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A year after University of California signed union contracts, some say they are falling short

Sejin Lee (right) and Leo Niehorster-Cook (left) are students at University of California, Merced. They have filed grievances about student worker contracts. The UC signed historic contracts with thousands of student workers last December.
Rachel Livinal
Sejin Lee (right) and Leo Niehorster-Cook (left) are students at University of California, Merced. They have filed grievances about student worker contracts. The UC signed historic contracts with thousands of student workers last December.

MERCED, Calif. — Last December, the United Auto Workers ratified a contract with the University of California following a six-week strike across the 10 UC campuses by thousands of student employees.

It was considered the largest-ever higher education strike in the United States. Academic workers had been protesting for salary increases and wages that allow students to afford the rise in housing costs.

The contracts promised fair pay and better contracts for academic student workers and graduate student researchers like Sejin Lee at UC Merced.

But since the contracts were ratified, students like Lee say contracts for graduate student assistants appear to have loosened from their original agreements – and they are waiting to see work improvements they had fought for.

In her work, Lee normally holds office hours and does independent research. But these days there are other tasks that she didn’t previously have.

“I also go to all these extra meetings just to ask the university to pay us what we agreed to,” Lee says.

She and her colleague Leo Niehorster-Cook have already filed complaints about reclassification of job titles and salary wages.

A matter of interpretation?

The new contract raised the pay of all graduate student positions.

Lee, who is entering her last semester in January, was expecting to be a graduate teaching fellow this semester.

Before the new contract, UC Merced students who achieved mastery in their area of research were expected to apply and be promoted to that position. Fellows have more job duties like longer office hours in exchange for more pay. But then the process to obtain a teaching fellow position during the academic year changed.

Instead, Lee became a graduate teaching assistant, and she viewed this as a demotion, because now according to an email sent to Lee by a UC Merced professor – only instructors of a course are allowed to apply for the teaching fellow positions.

These complaints by Lee and her colleague were filed in August, and have yet to be resolved. Connor Jackson, a union spokesperson says over 400 grievances have been filed between the union representing graduate student workers and academic researchers system-wide.

KVPR reached out to Alyssa Johanson, UC Merced public information officer, about the allegations made by Lee and other graduate student assistants.

Johanson was asked about some of the specific grievances that were made. She responded with a statement saying the university system has worked diligently to “implement the contract in good faith, including at UC Merced."

“As collective bargaining agreements are implemented, disputes may be raised by both the union and employer on contract interpretation which are to be resolved through the grievance process,” the statement reads in part. It added the university “denies any allegation of wrongdoing and is committed to working with the UAW through the agreed-upon, contractual grievance resolution process to address and resolve concerns.”

Since the university disputes the complaints, they will likely go into arbitration. That’s when a third party will come in and assess the union and university’s positions.

Lee believes the evidence of a broken contract is in her favor, although the meetings with the university haven’t been set yet.

Students challenge raises

Changes to reclassification haven’t been the only grievances.

Lee says she also filed a complaint alleging students are being credited for less work hours than before the new contracts.

Jackson, the union representative, says he hears this often. “There have been instances of the university using a variety of tools… to avoid providing us with the full pay that we have earned and we worked so hard to win in our new contracts,” Jackson says.

The UC has touted its historic 50% raises for academic workers.

In October, Lee received a raise, but she says her raise was about $400 less per month than what she would earn as a teaching fellow, which is the job she was told she can’t get now. She also says the total raise in student’s paychecks like hers amounts to 32% more instead of 50% more like the contracts promised.

In all, graduate teaching assistants have always made less than graduate teaching fellows, and according to the University of California contract, that won’t change.

“Our raises are actually a lot smaller than were promised,” Lee says.

Difficult to be at ‘100%’

Sejin Lee (right) sits with a student who comes to visit her office hours.
Rachel Livinal
Sejin Lee (right) sits with a student who comes to visit her office hours.

Lee will have graduated from UC Merced before the second raise. But people like Leo Niehorster-Cook, her colleague, will continue navigating the changes brought by the new contract.

Niehorster-Cook, who identifies with they/them pronouns, said they applied to UC Merced because it was cheaper. But they are feeling a common pressure these days: They can’t keep up with rising housing costs. According to Zillow rental data, the price of a one bedroom apartment in Merced has increased more than $250 in monthly rent compared to last year.

“My feeling is that the paycheck we get is really minimal compared to the amount of work that we're putting in,” they say. “It's definitely possible that I won't be able to pay my rent on time every month.”

Students like Lee can’t get second jobs to support their income, since she is an international student and cannot legally work outside of what her visa permits.

She thinks, for many of her first generation students or those who come from underrepresented backgrounds like her, there’s more weight to carry and it’s hard to be at “100%.”

“We are teaching courses for these undergrads that are paying to go to this university who are getting their education from people who sometimes can't pay rent or buy food,” Lee says. “They're basically saying to us that there's only a certain kind of person who can go to graduate school.”

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.