Last December, student researchers across the University of California (UC) won union recognition for 17,000 UC workers, joining 30,000 other academic workers at the university who were already unionized. The researchers’ union recognition was a crucial step towards rectifying entrenched inequities in academia—both at UC and beyond. As two women in male-dominated fields, and as union members who handle grievances for academic workers at the University of California, we witness firsthand the personal and institutional toll that sex and gender discrimination, xenophobia, and low wages take. The most effective tool for remedying such discrimination and inequities is a strong union contract that codifies consequences and solutions for problems that are otherwise nearly intractable.
Inequality in higher education does not only have academic, moral, and financial costs for workers within a university system—it has consequences beyond campus too. Unions can use their collective bargaining power to improve the quality of their academic workplaces and, working alongside community partners, put forth demands that benefit not just the bargaining unit, but the broader community. This strategy, called bargaining for the common good, links workplace issues to social, political, and economic issues within local communities.
Closing the Gender Gap: Title IX, Parental Support, and Beyond
In 2013, Gabriel Piterberg, a former UCLA professor, forced his tongue into the mouths of two graduate students. Initially, UCLA officials discouraged the students from filing a complaint with the Title IX Office. The graduate students proceeded nonetheless, but their complaint resulted in just a quarter-long suspension for Piterberg. In 2015, the students sued the university for failure to adequately handle their sexual harassment complaints, but it wasn’t until undergraduate students organized protests outside Piterberg’s classroom in 2017 that the university finally fired the professor.
Introduced into federal legislation in 1972, Title IX mandates that any educational institution receiving federal funding prohibit sex-based discrimination. This includes ensuring that all persons, regardless of sex, have equal ability to participate in and enjoy the benefits of these federally funded institutions. As Piterberg’s case reveals, the Title IX trainings and investigative procedures upon which most universities rely prioritize liability concerns and the employer’s interests rather than survivor-centered protections.
The data confirm this institutional culture: according to a 2018 report by the National Academic of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), academic workplaces are second only to the military with regards to rates of sexual harassment, with 58 percent of academic employees indicating they had been harassed.
In addition to sexual harassment, female academic workers face sex-based discrimination. In 2017, for example, postdoctoral scholar Sandra Koch was unlawfully fired from her UCLA lab after informing her supervisor that she was pregnant. In response, Koch filed a pregnancy discrimination complaint with the Title IX Office and a grievance with her union, UAW 5810. Though a successful researcher who had secured funding to continue her work, Koch was dismissed by UCLA’s Human Resources department in 2019. It was only through collective union action, and thanks to the contractual protections guaranteed in our collective bargaining agreement, that Koch was reinstated in a lab where she could safely continue her research.
Due to targeted political attack by the Trump administration, Title IX has become even weaker. In 2020, the Department of Education rolled out a series of amendments to Title IX policies and procedures. Reversing crucial protections implemented under Obama—such as protections for gender non-conforming and transgender persons—these rollbacks limited the scope of coverage and instituted significant barriers to reporting sexual harassment and discrimination.
While the Biden administration is set to roll out a series of reversals to some of these regressive regulations, given the current political climate, it is imperative to create contractually enforceable mechanisms that supersede Title IX and to build collective power to make institutional transformation happen. Because women’s bodily autonomy is under threat from the highest political offices, it is clear that we must employ alternative modes of collective power that fall outside traditional political participation.
Institutional approaches to equity are often inconsistent and don’t get to the root of pervasive inequality. For example, in 2015, UC’s Office of the President released a report on guidelines for race and gender equity, acknowledging that “diversity and equal opportunity support an academic community that reflects a diverse range of interests, abilities, life experiences and worldviews that will enhance the exploration of ideas vital to our academic mission.”
For the university to realize its equal opportunity mission, it is essential that adequate financial assistance be made available for things which often keep people out of graduate school—such as childcare expenses, which impact women in particular. UC Berkeley’s Mary Ann Mason, who served as the first female graduate dean, has noted that “Women pay a ‘baby penalty’ over the course of a career in academia—from the tentative graduate school years through the pressure cooker of tenure, the long midcareer march, and finally retirement.” As such, though large numbers of women enroll in UC’s graduate studies—according to a 2021 report, 49% of enrolled graduate students self-identified as female—UC’s 2020 Accountability Report states, “The proportion of women and underrepresented faculty is low, compared to availability pools in most disciplines.” In other words, in academia, the failure to enact policies and earmark funding to support parents forces a large part of the population—in particular women—to decide between careers and motherhood. This is of course the case across the workforce in general.
Too High a Price: Bullying, Fees, and the Plight of International Scholars
Like sexual harassment and the gender gap, bullying in the academic workplace is driven by and reproduces inequalities that originate in the larger society. Research on bullying finds that it primarily affects marginalized people and that ethnic minorities are twice as likely to experience it at work as white people.
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For international, immigrant, and undocumented workers—whose ability to study or work in the US depends on employment status—fear of retaliation is often weaponized to elicit complacency. International scholars face particularly high stakes when addressing abusive conduct in the workplace because their visas are tied to their employment. Being bullied in the workplace creates a difficult choice: sustain the mistreatment or report it. If you choose the latter option, you risk being terminated or forced to resign—and leave the country.
Climbing the ranks in academia depends, not only on one’s performance, but also on the relationship with one’s principal investigator (PI). Academic job applications, fellowships, and award nominations place heavy weight on letters of recommendation. PIs who supervise graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and other early career academics control their lab culture, research focus, and worker compensation. As a result, rates of bullying in academia are higher than average. Because few formal mechanisms exist for addressing bullying without damaging reputations, many academics suffer in silence rather than reporting abusive conduct.
Academic student employees in UAW 2865 and postdocs and academic researchers in UAW 5810 have strong protections against harassment and discrimination thanks to union contracts, which place strict timelines on investigation and resolution processes and provide access to neutral, third-party arbitration. Too often, anti-discrimination and harassment policies fail to protect more subtle forms of discrimination such as microaggressions and hostile work environments, but strong protections against workplace bullying broaden our collective fight against discrimination through contractually enforceable mechanisms.
Beyond addressing hostile environments created by bullying, labor power can help mitigate discrimination against international students and workers, immigrants, and undocumented persons. In addition to the precarity engendered by work requirement visas, these workers face heightened economic barriers to both entering and surviving academia. For example, they shoulder the increasingly exorbitant cost of attending public, post-secondary institutions in the form of non-resident supplemental tuition. At UCLA, this additional non-resident tuition amounts to over $15,000 per year.
Given robust evidence that one’s level of education is determinate of earnings, it is clear that the high cost of tuition for international, immigrant, and undocumented students and workers widens social disparities by systematically excluding young adults from diverse backgrounds from higher education. Demanding these costs be covered by the employer is a necessary step towards making higher education accessible to all.
Equity Begins at Home: Demanding Affordable Housing
The University of California touts its accessibility to students who are California residents. However, despite discounted in-state tuition, economic barriers to public education are steep. Bargaining surveys conducted by UAW 2865 and UAW 5810 over the past year indicated that 70 percent of PhD-holding postdoc researchers and 90 percent of graduate students at UC are rent burdened—meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on rent—with the average teaching assistant paying more than 52 percent. The average teaching assistant at the University of California lives with “severe rent burden,” defined as paying 56 percent or more of income towards rent.
For those who live in university housing, the university is both landlord and employer; it determines our incomes and rental prices. The UC has failed to provide enough housing for admitted students, let alone at affordable prices, despite increased enrollment and tuition costs.
The economic inequalities experienced by UC employees are embedded within a larger housing crisis in California. A 2020 UCLA Report found that one in 20 UC students experienced homelessness. These striking numbers reflect a broader, statewide trend; California’s unhoused population has risen 31 percent over the last decade.
We believe that as a taxpayer-funded institution, the University of California needs to be accountable to its workers and surrounding communities. When wages are low and housing prices are high, only the independently wealthy can afford to attend university, shutting many diverse Californians out of their own public education system.
Onward and Upward for the Common Good
Despite decades of legislative assault on organized labor and the promotion of anti-union sentiment, the US is witnessing a resurgence of collective power that is pushing back against increasingly unequal social, political, and economic conditions. As public institutions like UC become less accessible, and as economic mobility becomes more mythical, we have seen increased willingness to fight unjust social, political, and economic conditions.
Unions and their collective bargaining agreements are still typically associated with issues such as wages, leaves of absence, and health and safety. But workplace issues also include access to affordable housing, gender equity, and the abuse and exploitation of non-citizens. Given these larger social problems, academic workers must situate contract fights within broader social struggles. Our duty as union organizers is to make demands that serve our communities at large and rectify inequalities—both in and outside of the workplace.