The University of California (UC) system receives national recognition as a beacon of higher education, diversity, and progress. The UC’s mission page proudly proclaims its “pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge,” but the backbone of the countless awards and accolades proudly accepted by the UC is the work of Academic Student Workers (ASEs), postdocs, student researchers, and academic researchers.
They are overworked, underpaid, and fed up.
Three groups within the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) are currently bargaining for their respective contracts side-by-side: UAW Local 2865, with 19,000 tutors, readers, and graduate students; UAW Local 5810, with 12,000 postdoctoral and academic researchers; and the SRU-UAW (Student Researchers United), with 17,000 student researchers.
We cannot understate the role of ASEs, postdocs, graduate students, and other academic student researchers. They’ve continually shown dedicated and passionate work in anthropological outreach, scientific research, environmental sustainability, and countless other fields.
The labor of tutors, readers, and teaching assistants extends past explaining key concepts and lectures and providing academic support to undergraduate students. They also provide interpersonal support by fostering welcoming environments for students, integral to student retention.
Yet, they do not get the same support in return.
These students cannot survive on platitudes from the administration alone. They need substantial increases in their wages and the promise that they can do their job without the fear that they cannot afford rent, food, transportation, and medical care.
A core demand of UAW is a living wage for ASEs, demanding “yearly wage increases of either 10% or the largest rate of median rent increase in any campus locality, whichever is higher.” A living wage for ASEs is not a hollow demand, but rather an essential part of ensuring that they can continue to live and work securely — not only at UC Santa Cruz but across all UC campuses.
The term “housing crisis” has become synonymous with California. The tall redwoods, fresh air, and progressive values of Santa Cruz cannot hide the fact that ASEs are struggling to make ends meet.
Santa Cruz County was declared the second most expensive rental market in the country, according to the Out of Reach Report of 2022. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a full-time worker would have to make $60.35 an hour to afford a modest rental without being rent-burdened. This is equivalent to four minimum-wage jobs.
The average monthly payment for a Teaching Assistant at UC Santa Cruz is $3,087. According to the Out of Reach Report, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom rental in the county is $3,138.
UCSC is no stranger to student strikes for wage increases. Rent-burdened teaching assistants, who spent “at least 50%—and in some cases as much as 80%—of their income on rent, putting them well above the 30% considered to be rent-burdened,” and graduate students were at the forefront of The 2020 Santa Cruz Graduate Students’ Wildcat Strikes. The protests centered around calls for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in their contracts.
Instead, teaching assistants received a yearly housing stipend. These COLA demands were not — and still haven’t — been met. The calls for more economic support from the UC administration are as urgent now as they were then. We cannot be complacent in the face of people struggling to keep a roof over their heads while their labor pads the pockets of the UC system.
We ask the UC administration: could the UC truly function without these workers? Would their R1 research institutions still be half as prominent, half as groundbreaking?
The answer to both these questions is a resounding “no.”
To truly recognize their achievements and honor their tireless labor, pay ASEs a living wage.