Throughout my doctoral program I’ve helped with recruitment, which means I talk to prospective graduate student researchers, or GSRs, all the time. After five years as the only Latina in the nuclear engineering department at UC Berkeley, my resolve to recruit more first generation scholars like myself has only strengthened. But there are some serious obstacles. I’m currently on strike with thousands of my coworkers — and as the strike continues into week two, my greatest hope is that we will overcome these obstacles through a fair contract.
The first question I get from prospective GSRs is how it’s possible to afford to live in the Bay Area on an academic salary. It’s not an easy question to answer because the truth is the average UC Berkeley academic worker spends 60% or more of their income on rent alone. I believe in this institution, and I believe in my program, and I want us to have the best talent around without regard to their economic circumstances. But I keep watching dozens of people choose other programs because the UC system’s wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living.
The UC system needs to live up to its commitment to diversity by fixing that. According to just one excerpt from the UC Board of Regents Policy 4400, “Because the core mission of the University of California is to serve the interests of the State of California, it must seek to achieve diversity among its student bodies and among its employees. The State of California has a compelling interest in making sure that people from all backgrounds perceive that access to the University is possible for talented students, staff, and faculty from all groups. The knowledge that the University of California is open to qualified students from all groups, and thus serves all parts of the community equitably, helps sustain the social fabric of the State.”
This policy has been in place since 2010. It’s the end of 2022, and tens of thousands of academic workers represented by UAW local unions are on strike because the UC system isn’t negotiating fairly at the bargaining table to make progress on urgent issues of equity. It’s time for the UC system to show it values its workers from all backgrounds.
An essential part of that is transparency. When you get offered almost any job, you get quoted the salary or wages. What usually doesn’t happen is that you get a proposal where the employer divides your compensation into two buckets: earned wages and discretionary “support.” And what definitely doesn’t usually happen is for the employer to shift your total compensation between these two buckets such that when your earned wages increase (thanks to your union contract), your discretionary “support” decreases and your total earnings stay flat.
The UC system has also arranged it such that one bucket (“student support”) isn’t covered by our union contract, which means that they can unilaterally reduce or take it away at any time. And we aren’t talking small numbers: “Student support” can make up 1/3 of a worker’s salary. Last week a whole department of graduate workers at UCSD had ⅓ of their earnings taken away without notice, and were left scrambling to pay rent.
I have a colleague who didn’t receive a raise for three years because every time his salary increased, his “student support” shrunk. Meanwhile, his rent rose from $1,200 a month to $1,600 a month.
That’s unacceptable. We can’t plan our lives with this uncertainty and financial precarity. Unfortunately, during negotiations, the University of California is still trying to maintain this practice of circumventing the collective bargaining process while avoiding addressing rent burden.
I expected better from the premiere research institution where my parents always dreamed I would work. In my opinion, it does reflect the UC system’s long term vision or even its true desires for the type of university and employer it wants to be, and especially not what it wants prospective academic workers to see. The UC system needs to live up to its stated values and ensure that all of our earnings are covered in our contracts and keep up with the cost of living. I hope they do, because it will make it easier to give better answers to people I meet, and I guarantee it will lead the system closer to its commitment to diversity.