctoral students, student researchers and graduate student workers, instead of connecting their work to undergraduate students’ experiences, he said, has hampered some of the strike’s power.
“While we are the workers who keep a lot of the university running, we are not the university.”
What might the future of the strike look like?
While the UAW bargaining teams representing postdoctoral students and academic researchers have reached tentative agreements with UC, those workers remain on solidarity strike with academic student employees and student researchers as they continue to negotiate. Tentative agreements must be ratified by a simple majority of members.
However, many workers, including UC Santa Cruz union leaders, say they’re preparing for a long-haul strike.
Union organizers set up rallies at the Sacramento and Oakland UC Offices of the President on Dec. 5, during which some protesters were arrested for trespassing, as an escalation method. However, Hernandez said, while showing collective power through demonstration is important, “the power of the strike is not numbers at the picket line.”
“It’s not a demonstration, but an actual withholding of labor,” he said.
With the access needs article and COLA language removed from current UAW bargaining team proposals to the UC, an increasing number of rank-and-file workers are discussing the adoption of a strategy employed by Columbia student workers who went on strike last year: voting down a contract that doesn’t address initial union demands.
“We want to vote no on the contract that is coming our way in order to vote yes to living where we work, to park where we work, to get funding to do research, to have children and raise them where we work, to have safe and accessible environments where we work,” Hernandez said. “We think that this is realistic and serious.”
The strike will end when all workers ratify their respective contracts.
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