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

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<