The UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865) is currently in contract negotiations with representatives of the UC Office of the President (UCOP). The negotiations will help determine the working and living conditions of over 13,000 graduate students, as well as many undergraduate students, who attend one of nine University of California campuses. Since graduate student instructors and undergraduate tutors are the front-line educators and researchers at the UCs, the negotiations will also help shape the future of higher education in California.
As with most labor negotiations, our union’s negotiations cover a relatively wide-range of subjects, all of which bear on student employees’ working conditions, including the wages we’re paid for teaching, our workload and working environment, and the benefits we are entitled to when we’re employed (i.e. health insurance remissions, paid leaves, and subsidies for childcare). There are also a number of more technical issues we’re bargaining over, including how individual grievance procedures will work and how much certainty student workers will have that the appointments they’ve been offered will come through. We’ve been meeting regularly since mid-summer to conduct these negotiations.
Labor Relations administrators from UCOP with whom we’ve been negotiating recently sent a report on bargaining to graduate program directors, asking them to forward the report along to graduate student lists. The UCOP report can be found here.
What follows is a detailed response to the UCOP bargaining report, composed by members of the UC Student Workers Union’s Bargaining Team. As we see it, the UCOP report significantly mischaracterizes important elements of the current bargaining dynamic including 1) wages: which are posed outside of the context of either criteria for livability or for salvaging the UCs quality of education as described by the Academic Senate, 2) timing: the report neglects to mention that UCOP’s failure to give the union information we were legally entitled to has significantly slowed the bargaining process, 3) social justice issues: like undocumented worker concerns, gendered discrimination against women graduate students, and gender neutral bathrooms which have been central to the bargaining process but mocked in the report , 4) and family friendly issues: where UC management’s limited proposed improvements are exaggerated and where legal requirements are posed as concessions.
Wages and Competitiveness
The UCOP bargaining report begins by introducing their initial comprehensive offer for a contract that would govern student workers’ living conditions for the next three years. Their initial offer includes 1.5% wage increases per year, which works out over three years to approximately 4.5% in increases, the number listed in the report. This initial proposal on wages does not address the serious crisis of competitiveness facing UC graduate programs.
According to the most recent Graduate Student Support Survey released by UCOP, low funding for graduate students is putting UC in crisis as potential and current students are choosing schools with more competitive funding packages. The Survey notes that, in 2010, average packages offered at other institutions were nearly $3,000 dollars better per year, and that, for the first time, over 50% of admitted students chose to attend other institutions. The “Report of the Taskforce on Competitiveness in Academic Graduate Student Support,” adopted by the UC Academic Council in June 2012, declares that: “rising tuition and uncompetitive stipends threaten to seriously undermine program quality.” Department Chairs at UC San Diego and UC Berkeley agree that our compensation packages are wholly inadequate, and that these packages don’t allow departments to make competitive offers for admitted students. At our bargaining session in San Diego, we presented a letter to this effect signed by 21 Department Chairs at San Diego, just as we had presented such a letter with 33 signatures from Berkeley Chairs at our previous session.
However, last week in San Diego, UC management proposed a 1.5% annual increase for the next three years. This amounts to about $27 a month for the average student worker, and is lower than the annual raises we’ve had under our current contract. This is about the livelihoods of student workers and the quality of research and education of our university. UC student workers are struggling with the rising cost of living in California, particularly with rising rents, and often are compelled to take out loans in order to make ends meet. For an account of the economic difficulties and high rates of indebtedness endured by student parents in particular, see the report compiled this summer by the Albany Village Residents Association.
The Academic Council and the Office of the President agree that the quality, competitiveness, and accessibility of education at the UCs is facing a crisis, and UC management’s initial proposal does not present anything that approaches a real effort to address this crisis. For a more detailed analysis of the relationship between lagging graduate support and quality and access to education see our report.
At San Diego, our union’s Bargaining Team offered as well a proposal for wage increases over the next three years. Our initial proposal on wages called for the University to commit to bringing the compensation of academic student employees to a level necessary to compete with top choice public and private institutions identified in the annual Graduate Student Support Survey, particularly given the relatively high costs of living in California. As noted above, the UCOP Student Support Survey says that, in 2010, average packages offered at other institutions were nearly $3,000 dollars better per year. We are calling upon representatives of the University to commit to closing this gap.
As negotiations continue, we anticipate a series of counter-proposals on both sides. We hope that, as this process unfolds, and as the concrete details of potential raises are worked through, UCOP representatives will demonstrate that they take seriously the crisis of competitiveness and of support for student workers identified by UC faculty members and by their own Graduate Student Support Survey.
Retroactive Pay and the Timing of Bargaining
The UCOP bargaining report makes a number of claims about the duration of bargaining and the question of retroactively applied wage increases for the current, Fall 2013 term. The report claims that negotiated wage increases will not be applied retroactively, and that the union has artificially slowed down the process of bargaining. Putting aside for a moment the question of the timing of bargaining, it is important to put the question of retroactive wage increases in the proper context.
UCOP representatives are encouraging anxiety among members about the loss of retroactivity with the false suggestion that they alone will determine the retroactivity of an agreement. Further, understanding the significance of retroactivity relies on a complex calculation and a few assumptions regarding what UC management would settle on without negotiations, and how much they might move if pushed by mobilized union communities, partners in other sectors, and other allies. However, a rough calculation can help (just be sure to recognize that these numbers are skewed towards thinking conservatively about the risk of going past the end date of a contract). Even with generous assumptions about what management would agree to without pressure (2.5%), conservative assumptions about the ability of the union, and of those who support competitive wages, to move management to adopt a higher wage offer (+.5%), and conservative assumptions about the amortization of raises over a three year contract, it is likely that risking the loss of retroactivity for at least 6 months beyond the original contract end date (Sept. 30) will be seen as worth it economically – and again this conservative estimate is significantly beyond the bargaining team’s clear goal of settling the contract as soon as possible, hopefully within the next few months. With an effective campaign for higher wages, student workers would come out ahead in terms of wage gains over our contract, in terms of long term changes in how we value academic work, and also in the effort to bring the UCs closer to competitor institutions so we stem the decline in educational quality. And, of course, despite claims to the contrary, UC contracts regularly settle past the end date and involve compensation to make up for delayed raises.
About the timing of negotiations: the UCOP bargaining report presents a simplistic, even misleading, account of how negotiations have been unfolding and of the barriers to resolution that have emerged and still must be worked through. As UCOP representatives tell the story, the union simply needs to focus on key issues of bargaining and to propose concrete changes in contract language in order to ensure efficient bargaining. What this story obscures – in addition to the fact that the union has proposed a whole series of clear revisions to current contract language to which UCOP representatives have neither responded in a substantive way nor worked to find compromise resolutions around – is the matter of the provision of information that is necessary and relevant to bargaining.
According to well established labor law in the United States, employers engaged in contract negotiations with workers’ unions must provide to union representatives all information that is necessary and relevant to bargaining, and labor law precedents make clear what kinds of information this entails. The reason for this requirement is that managers of firms have access to massive amounts of information relevant to labor costs and budgeting, to the composition of their workforce, and to working conditions at their firms – information to which workers do not generally have access. Having access to this information allows union representatives to determine how to prioritize different issues as they offer proposed revisions to contract language, and helps union representatives to identify in very concrete terms particular problems facing workers and to propose narrowly-tailored solutions to these problems.
As has been the case in past contract negotiations and in negotiations with other UC unions, UCOP representatives have dragged their feet in responding to the union’s information requests and often have attempted to deny the relevance to bargaining of this information, despite clear legal precedents indicating the relevance of these items. For example, UC management has repeatedly refused to provide basic demographic data about UC student employees, about TA / student ratios on particular campuses and departments, about the costs to the University of increasing wages by a set amount, and about utilization rates for current childcare and other benefits. This information is centrally relevant to bargaining, and would enable the union to make informed proposals about economic issues, issues of non-discrimination in employment, and TA / student ratios. The union recently filed a charge with the Public Employee Relations Board about UC managers’ refusal to provide some of this information, and have been engaging in extensive back and forth communication this summer to try and secure information relevant to bargaining over issues central to our contract. Some of this information has only recently been forthcoming, and some remains outstanding.
Social Justice Issues; or, Economic and Non-Economic Topics of Bargaining
The UCOP bargaining report contains as well the following assertion about the union’s activity during negotiations: “The university is disappointed the union has chosen to focus on social justice issues that are not a central part of an employment contract such as free speech holidays and sabbaticals.” This is a curious line for a number of reasons.
TA sabbaticals and a since-abandoned proposal for a symbolic day to recognize police violence are strange selections to illustrate the idea of “social justice issues.” Are sabbaticals really a matter of social justice? It seems that UCOP representatives are seeking to trivialize, without actually naming, the particular workplace issues bearing on access and equity that the union has been organizing around during this round of contract negotiations, which include equal access to professional opportunities for undocumented graduate students; discrimination against women ASEs interested in having children; access to all-gender bathrooms for transgender student workers; clear policies around mental health accommodations for academic workers; and adequate nursing accommodations for student parents. The issue of nursing accommodations is part of a larger conversation about what it will take for the UC to be family friendly for student parents – a conversation that is also concerned with issues of childcare, dependent healthcare coverage, and parental leave policies. These are all issues of justice and equity that bear centrally on the working conditions of student employees who face institutional barriers to equal participation in the University, and are issues that have been negotiated about in many collective bargaining processes. Our union attempts to take seriously the expression: An injury to one is an injury to all. We are confused by UCOP representatives’ assertion that the above-mentioned issues are “not a central part of an employment contract,” and are disappointed that they have chosen to frame these issues (that could be addressed with little to no cost) as somehow at odds with, or in competition with, some of the central economic issues also at stake in our negotiations, including wages and fee remissions.
Toward a Family Friendly UC
In conclusion, we’d like to address the other three proposed improvements, in leaves and childcare subsidies, that UCOP representatives have made as part of their initial, comprehensive contract proposal. At this point, UC management is proposing to extend the period of unpaid parental leave for non-birth parents from 2 to 4 weeks, to increase the childcare subsidy for children under 6 years old from $600 to $750 for quarter campuses and $900 to $1125 for semester campuses, and to provide guaranteed health coverage for people on pregnancy disability leave for up to 4 months. These would constitute very small improvements; health coverage during pregnancy disability leave is even at this point simply the law in California.
The current contract language around Leaves enables a situation where most graduate students who have children are ineligible for leave, are effectively compelled to withdraw for a term or longer, and then lose access to university-covered health insurance at a moment when health coverage is particularly critical. This situation is untenable, creates serious economic and health challenges for student parents, and imposes barriers to student parents’ equal participation in the University. To help address the currently non-family friendly conditions at the UC (which are outlined in more detail here), the union is proposing that graduate students be able to take a full term of parental leave, and that they should be guaranteed health insurance coverage during their leave, not contingent upon their being medically designated as disabled due to pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions. We are also proposing that the University reimburse the costs of childcare for school-age children, and that the University help cover the cost of dependent health insurance. We call on UCOP representatives to respond to these proposals in a way that helps make the University of California a truly family friendly employer.
Members of the UC Student-Workers Union’s bargaining team, as well as other members and officers in the union, are working intensively to help craft and build a broad-based campaign with graduate and undergraduate students, partners in other sectors of the University, and other allies – a campaign that has already, and will continue to, demonstrate to UCOP representatives the need for significant improvements in academic student employees’ working and living conditions. We are attempting to win improvements in the working lives of student workers, and in doing so to contribute to the renewal of the promise of public higher education in California. We hope you will consider joining this effort. To find out more about how to get involved or about what’s happening in bargaining, you can visit the following website, or contact union stewards.