University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023.
University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

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After a nearly six-week strike — the largest and longest ever in American higher education — the University of California reached a deal with tens of thousands of academic workers. The new contract brought significant wage increases, new workplace protections against bullying and harassment, and added benefits for those with children.  

But despite being hailed as a landmark deal, approval of the contract wasn’t unanimous. The final contract created divisions, and in the weeks before ratification, a group represented by the United Auto Workers launched a campaign to urge fellow union members to vote “no.” Ultimately, around 68 percent of graduate student researchers and around 62 percent of other academic workers voted to approve the contract. 

One chief frustration was the dropping of a cost-of-living-adjustment proposal during negotiations. But another less flashy element that’s caused consternation is an additional $2,500 dollars going to teaching assistants at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UC Los Angeles. 

Some were confused why the extra money was only going to those three campuses.  

Jessica Ng, a doctoral student at UCSD Scripps Institute of Oceanography, said she never heard any official justification or rationale offered from the UC side, while the UAW officials attributed the two-tier contract to the fact that it’s generally more expensive to live in the other cities. 

University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023.
University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

“That’s not an official, an actual reason, from the bargaining table,” Ng said, “Santa Barbara is more expensive than some of the campuses that got this additional ($2,500), but Santa Barbara wasn’t included.” 

According to data from Zumper, a housing research company, the $2,543 median rent for one-bedroom apartments in Santa Barbara is higher than both Los Angeles, which comes in at $2,382, and Berkeley, which is $2,245. San Diego’s $2,350 median rent for one-bedroom apartments also exceeds Berkeley, and tails close behind Los Angeles. 

By some measurements, San Diego is the least affordable city in the United States. It has some of the highest home prices yet the median income is below that of many other metros.  

When asked for comment, the UC director of media relations pointed to a press release issued at the end of the strike. The ratification of the contract, said Letitia Silas, executive director of systemwide labor relations, “demonstrates yet again the University’s strong commitment to providing every one of our hardworking employees with competitive compensation and benefit packages…” 

Looking forward, Ng is worried the extra money may harm solidarity in future negotiations.  

“One of my concerns is that the two-tiered wage system and the discrepancies between UCs would prevent the mass participation we saw this time,” Ng said. “A lot of people were saying, ‘We can strike again in two and a half years,’ but that is not guaranteed.” 

Representatives for the UAW did not return interview requests. 

Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara, also thinks the extra $2,500 received by some may complicate future negotiations. 

“I’ve looked at it … I’m still mystified,” Lichtenstein said. Though he doesn’t see the two-tier wage system as a destabilizing force long term, he is convinced it’ll create tension.  For decades, there’s been what he calls a “simmering debate” about whether Berkeley and UCLA should become the UC system’s flagship campuses, something he and other faculty have opposed.  

To him, the extra money received by those campuses “is one step in that direction,” he said. And when it comes to recruiting talent, the extra money given to workers at three universities “makes it even more difficult for (other UC’s) to compete against them,” Lichtenstein said. 

Lian Song, a doctoral student at UCSD, said the elements of the agreement fail to recognize the shared interests across campuses.  

“They set an arbitrary division based on prestige. It doesn’t speak to the value of the work we’re doing here, and it doesn’t capture any real differences in worker needs,” Song said. “I think the two-tier thing is a little bit insulting.” 

Still, Lichtenstein views the strike — and its ensuing contract — as a success, and one that may spur labor organization in the future. The effect is already being felt at schools like USC and CalTech, which are in the midst of organizing and negotiations.

While the UC contract isn’t perfect, said Jim Miller, an author and professor of labor studies at San Diego City College, the strike brought out fire and militancy that should be replicated the next time around. That alone, he thinks, is a positive development.  

“One hopes that people are forward-looking and don’t allow this to be something that creates divisions within the union, but (rather) something that points forward to inequities that need to be worked out in future contracts,” Miller said. 

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

Tianrui Huang

Tianrui Huang is an intern at Voice of San Diego.

Join the Conversation


  1. Having been involved in many union negotiations during my career, it seems as if the University system succeeded is splitting the union’s negotiating solidarity. They lowered their costs by creating a two tier pay scale. In other words the union members got screwed by their union.

    Get used to it, it will happen again.

  2. The negotiated contract created new salary minimums and established three guaranteed pay increases for all students, including students already paid above the new minimums (which includes Engineering, Biology, Chemistry, Oceanography, …). The guarantees increases are 2.8% on April 1, another 6% on October 1, and another 6% next October 1, 2024.

    This means a student currently earning $36,000 will make at least $41,600 starting 10/1/24. The total extra salary is about $10,000 for 4/1/23-9/30/25 (30 months) — that’s a conservative estimate.

    Problem: University of California left the faculty out of the negotiations. UC is now making each Professor pay the extra from their grants, but many grants underway don’t have the flexibility to rebudget.

    This reality will have immediate impacts going forward — fewer future students? Fewer lab positions for current first year students seeking labs?

    In general, it takes about 2 years to get a new grant. Even that will not work for many Federal grants. NIH has salary caps and NSF will not allow rebudgeting to cover the cost of salary raises on existing grants.

    Without a new infusion of state funding to cover the extra about $10,000 per graduate student researcher, the system will be zero-sum and will have to shift. Fewer students in labs. The extra grant money is just not there.

  3. If graduate students can only afford housing on or around the campuses of Riverside and Merced, which are much less expensive than Westwood, Berkeley, or San Diego—that is just the reality of CA housing—what, then happens to the graduate programs at the three campuses with some of the highest housing costs in the country? A better solution is low or no-cost housing on properties owned by the campuses for these members of the UC community.

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