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UC and striking academics agree to mediation

The University of California and the union representing tens of thousands of its striking academics agreed on Friday to ask an independent mediator to intervene in stalled contract talks, hoping to reach an agreement to end the month-long strike that caused much uproar across the 10-campus system.

UC administrators for weeks urged 36,000 university workers represented by the United Auto Workers to enter voluntary mediation, where a neutral party would help both sides resolve ongoing disputes. Bargaining team members voted to go ahead a day after UC administrators told the union they would not make any new proposals during negotiations, according to union leaders.

The massive walkout – the biggest strike ever by higher education university workers in the country – came to a head this week in the finals when widespread disruption unfolded across the system. Exams were reduced, study sessions cancelled, homework unread. Professors – some honoring the picket lines and others unable to handle the load on their own – are withholding around 34,000 grades across the system.

Also on Friday, two smaller trading units representing 12,000 postdoctoral fellows and university researchers approved a new contract with UC raising their wages to some of the highest in the nation for these workers.

UC leaders said they were pleased that the two remaining bargaining units – which represent the vast majority of striking workers – had agreed to mediation.

“We remain committed to securing a fair and reasonable contract with the union that honors the hard work of our valued graduate student employees,” said Letitia Silas, executive director of system-wide labor relations. “With the help of a neutral mediator, we hope to get this agreement quickly.”

Rafael Jaime, president of UAW Local 2865, which represents about 19,000 university students, said that while the unions didn’t want to work with a third-party mediator at the start of the strike, it now makes sense. He said they were still a long way from reaching an agreement on compensation and tuition fees for international students.

“We’ve reached a very difficult time,” Jaime said, noting that it’s time “to use all the tools at our disposal.”

“We will continue to fight for the issues that are important to our members; it will remain the same,” Jaime said. “But we hope it will be helpful in reaching a fair deal.”

The two parties will meet to work out the details of the mediation process and will need to agree on a mediator and a schedule. If the UC and UAW fail to reach an agreement at the end of the process, the parties would return to the bargaining table or seek a stalemate, where the Public Employee Relations Commission would appoint its own mediator.

“Our goal has always been to make UC a more fair and equitable place to work,” said Tarini Hardikar, a UC Berkeley student researcher who serves on the bargaining team. “We look forward to working with a professional mediator to resolve the issues still on the table. Until then, we remain on strike.

Harry Bendekgey, who represents UC Irvine student researchers in the negotiations, said he voted on Friday in favor of moving forward with a mediator.

“I think a mediator is going to be useful in forcing serious offers,” said Bendekgey, a doctoral student in the computer science department.

He said he knew the four weeks had been difficult for many, but noted the progress already made in contract negotiations, including paid parental leave and transit subsidies. And while a mediator can help with wage discussions, he believes the pressure of the ongoing strike and the strength of their movement will have the biggest effect on pay.

“The wages we will earn in this contract will not be decided by a mediator… but by our workers’ commitment to strike,” Bendekgey said. He and many other strikers on the picket line on Friday said they remained committed to the effort, but there were growing concerns the strike could drag into the next term.

UC’s latest proposal proposed to raise workers’ pay by 12.6% or more effective Oct. 1, 2023. For a first-year teaching assistant, that would amount to $28,992 per year. In the fall of 2024, the base salary would increase from $29,000 to $36,000 for employed university students and from $33,500 to $48,500 for graduate research students.

In a statement, UC said most workers would receive an average pay increase of 26% over three years, in addition to increases based on experience.

The proposal still falls short of the $43,000 minimum wage for all graduate student workers the union is asking for, down from the $54,000 originally proposed.

Jaime said members don’t think the current UC proposal is enough.

“That’s still woefully short of what members really need to deal with the cost of living crisis we’re all experiencing,” Jaime said. “We would like to see more movement from them to us.”

Deryn LeDuke, a doctoral candidate in biomedical sciences at UC San Diego, said she attended a town hall early Friday about the mediation option and was glad the union agreed to involve a third.

She said she thinks a referee will help push UC in a fairer direction, and sooner. She feared that being forced into mediation after a stalemate would lead to further delays, meaning more time away from the experiments she is conducting as a full-time researcher.

The mice she uses in the behavioral neuroscience experiments have already passed their primary study window, which means the results she hoped to see in January likely won’t be complete until May. She will probably have to start over with a new cohort of mice.

Despite the time spent away from her job, she remains committed to the strike.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to my research, but I also have a responsibility to all these… graduate students,” LeDuke said.

On Nov. 28, UC reached a tentative agreement with postdoctoral and academic researchers, who belong to two smaller UAW bargaining units.

On Friday, after postdoctoral fellows and university researchers from UAW Local 5810 approved their deal, leaders announced on Twitter, “WE HAVE NEW CONTRACTS!”

The pact increases the minimum annual salary for their full-time positions from approximately $55,000 to $70,000 or more with various adjustments by the end of the five-year contract, including a $12,000 increase by next October.

“This resounding vote in favor of ratification sends a clear message that postdocs are excited about this new agreement and setting the standard for postdocs across the country. Tens of thousands of UC university workers have put everything on the line to create a stronger and fairer UC, and we couldn’t be prouder of everything we’ve achieved together so far,” said Jade Moore, a UCSF postdoctoral fellow in the Radiation Oncology Department and a member of the postdoc negotiation team.

Workers will no longer be on strike after ratification and can return to work on Monday.

This agreement does not apply to the 36,000 workers at UAW 2865, which represents graduate teaching assistants, tutors and instructors, and SRU-UAW, which represents student researchers, who will continue to strike as negotiations enter a new phase with a mediator.

California Daily Newspapers

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