The Great American University Strike Wave

Words by David Williams

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Lot’s Wife or the MSA.

David Williams is a member of the Monash Socialists and is a part of the campaign group Monash Students Support Staff Strikes. 

Last year, 48,000 graduate workers and postdoctoral researchers went out on strike across 10 University of California (UC) campuses. It was the largest strike in the history of the US university sector [1]. It was common for graduate workers to pay over half their wages on rent [2], even struggling with homelessness [3]. They were being paid $24,000 a year [4] with rental prices in California being some of the highest in the US averaging over $33,000 a year for a one room apartment around the LA campus. This hits $40,000 a year around the San Diego and San Francisco campuses [5]. 

On November 14th they called an indefinite strike, demanding that wages for graduate student workers be more than doubled to $54,000, a 14% wage rise for academic staff and a $2000 monthly reimbursement for child care, and an increase in family leave and more [2]. Thousands of workers picketed UC campuses, disrupting classes, canceling exams and withholding marking until the end of the strike in December [2,6]. 

In solidarity the local Teamsters Union refused to deliver packages to the university [3], and various construction unions stopped all work on the university’s Berkeley campus [7]. 

After nearly 6 weeks on strike, an agreement was signed and it won increases, with pay increasing up to an absolutely astounding 80% for the lowest paid research workers, and the pay for graduate staff raised to $36,500 a year as the Berkeley, San Fransisco and Los Angeles campuses, and $34,000 a year at others (a pay increase between 33% and 66% [4]. For reference, Monash’s current offer to staff in the latest round of negotiations is 4% [8], significantly less than the 7-8ish% inflation in Australia [9]). 

Though the agreement fell short of the workers’ original demands, what they were able to win was incredibly significant, and far exceeds any union demands, let alone union wins, in Australia. They could make these wins because they fought, disrupting the ability of management to run the university for weeks. They won because it is the workers that make the university run, that do the teaching, researching, marking and more – not the bosses. 

The UC strike provided a lead for workers in the sector across the US. Workers at Temple University (TU) went on strike for 6 weeks, winning pay rises of up to 40% [10]. At Rutgers, striking workers won a 43% pay rise for the lowest paid staff, and longer contracts [24]. Ongoing disputes have resulted in strikes that have mobilised thousands of workers across several universities in Illinois (Chicago State, Illinois Chicago, Eastern Illinois and Governors State) [1]. And there is an ongoing strike at the University of Michigan (UMich) [11] . 

The common thread of all these strikes has been high demands to fight the rising cost of living, with all workplaces demanding pay rises well above inflation. The high demands are giving

workers the hope of significant improvements to their working conditions and quality of life, motivating staff to strike in their thousands. 

The length of the strikes have also been important, weeks of shutting down classes and pickets disrupting campus have put an immense pressure on management to offer concessions. Unlike one day strikes, which have been prevalent at Australian Universities, the bosses can’t simply wait them out. 

At every turn, management at each university has tried pitting students against staff [12]. Many university workers are motivated by a genuine desire to teach subjects they’re passionate about and to provide the best possible learning experience for students. This noble sentiment was constantly used as a moralistic wedge by University managements across the country. They argued that staff strikes were letting down students paying for a quality education, that students didn’t support the strike, and more. As such, establishing student support for university industrial action is crucial. At the UC [13,14] and Rutgers [15] strikes, it was a given that hundreds of undergraduate students joined pickets and protests in solidarity with staff. At UC Berkeley, nearly 20,000 students signed an open letter in support of the strikes [16]. A hundred students and staff at the New School, in New York, occupied campus facilities together, opposing management’s attacks on striking workers [17]. A real high point was the walk out of 2000 undergrad students at Temple University [18,19], around 5% of the total student population. All these actions cut against the attempts by management to drive a wedge between staff and students. 

At each round of negotiation, management would refuse to meet workers demands. At UMich, UC and Rutgers management frequently ran to the courts [1] and used on-campus police to arrest striking workers and their supporters [20, 21]. Management also has little qualms about cutting strike pay and the healthcare of workers on strike [22,23]. No amount of appealing to the empathy of chancellors and management gained anything for the workers on strike. 

Universities are businesses. In both the US and in Australia they are very profitable businesses that can only continue to be profitable if they can provide qualifications as cheaply as possible, whilst charging students as much as possible. It is in the interest of management to drive down staff wages, to deny paid leave, and to underfund courses. That money goes directly into the pockets of the extremely well paid chancellors, vice-chancellors, executive boards, and university coffers. 

Why should Monash students care about all this? As our own university staff are moving into industrial action against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, it is vital that we learn the lessons of these struggles. As students we have to stand in solidarity with our staff and want to see them win, not a pay rise that barely keeps up with inflation, but real pay rises like those won at University of California and elsewhere. 

That is why the Monash Socialists, and the Monash Students Support Staff Strikes campaign group, are organising solidarity with staff, such as organising student contingents to join actions by Monash staff. Get involved on our social media, and come to the actions across semester two called by the National Tertiary Education Union!




David Williams

The author David Williams

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