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UC strike
Picketing academic workers at UC San Diego in November. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Thousands of striking academic workers began voting on Monday whether to ratify a deal with the University of California and end a 5-week-old walkout that unions say is the biggest work stoppage ever at a U.S. institution of higher education.

The proposed contract agreement was hailed by union and university supporters as a landmark labor deal that would set a new national standard boosting wages and working conditions for graduate students employed at public universities.

The tentative settlement was reached last Friday, a week after the two sides enlisted an independent mediator, former state senator and Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, to help break a stalemate in the talks and broker a deal.

The striking scholars, who walked off the job on Nov. 14, include teaching assistants, researchers, tutors and other graduate student instructors at all 10 UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

They are to remain off the job until the agreement is approved by simple majority among those casting ballots in the ratification vote, which runs through Friday.

The walkout dragged on for weeks as the fall term drew to a close, disrupting final exams, study sessions and grading of papers throughout California’s flagship university system. In terms of workers involved, it ranked as larger than any previous strike at a U.S. academic institution, union leaders said.

The tentative pact would provide wage increases of up to 66% over the 2-1/2 year life of the contract, according to leaders of the two United Auto Workers union locals representing the 36,000 graduate students covered by the deal.

Two other UAW locals negotiating on behalf of 12,000 post-doctoral scholars and researchers ratified a separate settlement and returned to work earlier this month.

The UAW, expanding its ranks in recent years to include economic sectors beyond the auto industry, had made achievement of living wages a top priority for its academic workers, many of whom the union said have faced staggering rental burdens and debt on part-time salaries as low as $24,000 a year.

By the fall term of 2024 under the proposed agreement, the minimum nine-month salary for teaching assistants would rise to $36,500 at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UCLA, and to $34,000 at other campuses, according to the university.

Union leaders urging ratification of the deal also pointed to expanded benefits for childcare, public transit and workplace protection

But some detractors said the tentative pact falls short in meeting the living costs grad students face in pricey cities where many UC campuses are located, and critics faulted the deal for giving up on union demands to tie wage gains to housing costs, the Los Angeles Times reported.

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Ellen Bullock