On November 14, 2022, the United Automobile Workers union, representing more than 48,000 graduate teaching and research assistants, graders, readers, and postdoctoral workers at the University of California, started what Dissent Magazine calls the “largest strike in the history of American higher education”. Supported by an overwhelming vote for a strike authorization—voted for by over 97% of union members—this movement brings together years (if not decades) of unattended concerns about the quality of life of graduate students in the largest research enterprise in the country, arguably the world.

In addition to various important points on benefits, the key matter of contention with the University of California refers to salaries. The union is fighting for a base pay for graduate student researchers and teaching assistants of $54,000. At an average stipend of around $27,000 per year for a 0.5 FTE and with no guarantees of affordable housing or other forms of critical support, graduate students in most UC campuses life at or below the local poverty line. In San Diego, where the stipend was recently increased to $30,000 a year, a graduate student is dangerously close to having what the County calls an “extremely low income”, defined as 30% of the Area Median Income, or about $27,350. Graduate students face constant strife, precarious employment, and uncertain job prospects. They deserve all our support and respect.

The requests of the union are entirely sensible: a $54,000 salary for graduate students would provide for the type of middle-class life that was possible for their peers two or three generations ago (the median personal income in San Diego is around $48,000). It would be a form of intergenerational equity, giving to the current (and more diverse) population of students a lifestyle comparable to that of their peers in the past. Yet this point reveals the complexities of not only the University of California as a large multi-campus organization but, more importantly, of the type of solutions (and decisions) that we will have to face in building a more equitable future in every organization. The strike really isn’t only about the University of California. It is a litmus test for the type of future we can build. And as I explain in the next few paragraphs, my sense is that we are losing the battle.

The core challenge stems from how the salary increases could be paid for: there is, as I heard, no magic pot of money. According to the information I have received from multiple sources, a renegotiated contract at $54,000 would represent an additional cost of about $1.8-2.0 billion dollars for the University of California. That corresponds to roughly 4.1-4.5% of its $44 billion annual budget, about 2 times the entire budget of UC Riverside, more than 3.5 times the operating expenses of UC Merced. A change of this magnitude can’t be absorbed by shifting carryover funds here and there, cutting expenses, or even capping salaries. In an analysis using the full payroll of the UC system last year, I found that capping the salary to $200,000 would save $1.9 billion, enough for the raise; but this would surely lead to the collapse of our medical centers, where pay is considerably above $200,000 and is tied to a complex formula of base pay+salary from grants+clinical service (a UC Irvine professor of neurosurgery was recently in the news for having spent $400,000 of state funds in high end digital cameras while earning $1.2 million in 2020; his base salary, however, is closer to $220,000). An additional $2 billion in pay roll would amount to losing roughly 20% of the $10 billion received by the State of California every year*.

Some campuses and departments may be able to adjust to a renegotiated base pay. In the sciences and engineering, this could be done requesting more funding per student, with the risk that some grants will become unreachable due to caps on allowed levels of funding or views within panels and committees about the use of resources (the UC could become less competitive than other large university systems, leading to a drop in funding). Researchers may also opt to hire postdocs rather than fund grad students, as it is likely they are already at a tipping point in terms of costs. Campuses could, of course, react to this by changing their calculations of indirect costs, but this would also have effects on the ability to cross-subsidize departments and pay graduate students across schools and divisions.

Other departments and campuses, particularly those that depend on enrollments to fund Teaching Assistantships (and, by ostension, graduate programs), will face a more complicated scenario. If the costs of a TA-ship rise, the opportunities to teach will necessarily go down, with downstream effects on the size of graduate cohorts and, potentially, the survival of degrees. The impacts on campus will be profound: arts, humanities, and social sciences will face greater pressures than before, with direct effects on the graduate students that remain, the staff that serve students, and the faculty in the department. This will, of course, have consequences for hard fought diversity.

This is a wicked problem. A year ago, when I started my current project on university budget models, I thought that there must have been low hanging fruit. Affordable housing would be one possibility. Eliminating the rent burden of graduate students would ease the pressure on higher stipends, if they could be offered housing on an equitable, accessible basis. Surely, I thought, the University of California’s relatively large endowment could be used to build affordable housing, provided to students “at cost”, and providing the endowments with a return tracking the most riskless asset we can think of—a US Treasury bond. The UC system could invest in thousands of homes that would stand as brick-and-mortar equivalents of investments in T-bonds in their portfolio—assets on the balance sheet with positive implications for the lives of graduate students and postdocs. The numbers just did not work: after considering depreciation, maintenance, and an average return of 4% per year (lower than the historical return for Treasuries since 1990), even if the last developments at UCSD were handled in this way, for example, average rents would not differ much from their current levels (about $1,250 per bed per month).

The fact of the matter is that the strike is a critical moment for the system, yet it is being treated as a problem among just one faction of our community. We have a moral obligation to provide graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with a living wage. And we have this obligation with other workers in our system. Among faculty, the culture of thinking of salaries as retention simply fuels disparities in income across divisions and departments (“why pay a historian more, if they work for half of what a data scientist makes?”); this must change, for equity just can’t be based on power of negotiation. And in our own units, we have this obligation with our staff—literally the ones who keep the lights on, with little or no recognition—who suffer stagnant wages and few prospects of advancement while devoting themselves fully to students (often at salaries below $50,000 per year). We owe it to all of them to push for redefining the university we want and need for the future. And we owe it to them and to us to remember that this is, above all, a political fight: the crisis we face today is a product of state austerity, and these are politics we need to collectively challenge.

But this is not the conversation we are necessarily having. The deep, structural, wide-ranging implications of either of the possible futures we have before us are unattended. Rather than opening up the discussion of how to solve these problems to all constituencies, we seem to be siloed in our conversations. This does not bode well for the problems we will have to talk about in the future: fair living conditions at the end of the world cannot be decided from the top but need buy-in from everyone. This must be a collective project, or it will be a failed one. Let us fight, sincerely, for better living conditions for our students and staff; but let us take on the challenge of collectively solving the problem of how that is to work. Let us find a solution, not just by asking for some problem be solved, for that is the moment when we are truly disempowered, when we lose the battle, when we lose the war, but by accepting the wickedness of the situation and facing the future as a common, shared concern.

* A previous version of this post included incorrect numbers for the impact of the renegotiated contract. The $4.4 billion of the original post is a likely estimate of the impact of renegotiated faculty, staff, and lecturer salary scales that would follow a renegotiated grad contract. The calculation of this number is complicated because it involves thinking about likely calls for increases by other UC employee groups, some unionized, others not. For example, the average salary of a Student Service Advisor II (the extremely critical, non-unionized members of staff that have direct contact with undergraduate students and make our programs and degrees work) stands at around $50,000 at 1.0 FTE. A $54,000 base salary for graduate students at 0.5FTE would certainly lead to pressure for increases for positions such as those of Student Services Advisors, both on the grounds of equity and retention. Other employee groups would also likely seek to renegotiate their salaries. AFT-represented lecturers, for example, earn on average less than $50,000 despite their recent mobilization. They would most certainly also fight for a very deserved substantial raise.