As we go into the fourth week of a systemwide strike of academic workers at the University of California, a solution to this crisis seems increasingly unlikely. While postdoctoral workers have reached a tentative agreement on a revised contract which provides for more stability and higher levels of compensation, students, the union, and the University of California’s Office of the President are still far from a bargain. The request of $54,000 per year used so effectively by the union to rally support has been met with a final offer of $41,200 for a 12-month appointment, far below the expectations.
There is no easy way out of this crisis. There is no simple solution. Part of the reason why this the case is because the problem is not just about a bilateral dispute agreement between the University of California and group of employees but, more generally, between a state that has benefited tremendously from the growth of the information economy and the workers that make it possible. Let us just remember: California is one of the key centers of knowledge-intensive innovation in the country and arguably the world. Accounting for nearly 20% of the state’s economic value, tech contributes about $520 billion to the economy, or about 25% of all the tech-related output in the country. To ignore the centrality of knowledge and information to the present and future of the state would be a mistake. To ignore the contributions of those who make knowledge economies possible would be a tragedy.
Yet the fact of the matter is that knowledge workers in California, from schoolteachers to full professors working at flagship institutions, have received the short end of the stick. Between 2005 and 2021, for example, per capita personal income in the state of California grew from $38,500 to just about $76,600—a 98% increase. During the same period, the base pay of an assistant professor at the University of California (that is, the salary before negotiated off-scale components) grew a mere 44%, from $47,000 per year to $68,100. Teachers have seen similarly stagnant wages. From a starting monthly salary of $3,572 in 2005, the initial monthly compensation for teachers entering this grueling though critical profession stands at $5,074 in 2021, a mere 41% increase (figures for San Diego Unified School District).
This has happened at the same time as the most basic services and resources needed to live a decent life have become increasingly unaffordable. At the center of these is housing. Between 2000 and 2022, house prices in California more than trebled, from an average $261,000 per transaction to $862,000 in the first quarter of 2022. Housing is simply becoming increasingly inaccessible.
The impressive decoupling between house prices and incomes, rooted in the conservative politics of home ownership that define a state that otherwise likes to imagine itself as progressive, is at the core of most of the strife in the knowledge economy. It is the single most important problem faced by workers in the sector, from teachers and faculty to staff ad postdocs. It is, too, the main source of financial stress for graduate students and researchers employed across the state, who see the lion share of their income lost in the form of rents paid just the right of being here.
The problem is, of course, that there is no magic pot of money large enough to solve the problem of housing only through salary increments: housing has increased by a factor of three when personal income has only doubled (even less so for a vast majority of workers). A solution must involve breaking this cycle by creating opportunities for affordable housing for all knowledge workers (indeed, ALL workers) across the state.
But this is something we cannot solve through bilateral negotiations. Individual groups and unions have no capacity, in isolation, to ask for the type of housing benefits that would buckle the trend. A request for subsidized housing for graduate students, for example, would be immediately dismissed by both UCOP and the State Assembly as an affront to other workers. Should a teacher, for example, not also deserve housing for their impressive and exhausting work in the classroom? How are we to justify these privileges just for those at the state’s key institutions and not for other workers in the sector? Solving the problem must break with these politics of fragmentation. Solving this impasse calls for collective action across groups. The problem we face is common. And the solution must be collective. I know it might be wishful thinking but a strike of only some cannot stop the trends we have seen. We need a strike of all. We need knowledge workers of the state to stand up and remind Californians that the future of the state, the future of our potential prosperity, is partly in our hands.