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Physics and astronomy graduate students walking and chanting in a picket line on UCLA's campus. (Courtesy of Phil Travis)

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Perspective: Lessons Learned from an Astronomy Graduate Student on Strike


“I have a different brain than before we went on strike,” my friend said to me recently. I wholeheartedly agreed — so much has changed in the past few months, especially my view of academia.


In November 2022, 48,000 academic student workers, graduate student researchers, and postdocs went on strike across the University of California (UC)’s ten campuses. I was one of them.


Throughout this process, I learned so much about labor law and unionization movements—but the strike also taught me about the broken structure of higher education, the lack of true dedication to the university’s supposed principles of equity and inclusion, and my own values and priorities.

As a graduate student researcher and teaching fellow, I spent nearly two months on the picket lines with my union siblings in UAW Local 2865 — the graduate student union at UC — and the UC postdocs and academic researchers in Local 5810. We were on strike over the university’s many unfair labor practices while bargaining on our new contract, which aimed to secure a living wage, improved parental leave, protection against workplace harassment, a more accessible work environment, and more. Every improvement we eventually won was hard fought, with the university dragging its feet at every turn.



A large rally outside Ackerman Union on UCLA's campus on November 14th, the first day of the strike. (Courtesy of Phil Travis)

Graduate student workers shared stories on the picket lines of hardships they encountered due to the inadequate wages UC provides for our labor — living in cars, relying on food stamps, and even leaving their programs due to financial stress. Meanwhile, UC administrators complained about how paying graduate students a living wage (around $54,000 per year) would cause financial hardship for the institution, which has a $152 billion endowment fund and yearly revenue upwards of $40 billion. Administrators who made nearly half a million dollars a year told graduate students they were asking for too much, and some professors who made the same proclaimed to my friends that graduate student labor wasn’t worth that much. Instead of talking to graduate students or negotiating fairly, temporary security appeared on campus, as if we were a threat, and non-violent protestors were arrested.


How am I supposed to feel kindly towards an institution that would treat myself and my colleagues this way? How can I trust an institution that claims the best of intentions, but whose actions say otherwise?


The university’s actions repeatedly revealed how they perceived us: unruly underlings, children throwing a fit, a nuisance to be squashed. Meanwhile, official communications claimed how much they valued our community, wanted to hear everyone’s voices, and cared about equity. The dissonance was more striking than ever before in my graduate career. Naturally, as soon as the strike ended, they touted the deal as historic, a great achievement—despite having opposed our movement from the start. Their hypocrisy soon reared its head again, when weeks after making a deal to support rent-burdened workers, they invested over four billion dollars into the real-estate investment fund Blackstone.


How am I supposed to feel kindly towards an institution that would treat myself and my colleagues this way? How can I trust an institution that claims the best of intentions, but whose actions say otherwise?

The actions of the university during our time on strike have led to disillusionment — my own, and that of many others I know — with the administration, systems, and structures of higher education. The system itself relies on the cheap labor of graduate students, especially after decades of underfunding. Buildings are inaccessible since it’s an expensive bureaucratic nightmare to renovate them, and bullying continues in many labs because the power dynamics are so deeply entrenched. These are problems that many were likely aware of earlier, but many like myself took a bit longer to realize—maybe due to the privilege I carried as I entered higher education, maybe due to my own naivety as a first-generation student.


The author, Briley Lewis, at the rally outside the offices of UCLA Labor Relations on Wilshire Blvd. (Courtesy of Briley Lewis)

Although many of us love our work, it finally became crystal clear to me, and many others, that the university will never love you back.


As someone who cares about community and people over all, witnessing such a disregard for human livelihood was truly difficult and disheartening. Obviously, worse things happen at other workplaces and in other communities all the time — modern capitalism is a hellish bitch. Yet, seeing it in your own workplace, somewhere you have given so much of yourself, strikes a different chord within.


I realized that my own values—community care, accessibility, equity, transformative pedagogy, even simple self-awareness—were simply not in alignment with the true values of my institution, the system to which I have given nearly a decade of my life. I have felt so much anger at those who showed their true colors in the worst way, particularly faculty who threatened and pressured their graduate researchers.


I have also been angry with the silent majority of faculty, who refused to support us during the strike or even acknowledge our movement. In a way, it’s not the faculty’s fault directly, as they were incorrectly told by higher-ups not to engage in any manner with the strike or striking graduate students. However, these academics, people I have seen devote themselves to their work with incredible detail and critical thought, did not educate themselves about the union or take time to understand the situation beyond what they were told. These faculty — some more than others — are playing their part in the system of academia, upholding the archaic power structure and preventing transformation by their unwillingness to go against the status quo. Ironically, at the same time, the academic system has betrayed them as well, placing the burden of budgeting on their shoulders instead of addressing it at the university level. Even as faculty, the university still doesn’t love you back.


These faculty — some more than others — are playing their part in the system of academia, upholding the archaic power structure and preventing transformation by their unwillingness to go against the status quo. Ironically, at the same time, the academic system has betrayed them as well, placing the burden of budgeting on their shoulders instead of addressing it at the university level. Even as faculty, the university still doesn’t love you back.

However, I also left the strike with renewed gratitude for an advisor and co-teachers who treat me with respect, recognize the importance of how I spent the last few months, and do not retaliate in any way — big or small — for my participation in the strike. I have found the people in the university community who are true allies and will speak up for the values they believe in, putting words into action. Some faculty joined us in the pickets, many withheld grades and signed petitions, and canceled classes to respect our picket line. These are the people I want to work with, and I am glad I now know who they are.

A group of astronomy and physics graduate students enjoying each others' company while on a break from picketing. (Courtesy of Phil Travis)

I am also filled with a sense of lightness knowing about all the other graduate students who took action, creating not only a labor movement but a robust and supportive community. The picket lines were a place of joy, with my graduate and postdoctoral colleagues, undergraduates, fellow unions, and other community members rallying in support. We played music, we chanted, and we made meals for each other. We practiced mutual aid, with a hardship fund to support striking workers in need and impromptu kitchens to provide meals. We found new friends and comrades, who believed in the same improved future of higher education and workers’ fundamental rights to be treated with dignity and respect.


I have found the people in the university community who are true allies and will speak up for the values they believe in, putting words into action.

From union leaders who have been building momentum for years to newly involved union members like myself, we showed the university — actually, the entire country — the power of a higher ed union. Like we shouted nearly every day, “48,000 workers strong, we can fight all day long.” A wave of other higher education unions is following, promising potential for long-overdue transformation. I can imagine those involved with unionization on other campuses will gain a crystallized awareness of systemic injustice and discover what community care and solidarity feel like, just as I have, as they fight for their rights. I hope that they, too, learn not to accept less than we deserve.


 

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Briley Lewis

From Orange, Calif., Briley is an Astronomy & Astrophysics Ph.D. Candidate/ NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is interested in the complete “story” of exoplanets: how different kinds of planets form and evolve (possibly even evolving into something that can host life!), and how we can observe this process. As a freelance science writer, her bylines include Scientific American, Popular Science, Astrobites, and Aeon Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @briles_34 or visit her website www.briley-lewis.com.

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