After tens of thousands of UC academic workers walked off the job last month – in what may be the largest strike in higher education history – professors and teaching assistants took class to the picket line. Students have made films about the strike, attended teach-ins about disability rights, and gotten crash courses in labor history. And some say it gave them a new perspective on how their university works.
For UC Riverside student Amanda Soto, the drive to campus is a two-and-a-half hour round trip. But the commute didn’t stop her from attending the picket line more than five times in the last month of the fall quarter to support thousands of University of California academic workers on strike.
Soto, a fourth-year ethnic studies major, said she would have attended the strike of her own accord. But she is also a student of Dylan Rodríguez — a professor of media and cultural studies at UCR who seized the strike as a teaching opportunity. Rodríguez encouraged his media studies class to visit him on the picket line, challenging students like Soto to consider how campus events tied into course themes of class and racial disparities.
“When being in solidarity with the strikers, we can also see the power structure that we see within a lot of the concepts and theories within the course,” Soto said.
The strike of approximately 48,000 academic workers represented by the United Auto Workers union has limited academic operations at UC campuses since mid-November. Demanding better wages and benefits, workers have withheld their labor of grading assignments, instructing undergraduates and conducting research, while more than 430 tenured and tenure-track faculty members canceled lectures and withheld grades in solidarity.
But new forms of learning have developed at campuses across the state. Professors have held lectures on the picket line, and undergraduates have incorporated the strike into their final projects. Outside of the classroom, graduate students have organized teach-ins, or informal lessons and discussions, that situate the strike within American history, disability studies and other disciplines.
As graduate student researchers and teaching assistants prepare to vote this week on whether to ratify a tentative agreement their negotiators reached with the UC Friday, some undergraduates said the informal learning opportunities emerging from the strike have given them a new perspective on how their university works.
Rodríguez described the strike as a lesson in how large institutions like the UC have throughout history relied on the exploitation of low-wage labor.
“Students learn all of this between the classroom and the external classroom, being the picket line itself,” Rodríguez said. “I think it becomes a really enriching experience for them.”
Professors at the picket line
In the first week of the strike, Virginia Espino put herself in the middle of the action. Espino, a lecturer in labor studies and Chicana/o and Central American Studies at UCLA, held her oral history course at the picket line. She demonstrated the interviewing techniques used to document oral histories as she asked graduate students questions such as, “What do your parents think about this strike?” The ensuing conversations drew tears from her students, Espino said.
Skarlette Castejon, a fourth-year political science student in Espino’s class, said that watching her professor’s interviews gave her the courage to speak with strikers, too. Through those discussions, she realized that many graduate students were living in their cars or sleeping on air mattresses in friends’ apartments to get by.
“Stuff like that was just like a huge shock value because, again, if they didn’t speak out about this, or if they didn’t go on strike, most of us undergraduate students would have been unaware,” Castejon said.
Attending class on the picket line, she said, inspired her to interview a teaching assistant for her final oral history project, highlighting how the student navigated her doctoral program and the strike as a woman of color.
Meanwhile, in a UC Irvine film class, students created short films about the strike, then screened them and discussed how the living conditions of graduate students tied into the economic inequalities portrayed in other movies the class had watched.
Rodríguez said the past month has challenged some of his students to consider what strikes are and how they operate for the first time. He offered extra credit to those who attended the picket line and submitted short summaries of their observations.
“Frankly, it’s been fun,” Rodríguez said. “That’s universally the feedback I get, is how happy and grateful the students are to have the opportunity to learn beyond the classroom.”
Greg Sanchez, a fourth-year history major at UCR and a student in Rodríguez’s class, agreed. He said he believes all professors should take their classes to the picket line, adding that studying American uprisings and strikes has not compared to the in-person experience of seeing thousands of workers in solidarity.
“These are magnificent things to read about and to write about,” Sanchez said. “(But) there is nothing that can replace putting your own flesh and bones on the picket line, seeing it, smelling it, embracing it, and taking a look at what the power of the people actually is.”
However, even undergraduates supportive of the strike, like Sanchez, faced stress and uncertainty at the end of the fall quarter.
As of Dec. 16, faculty across the UC had pledged to withhold over 40,000 grades until the strike’s conclusion, according to the Council of UC Faculty Associations. The strike will continue this week during the ratification vote, and could wear on longer if workers reject the agreement, which would raise starting pay to about $34,000. But even if professors chose to withhold their labor, Sanchez said, students couldn’t follow suit – especially if they are graduating early, as he plans to do.
“The undergraduate students struggled; we’re being pulled one way and another way between the professors, the grad students, the university,” Sanchez said. “The work is still hovering over our heads.”
More than 3,000 students have expressed similar frustrations, signing a petition demanding that the UC Board of Regents refund students’ tuition for each day of the strike.
Trevor Griffey, a labor studies lecturer at UCLA, admitted that his students may have suffered as a result of the strike. Compared to his tenured and tenure-track colleagues, Griffey’s position as a lecturer limits his ability to support the strike without potentially being fired. He continued to hold class, but made attendance optional and held discussions on how the strike tied into course material.
However, he added, students did not remain as engaged with the course material and readings once the strike began.
“I wanted students to see what was going on with the strike … It has the possibility of changing the UCs and higher education in California,” Griffey said. “And so I just felt like the observation was valuable. But other students, I think, felt differently.”
Teach-ins replace classes
Graduate students may have stopped holding discussion sections and office hours following the strike’s authorization, but they maintained their roles as educators.
In early November, Samia Errazzouki held a discussion section for her undergraduate class on the history of science and technology. The first slide of her presentation read: “To do list: midterm, vibe check, strike.”
Errazzouki used her final discussion section before the strike to explain the history of rising tuition costs at the UC. Even as the system’s chancellors received pay raises in 2022, she told students, graduate students like herself have taken on multiple jobs outside of the university. She also addressed the assigned readings for the week, explaining how the rise of lucrative military research at universities during the Cold War tied into their continued pursuit of revenue and reliance on cheap graduate student labor.
By contextualizing the strike within UC history, she said, she hoped to ease students’ uncertainty and bolster their support for the union.
“I was trying to tell them … look, (the UC) is going to try to make this sound as if we are taking punitive measures against you,” Errazzouki said. “But this is not about us versus you.”
Once the strike began, graduate students took their teaching beyond the classroom.
UC Irvine anthropology doctoral student Zaynab Mahmood created a teach-in series in which union organizers, students and faculty presented on issues ranging from state laws protecting strikers to the labor organizing efforts coming from students in STEM. Mahmood said the informal lectures dispelled misinformation during a time of uncertainty.
“There’s a need for this kind of space to exist,” Mahmood said. “There’s a need for people to be like, ‘I have a question and I need a damn answer.’ ”
Stephen Eyman, a doctoral student in UC Davis’ linguistic department, held a disability studies teach-in over Zoom and on the picket line that drew grad students and undergrads from across the UC.
UC Davis does not have a disability studies department, Eyman said. However, the strike presented the perfect opportunity to educate fellow students about disability justice, connecting readings and discussions with union demands for accessible education and accommodations for students with disabilities.
“So much can be learned sitting on a tarp, using a karaoke machine as a speaker,” Eyman said.
Even though the bargaining team conceded many of the demands students with disabilities had created, he said, “the collaboration and network and solidarity we’ve all created on this campus, and all these campuses, will hopefully have more impact than the weeks that we weren’t able to be involved in the classroom.”
A lesson for future courses
Rodríguez said he’s certain that, whatever the strike’s outcome, he will feature it in future classes.
“I would argue that it would be irresponsible not to include some discussion of this strike in any course that deals with labor, that deals with higher education and universities as institutions, that deals with social movements,” Rodríguez said.
Errazzouki is currently in the market for a job as a professor. As a historian of the 16th century, she said, her opportunities to naturally incorporate the strike into class material may be few and far between. However, if she were to remain at the UC, she said she would find a way to educate her students on what has emerged as a crucial point in higher education history.
“We are not only witnessing a historical moment, but we are actually participating and shaping a historical moment,” Errazzouki said. “And, in years to come, this will be a chapter in a textbook that is taught.”
Tagami is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.