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48 thousand UC graduate student workers go on strike

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is day two of a UAW strike in California. Some 48,000 academic workers, like teaching assistants and researchers in the University of California system, are demanding higher pay and better benefits. Now, efforts to reach a deal have been in the works for more than a year now. And with no agreement in sight, the strike could paralyze the UC system just as final exams approach. We're joined now by Rafael Jaime. He's a teaching assistant at UCLA and the president of UAW Local 2865. Welcome.

RAFAEL JAIME: Thank you. Thanks. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So, I mean, it's right before finals now, which was a time when I was in college, I was trying to sign up for extra office hours with the TAs, extra tutoring sessions. Did you all pick this specific time to walk out to draw the most attention to your role in the university system?

JAIME: Well, you know, we've been bargaining for more than a year now in some cases. And we've been trying to reach fair agreements with the university. But so far in bargaining, the university has been really dragging its feet and, you know, actually been breaking the law in bargaining. And all this has been preventing us from reaching fair agreements. And workers have become really frustrated with the bargaining process. And we - our contract - this is when we finally decided that enough was enough and that we needed to go on strike in order to compel the university. So it's really the university's doing.

CHANG: So what are the largest gulfs right now between what the union wants and what the UC system is willing to give?

JAIME: Well, right now, one of our biggest demands are living wages, greater support for parents and caregivers, and equity for international scholars and sustainable transit options. These are - right now, most graduates - the average graduate student worker earns about $24,000 a year. And the university right now is offering only a 7% raise in a year with 8% to 9% inflation. And, you know - and right now, most graduate students are rent burden. They need to pay more than a third of their salaries on rent. And 40% of them have to actually pay more than half of it, sometimes directly back to the university. And so, you know, if we want a truly equitable university, one that's accessible, UC needs to do more to support the workers that make the university run.

CHANG: And, you know, we mentioned that you're a TA. Can you just describe personally what the financial strain has been like day to day being a TA in the UC system for you?

JAIME: Yeah. So as teaching assistant, you know, the things that I have to do in order to make ends meet means I have three - I have two roommates, and we each pay about $1,200. I don't drive because I can't afford to drive in the city. I commute entirely through public transportation and bicycle. And it means, you know, budgeting a lot and really stressing out at the end in of the month in order to make ends meet. But I also have many co-workers who have been forced to go hungry, have been forced to live out of their cars and, in many cases, been forced out of academia entirely because of the working conditions that we face every day.

CHANG: And real quick, in the last, like, 30 seconds or so we have left, can you just paint a picture for what you do as a TA? What is the workload like?

JAIME: We do all the grading, the teaching. We meet with students to help improve their papers. And it's a lot of work. But, you know, many of my workers - many of our co-workers on south campus - sorry - that are teaching research assistants, they work more than 40, 60 hours a week on - and they're expected to work that much on a really low salary.

CHANG: That is Rafael Jaime, a teaching assistant at UCLA and the president of UAW Local 2865. Thank you so much for joining us today.

JAIME: All right. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.