By Tom Hintze, UAW 2865 Northern Vice President

The Covid-19 crisis that is destabilizing our world is having a dramatic impact on workers at the University of California. At every campus, UC – our state’s largest employer – is now making fast and unilateral changes to how and where we work to limit the spread of the pandemic. 

For academic workers, this comes in the midst of another crisis. Grappling with sky-high housing costs, workers across the UC system have gone on wildcat strikes to demand a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). Recent announcements that we should work from home to avoid Covid-19 further underline the need for a COLA now, which will help ensure that housing-insecure workers can properly self-isolate to contain the spread of the disease. With the University moving in-person classes online, our living conditions are becoming our students’ learning conditions. Workers expected to teach classes from home must have access to the space and technology required to do so. 

Management’s reorganization of our working conditions has underlined the desperate need for a contractually-guaranteed COLA to help us cope with the ongoing housing crisis. According to federal data, grad workers at every single UC campus are now rent burdened – meaning we spend at least 30% of our take-home pay on rent. Many of us pay up to 60% of our pay (Teaching Assistants take home about $2,400 a month for nine months of the year) to afford a room in a shared apartment, or in many cases, a shared room. 

As grad workers who perform the majority of teaching and grading work at UC, we rely on our classroom and office space to teach sections, tutor students, grade and complete research. If we are expected to work from our homes, it isn’t appropriate to pay us so little that we must do so from a shared dorm room (the rents on which UC raised last year). For student parents, school cancellations mean caring for children at home, which places an additional burden on them. 

The good news is that UC has already agreed to bargain over changes in the workplace due to Covid-19. And, after long negotiations between the union and the university, UC has agreed to reinstate health care coverage for all 80+ Santa Cruz workers who were fired due to their participation in the wildcat strike. But this public health emergency underlines the already precarious situation grad workers are in, and the urgent need for UC to negotiate a COLA, an on-campus rent freeze, resources for working at home, and accomodations and trainings for all workers at UC. In other words, UC needs to ensure that we can live with dignity and do our work effectively.

Recently our union, which represents more than 19,000 academic workers across UC, scheduled an Unfair Labor Practices Strike Authorization Vote in reaction to UC’s unilateral changes to working conditions, refusal to bargain directly with the union over COLA, and unjust discipline of wildcat strikers. If the vote is successful, our members will have democratically decided to authorize a state-wide strike, which would affect every campus and every department at UC. Members will ultimately decide what to do and when in this fast-changing situation, and the University must address all the issues we face as workers and community members at UC. 

It is my hope that UC agrees to bargain a meaningful, contractually-binding Cost of Living Adjustment, among the other things that I and my colleagues need to make it through this crisis. Until then, we will continue to organize in opposition to a system that puts our dignity and health at risk.