Historic strike leaves lasting impact on universities across the nation

Posted at 12:48 PM, Dec 28, 2022

College faculty and researchers across the nation could be seeing a big change in the near future due to the largest higher education strike in U.S. history.

Tarini Hardikar is a grad student researcher in her fifth year at the University of California, Berkeley. She's also a member of the Student Researchers United bargaining team. She was on strike alongside 48,000 other academic workers in California for six full weeks until an agreement was reached just before Christmas.

"It is one of the best academic contracts in the country, if not the best," Hardikar said. "And it's incredible to have something like this as our first contract."

Hardikar says the contract includes raises ranging from 25 to 80 percent, benefits like eight weeks of full-paid parental leave, and policies to accommodate international researchers and people living with disabilities.

While this happened in California, she feels the eyes of the nation were closely watching and she expects similar contract successes will spread to other universities.

"You can see postdocs across the country already improving their base wage, improving protections for postdocs because universities across the country sat up and took notice and they were like, 'Oh, if you don't want a labor disruption of this scale, we have to treat our postdocs better,'" Hardikar said.

Rutgers University labor studies professor Rebecca Givan is also president of a union that represents faculty and grad workers. She says the UC strike has already helped their momentum in bargaining a new contract.

"Knowing that the threat of a strike is real, that workers have gone on strike and won something significant makes everybody aware that strike threats are credible and that if you can't get what you need at the bargaining table, going on strike, withdrawing labor, becomes a viable and very real option," Givan said. "And I think labor and management on other campuses are all keenly, keenly aware of this."

Meanwhile, higher education expert Tim Cain says senior administrators at the University of Georgia are reflecting on their workplace benefits to ensure they remain competitive.

"Students and workers are looking at UC and considering what's going on there in relation to their own work circumstances," Cain said. "So, for example, at a recent rally at the University of Michigan, the Graduate Student Union called on the UC strike as part of its evidence for what it needed to do moving forward."

Cain says it's all part of a larger labor awakening in the United States, and now more higher education workers are trying to unionize.

"We have seen this massive shift in higher education workforce going back to the early 1970s for a number of reasons," Cain said. "There's been reductions in state funding that have fundamentally affected public higher education, there has been an expansion of the system that has put more pressure on higher education to serve more students, there has been a larger shift in values, in higher education, pushing for efficiency and labor, because you can turn over as opposed to longer standing tenured faculty who were once viewed as the core of U.S. higher education."

Although Hardikar says strikes should be viewed as a last resort, she says the UC strike is proof in her mind that they can effectively stimulate change.

"There's a lot of power in solidarity and a lot of power in collective bargaining," Hardikar said.