A tentative agreement between two unions and the University of California may end the largest strike in the history of higher education, although the agreement must still be ratified by the unions’ membership. The vote taking place the week of Dec. 19 involves 48,000 teaching assistants and other graduate school workers – members of two unions affiliated with the United Auto Workers – who walked off the job Nov. 14. It had the support of most of the faculty and undergraduate students at the university’s campuses around the state.

Union leaders who were involved in the bargaining and the University of California officials hailed the agreement but some rank-and-file leaders were critical, which casts some doubt on its ratification. Under the proposed agreement the  lowest paid academic student employees, whose starting salary is $23,000, will get substantial pay raises of up to 55 percent over the next two and half years. There will also be increased health care and child care benefits.

The university of California relies heavily on graduate student workers in doing important lab research, grading papers, and providing instruction. California Governor Gavin Newsom expressed relief at the proposed pact.  A state budget agreement this year guaranteed funding increases for the university system for the next five years which, Newsom said, should pay for the cost of the new contracts without a tuition increase for students.

The pact has nation-wide implications. Graduate student workers are organizing into unions around the country, reacting to the fact that American universities have increasingly come to rely on graduate students to teach classes and handle other duties traditionally done by tenured faculty, with only a fraction of the pay and benefits. This yea alone graduate student employees at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clark University, Fordham University, New Mexico State University, Washington State University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute all voted in favor of unionization.

The proposed contract has raised some opposition among union members who plan to vote “no” on it. While Rafael Jaime, president of one of the two UAW bargaining units involved in the negotiations, touted Friday’s agreement as a “historic” win, opponents of the pact urged its rejection. Their principal criticism is that the wage benefits won’t fully take place until the latter part of 2024 and would do little for academic workers living in high rent areas like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area where many UC campuses are located. They charge that the contract abandoned the key demand to link wage gains and housing costs.

The vote ratification process will end Dec. 23.

NY Times, 12/16; Los Angeles Times, 12/16