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Strikers signal concern as UAW negotiators ax cost of living adjustment

Signs from UAW strikers, pictured. Some strikers have expressed concern over union officials dropping demands for cost-of-living adjustments in proposed contracts. (Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)

By Sarah Nachimson

Dec. 16, 2022 9:28 p.m.

A recent move by the United Auto Workers’ leadership to drop demands for a cost of living adjustment from strike negotiations has sparked controversy among union members.

Beginning on Nov. 14 and marking the largest higher education strike in history, the UAW Local 2865, UAW Local 5810 and Student Researchers United-UAW unions – representing about 48,000 academic workers across the University of California – have been withholding their labor to demand increased wages and better working conditions amid claims that the UC’s leadership engaged in unfair labor practices.

On Nov. 30, the bargaining units representing student researchers and academic workers voted to alter their demands in order to reach an agreement with university officials, but did not include a previously promised cost of living adjustment for wages, known as COLA. Bargaining team members representing academic student employees and student researchers also voted in favor of a tentative agreement that would secure a base salary of $43,020 for teaching assistants and student researchers, just over $10,000 less than the unions’ original demand.

While UAW Local 5810 – representing postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers – has voted to ratify an agreement with the university without COLA, teaching assistants, student researchers and other academic employees remain on strike.

The vote received criticism from many union members, who said COLA is a must-have for rank and file union members, or union members who do not hold leadership positions – the majority of whom are rent burdened, with over 30% of their salary used to pay rent, according to Cheyenne Dowd, a doctoral student at UC Santa Cruz and a member of UAW 2865 – to approve a contract and end the strike.

The adjustment would allow UCLA workers, such as teaching assistants or student researchers, to afford rent in Westwood, said Dylan Kupsh, a graduate student researcher and non-ranking union member. COLA accounts for rent differences in campus locations as well, Dowd said. She added the adjustment would lead campuses such as UC Santa Barbara and UCSC to see higher wages for their academic workers, given their locations’ average rent prices.

“In order to rent a place where my teenage son can have space and privacy, my rent is actually higher than my paycheck,” Dowd said. “I am taking out an extraordinary amount of student loans just to be able to support myself, despite being paid by this university and working for this university.”

Kupsh said COLA is about more than just creating economic equity across campus in terms of salaries. Social justice demands, such as the abolition of UCPD, are also integral to the spirit of demanding COLA be included in bargaining agreements, he added.

“I’m trying to expand our understanding of COLA to encompass what it fundamentally means to live in the area that we’re working in,” Kupsh said. “To live in the area of UCLA, for example, being able to live in Westwood, you know, having your personhood in Westwood.”

Benjamin Lynch, a UC Berkeley academic researcher and member of UAW 5810, said some union members believe the adjustment of the demands does not reflect the needs of academic workers. Lynch said an increase in wages without COLA would feel like a disingenuous victory, as slightly higher wages will likely still not be enough to support students in regions with high rent and inflation.

“On the one hand, they’re happy that we’re making some progress in bargaining – on the other hand, you’re never supposed to take the first offer,” Lynch said. “Everyone’s kind of like, well, wait a minute, why, why are we settling for that? Why are these wage increases so low?”

Nick Geiser, a physics and astronomy doctoral student and member of the student researchers’ bargaining team, said disagreement in the ranks is an issue he anticipated from such a large movement.

Geiser said he and the other bargaining representatives are fighting for the best possible contract. The bargaining team made the decision to drop the demand for COLA to show the university they are willing to negotiate, Geiser said.

“There’s never going to be a perfect agreement, and I’m more than happy to speak with any of my co-workers to get their input and explain my rationale,” Geiser said. “The strategy at the bargaining table is always secondary to the power of our withheld labor and the disruption that we can cause with our picket lines.”

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Sarah Nachimson
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