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Academic workers at UC Merced hit the picket line, joining thousands in systemwide strike

UC Merced graduate student Albert DiBenedetto joins the UC systemwide campus to demand higher wages for student workers
Esther Quintanilla
UC Merced graduate student Albert DiBenedetto joins the UC systemwide strike to demand higher wages for academic workers.

About 48,000 union-backed employees of the University of California walked off the job and onto the picket line Monday, citing what they call unfair labor practices. At UC Merced, the system’s newest campus in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, employees are calling on the institution to raise wages so they can afford housing.

“It used to be very cheap to be able to rent apartments here," said Albert Dibenedetto, a graduate student studying physics, “and now, it's not that way anymore.”

The cost of housing in Merced County is lower than some other parts of the state. But with inflation and the rising cost of rent, academic workers say the financial burden is too much to bear. As a teaching assistant, DiBenedetto makes a little over $28,000 a year.

“When you're considering the cost of living in California and then the work that we put in and the impact that it does have on campus, it's only fair to pay us what we deserve,” said DiBenedetto.

The union of academic workers across all UC campuses is demanding salary increases up to $54,000 dollars a year for academic student employees, $70,000 dollars a year for post-doctoral students and $33 an hour for undergraduate employees.

Ayeree Pipersburg, an undergraduate writing tutor, makes nearly $18 an hour. Even though she gets paid higher than the state’s minimum wage, she says it just isn’t enough to make ends meet.

“I can only imagine what it's like to be in a Berkeley or to be out in L.A. or to be at a Santa Barbara where they're really feeling it,” Pipersburg said.

Negotiations between the union and the UC have been ongoing since last year. In a statement, the institution says it made counter-offers and is “responsive to union priorities.”

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Corrected: November 17, 2022 at 1:35 PM PST
Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.