A quarter of the striking University of California academic workers ratified a new contract over the weekend.
Members of UAW Local 5810 overwhelmingly approved their contracts at 10 UC campuses statewide. The 12,000 postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers won salary increases that address the high cost of living. They will also receive eight weeks of paid family leave and protections against workplace harassment and bullying.
Even with that resolution, there are still 36,000 UC teaching assistants and graduate student researchers who remain on strike. They have put picket lines on hold for the winter break after agreeing to mediation with university contract negotiators.
Anoop Pratura, 25, is one of them.
He was accepted at UC San Diego at the height of the COVID-19 shutdown in the fall of 2020 as a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in biophysics. Pratura started his studies remotely and transitioned to on-campus learning and research work.
“We’re doing world-class research in our labs. We are providing some of the best teaching you can get anywhere in the country,” he said. “All of that is given by graduate students. I wish I understood the disconnect of why I was forced to live in my car. Other than the fact that the UC will do anything it can to not pay us the wages we deserve."
Pratura’s pay grade is in the range of just $24,000 to $30,000 a year. That is at the heart of the labor dispute still unresolved for academic workers whose bargaining representatives have agreed to begin mediation with the university this week.
Pratura ended up homeless, living in his Toyota Tacoma for almost two months this past summer. That happened after the University City apartment near campus he shared with three roommates was destroyed in a flood caused by a sewer line break.
“It was kind of like a week-to-week thing. I kept thinking by next week, I’ll find a place I can afford and I can move out of here. But, with how little money I was making I couldn’t even afford to apply to most places,” Pratura said.
While he was homeless trying to survive in his car, he also got COVID-19.
Pratura told KPBS News, “Across the UC, most grad students are rent burdened, which means they pay more than 30% of their monthly income on rent. If you include the cost of transportation and the cost of food every month, I’m not able to make ends meet,” he said.
He did eventually find a more affordable apartment to share with a roommate in North Park, although a majority of his paycheck still goes to rent.
“It’s just very expensive to buy a car and keep it up. I can’t do that financially,” said Ahmed Akhtar, who moved from Chicago to attend UC San Diego almost six years ago.
He has never been able to afford a car as a graduate researcher working on a Ph.D. in physics. His housing scholarship will soon run out leaving him in limbo for a place to live.
Desperate for security, Akhtar and his colleagues formed a new union, last year, called Student Researchers United. Teaching assistants and postdoctoral researchers were already unionized under the United Auto Workers of America. The new union is also under the UAW, which adopted the academic members, giving them immediate and significant financial and bargaining power.
“For the longest time student researchers didn’t have a union. We didn’t have the tool for getting rights, enforcing and protecting our rights, and now we do,” said Akhtar.
The strikers are also fighting for better working conditions. They want learning and research environments free of harassment and bullying. Union members have said that is common among tenured professors and administrators. International students want protection from unjustified threats of having their visas revoked without cause.
Varun Ramaprasad is a teaching assistant from India. He is willing to accept the risk of joining the union and being visible on the picket lines.
“I think it will be worth it. We have already made huge gains even though UC is trying not to give us what we deserve, but we are going to keep fighting for it!” Ramaprasad said.
Pratura is grateful to be housed and healthy again. He is not sure the dream of getting his doctorate is still moving in the same direction. It could be on hold for a bigger purpose to help prevent others from suffering his pain and past.
“I want to fight to build a system, a coalition, a union where people don’t have to go through that,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for my community, I don’t know how I would have made it. That's why something like a union is so important to me because that is the essence of community, and how a community can be there for you.”
On Monday, schools in the Julian Union, Spencer Valley and Warner Unified school districts were closed by the winter storm lingering over the county.