UC strike could stretch on despite tentative deal
A dispatch from CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn: UC striking workers are facing a high-stakes game of Deal or No Deal.
Friday evening, the University of California and the negotiating team representing 36,000 striking academic workers approved a tentative agreement to end the five-week work stoppage — thought to be the largest-ever labor action by U.S. university employees — that disrupted classes, grading and research at the nation’s premier public university system.
- Nick Geiser, one of the graduate student union negotiators who studies physics at UCLA: “I think this represents one of the most successful collective bargaining agreements in academic history and certainly in modern American labor history.”
But 15 of the 40 members of the bargaining team voted no on the tentative deal. They’re now leading a campaign to persuade the rank-and-file members, who are spread across two unions, to reject the proposed agreement in ratification votes today through Friday evening. All of the 12 bargaining members representing three campuses — UC Merced, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz — shot down the proposal.
- Mark Woodall, one of the 15 dissenting union negotiators and a physics graduate student at UC Merced, said in a Saturday interview: “I do not believe that this is what our members came to us to do.”
On Sunday, more than 470 rank-and-file union members gathered on Zoom, with others watching on Twitch, for a meeting organized by some of the dissenting union negotiators. Those who spoke during the more than two-hour call seemed largely in favor of voting down the tentative deal, arguing that it didn’t do enough to support parents and student workers with disabilities and that the proposed wage increases would be almost entirely eaten up by inflation. At the two-hour mark, more than 185 people remained on the Zoom call.
The strike will continue during the ratification votes this week. The tentative deal will go through if approved by a simple majority of each union’s membership. A no vote would mean the strike continues indefinitely, potentially jeopardizing the start to winter classes across the UC.
A key yes vote? Rafael Jaime. The president of the larger of the two unions, which represents 19,000 workers, said in a text message Saturday afternoon he’ll “absolutely” vote for the deal.
The strike has already taken a significant toll on the UC, as graduate workers provide much of the teaching and research labor at the vaunted 10-campus system. Many undergraduates had their grades withheld and finals canceled or altered. Some graduate workers, fed up with the slow pace of negotiations, risked getting handcuffed and arrested through acts of civil disobedience targeting UC leaders.
- A letter from the deal’s opponents: “Our assessment is that our strike remains very strong, and has unfulfilled potential to extract a better offer from the UC.”
Like anything academic, the devil’s in the details — and there are a lot of them. The tentative agreement for each union exceeds 100 pages and covers topics including increased wages and benefits, child care subsidies, transit passes and workplace protections.
For the dissenting members, the central points of contention include wages (the original ask was $54,000 base pay that dropped to $43,000 and again in this deal) and tying future wage increases to typical home rental prices (which got cut partway through negotiations).
- The tentative agreement would push starting pay for graduate student researchers, represented by Student Researchers United, from roughly $22,000 for 12 months of work to about $34,500 by October 2024, increasing partially each year.
- Starting wages for teaching assistants, represented by United Auto Workers 2865, would rise gradually from about $23,000 to $34,000 by October 2024. That pay is based on 9 months of work, given the length of the academic year. Members from both unions in higher pay tiers would also get raises.
Opponents of the deal note it doesn’t guarantee summer academic jobs for UAW 2865 members — though many graduate teachers receive summer appointments already — to push them past the previous demand of $43,000. Another critical analysis argues existing departmental pay bumps may disappear.
Woodall also faulted the plan for providing most of the raises in years two and three rather than upfront, given the huge impact high inflation has had on prices and rents.
Also core to the demands of Woodall and other dissenters was that the UC stop charging academic workers who weren’t originally California residents an additional non-resident tuition fee to earn their graduate degrees.
- The current tentative agreement officially waives the fee for three years for non-residents who’ve completed their first three years of studies. That codifies existing de-facto policy; Woodall said it doesn’t go far enough. While about 18% of undergraduates are from out-of-state, about 40% of doctoral students at the UC aren’t residents. The UC covers base tuition for all graduate workers in most cases.
So how will the rank-and-file vote?
“I do expect a large majority of folks to vote yes,” said Geiser, who supports the deal.
But Woodall said there’s a “very live possibility” of a no vote among members. “People are really mad,” he said.
In other labor news:
- The ongoing UC strike may have disrupted typical classroom instruction, but it’s also led to new forms of learning. Professors have held lectures on the picket line, undergraduates have incorporated the strike into their final projects and graduate students have organized teach-ins — informal lessons and discussions that situate the labor action within American history, disability studies and other disciplines, Megan Tagami reports for CalMatters’ College Journalism Network.
- California’s unemployment rate ticked up to 4.1% in November, up from 4% the month before, the state Employment Development Department announced Friday. Even though 10 of California’s 11 major industries added 26,800 jobs, the labor force fell by 42,700 people. “Going into 2023, we have a new-phase job market in California with a large number of job openings, but a very competitive environment for those white collar and tech jobs that pay at middle level and above” while blue-collar industries “report they can’t fill positions,” said Michael Bernick, a former EDD director and attorney at Duane Morris. Newsom, meanwhile, highlighted that California had added jobs for the fourteenth consecutive month.
- California Highway Patrol Commissioner Amanda Ray, the first woman to lead the department, will retire at the end of the year, just two years after Newsom appointed her to the job, the governor’s office said Friday in what the Sacramento Bee described as an “unexpected” announcement. Ray is the latest high-ranking official to depart the administration; also retiring at the end of the year is the leader of the state prison system.
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1 Catching up on the Capitol’s latest
Here’s a rapid-fire rundown of the latest news from the California Capitol:
- Psychedelics are back, baby. Today, Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco is set to reintroduce his controversial bill to decriminalize the use of certain psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, DMT and ibogaine. “These drugs literally save lives and are some of the most promising treatments we have for PTSD, anxiety, depression and addiction,” Wiener said in a statement. “We need to end the outdated, racist, failed War on Drugs and finally pursue drug policies that help people instead of incarcerating them.” A similar bill failed last year to clear the supermajority-Democratic Legislature.
- Setback looms for controversial California gun law. Federal judge Roger Benitez, who made headlines last year for comparing an AR-15 rifle to a Swiss Army knife while striking down California’s assault weapons ban, said Friday he plans to block part of a new state law that allows private citizens to sue the manufacturers, distributors and sellers of certain firearms. Like the Texas abortion ban it’s modeled after, the law includes a provision stating that anyone who brings a legal challenge against any gun restriction in California has to cover the government’s legal bill if they lose any of the claims they make in court. “I can’t think of anything more tyrannical,” Benitez said in moving to block the provision, which Gov. Gavin Newsom’s own lawyers are defending in court instead of Attorney General Rob Bonta.
- State designates six more cities as “pro-housing.” Oakland, San Diego, West Sacramento, Roseville, Fontana and Citrus Heights have joined Sacramento as “pro-housing” cities committed to reducing barriers to housing construction, the state housing department announced Thursday. These cities now have an advantage over other local governments and agencies when competing for state housing funds, among other incentives.
- Secretary of State Shirley Weber certified the results of California’s Nov. 8 election. The statement of vote, issued Friday, shows that about 51% of voters cast ballots compared to 65% during the last gubernatorial election in 2018. Some other interesting takeaways: Voters approved 69% of tax and bond measures, a passage rate “noticeably lower than the last few election cycles,” a California City Finance analysis found. And San Bernardino County voters narrowly approved a ballot measure to allow local officials to study the possibility of seceding from California.
- Newsom has scheduled his second-term inauguration for Jan. 6, 2023 — “the two-year anniversary of the far-right’s insurrection and failed attempt to topple American democracy,” as his campaign put it in a fundraising email sure to spark national attention and revive rumors of Newsom’s possible interest in a future presidential bid.
- New committee leadership in the state Assembly. In a closely watched decision ahead of next summer’s planned speakership transition, Speaker Anthony Rendon on Friday announced the new leaders of two influential committees: Assemblymember James Ramos of Rancho Cucamonga will lead the Rules Committee, while Assemblymember Tina McKinnor of San Diego will helm the Public Employment and Retirement Committee — which could improve the chances of passage for her bill to allow legislative staff to unionize.
Latest coverage of the 2022 general election in California
2 Many California kids struggling to read
What typically allows California students to cross the bridge from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” is third grade. It’s a pivotal year for literacy, when students learn phonics — the practice of sounding out words — and develop the foundational reading skills they’ll need to understand their history, science and math textbooks. But during the pandemic, many third-grade students in full-time remote learning didn’t receive adequate phonics education, causing their reading ability to drop far below grade level. Now, fourth- and fifth-grade California teachers are struggling to bring them up to speed while simultaneously meeting state-mandated instruction standards that assume kids are reading at grade level, CalMatters’ Joe Hong reports. Many are finding, however, that it’s almost impossible to make up for lost time.
- Roxanne Grago, a fifth-grade teacher at Lake Marie Elementary in Los Angeles County: “That’s another reason why my students aren’t progressing. You don’t teach phonics in fourth and fifth grade. … I’ve been looking at what they have to learn in fifth grade, and it’s harder to fit in phonics. It just keeps snowballing.”
- Emily Thompson, a sixth-grade teacher at Lake Marie: “I feel bad handing the middle school teachers these students. Because I don’t know how they’re going to make up the losses that I couldn’t make up.”
- Carmen Gonzalez, Lake Marie’s reading interventionist: “When you enter a first-grade classroom today, it feels like you’re entering a kindergarten classroom” in terms of literacy levels.
3 California environment roundup
There’s never a shortage of California environmental news, so let’s dive right in:
- Mounting awareness of the need to help wildlife harmed by human developments. On Saturday, state wildlife officials euthanized P-22, a mountain lion that achieved national fame for living in Griffith Park in the middle of Los Angeles. Tests revealed that P-22 faced serious health problems as well as injuries likely caused by a car collision. “The iconic mountain lion’s incredible journey helped inspire a new era of conserving and reconnecting nature, including through the world’s largest wildlife overpass in Liberty Canyon,” Newsom said in a statement. State officials touted the overpass, which will span the massive 10-lane Highway 101 in the Santa Monica Mountains, at a United Nations biodiversity conference in Canada last week. Meanwhile, state and federal officials are urgently trying to stave off extinction for endangered winter-run Chinook salmon — devastated by drought and blocked from much of their habitat by massive dams — by hauling tens of thousands of eggs to the McCloud River in Northern California and then bringing the young fish back to the lower Sacramento River so they can migrate to the ocean, CalMatters’ Alastair Bland reports. “The winter run is headed for extinction, no question, if we don’t develop an artificial system for keeping it going,” Peter Moyle, a UC Davis fish biologist, told Alastair.
- California is in the midst of the worst outbreak of avian flu it’s ever seen. The highly contagious virus has been detected in 180 wild birds in California since July, a number state wildlife officials say is a vast undercount, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. “We’re seeing really unprecedented levels of infection and mortality in a very wide diversity of wild birds. We’ve really not encountered anything like this before,” said Krysta Rogers, senior environmental scientist of avian investigations at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. There is no known treatment for the virus.
- Too much water — and never enough. California should invest $35 billion over the next 30 years in protecting the Central Valley from catastrophic flooding exacerbated by climate change, according to a blueprint approved Friday by the state’s Central Valley Flood Protection Board. That could be an uphill budget battle, though, given that California is facing a projected $25 billion deficit next fiscal year. Meanwhile, environmental groups are suing the city of Bakersfield and other Kern County agencies in an attempt to restore the flow of the Kern River, which has largely dried up due to agricultural diversions, the Los Angeles Times reports. And, at the annual Colorado River conference last week in Las Vegas, federal officials warned that by 2025, the river’s largest reservoirs could drop so low that water no longer flows past the Hoover Dam — cutting off supplies to California, Arizona and Mexico. They have given Western states a Jan. 31 deadline to reach an agreement for drastically slashing the amount of water they pull from the river. Pledges for voluntary cuts thus far have failed to match the feds’ goal.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: It should be embarrassing to California officials that while their state deals with a seemingly intractable homelessness crisis, red states don’t have similar problems because they aren’t structurally averse to construction.
In 2024, California voters can make quality education a civil right: We are leading a coalition to change the state constitution by putting forward a ballot measure that would guarantee every child the fundamental right to a high-quality public education, write Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Los Angeles mayor and state lawmaker, and John Deasy, former superintendent of Los Angeles Unified and Stockton Unified school districts.
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Rare victory for SF restaurant that sued insurers after losing millions in pandemic. // San Francisco Chronicle
As Tom Girardi skated, California State Bar went after Black attorneys. // Los Angeles Times
California opens investigation of Bay Area hospital after children’s deaths. // San Francisco Chronicle
California colleges’ rising health fees hit a nerve. // California Healthline
How bad is the nursing shortage in San Diego? Workers and hospitals disagree. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties suing McKinsey for its involvement to ‘turbocharge’ opioid sales. // California City News
Fentanyl on campus: Are California schools trained on Narcan, ready to use it? // Mercury News
California’s heat wave was a life-or-death situation. Then the state used a ‘tool of absolute last resort.’ // San Francisco Chronicle
Low on water, but high on celebrity, Las Virgenes seeks wastewater purification facility. // Los Angeles Times
Oil industry faces end of the road in California regardless of Newsom penalty on profits. // Politico
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