Unionizing Gave Me Hope — and Made Me Feel Like a Human Being

I work for a prestigious university with a $7 billion endowment, yet I still struggle to pay rent. Joining with my coworkers and fighting for a union finally gave me hope that the odds aren't stacked against my survival.

At the University of California school system, 48,000 workers represented by the UAW are negotiating new contracts at the same time. (SRU-UAW)

On my daily walks to use the nearest gender-neutral bathroom, one city block from the lab where I work at UCLA, I used to stress about a wide range of things. Who might be questioning where I was going and whether I belong? How would I afford gender-affirming health care and rent? Am I the only academic worker struggling to make ends meet in Los Angeles?

Lately, however, things have changed. These walks are now a time to think about the fight I am waging with my coworkers to ensure that we have a more dignified future.

In 2020, a coworker asked me to sign an authorization card to form a union for the seventeen thousand student researchers across the University of California (UC) system. After I agreed, they asked if I would get more involved, noting that the union would only be as strong as our willingness to participate in it.

I wasn’t in a good place mentally at the time, and it was hard to imagine joining anything that would require me to talk to people. I had signed the card because I knew that unions have historically fought for LGBT rights, including at the UC. But getting involved? With what energy? I barely have time to sleep with my workload and long bus commute home (ironic, given that my research focuses on the importance of sleep).

But when I finally attended a union organizing meeting, I was shocked to find a room full of people who saw me as a human being, not some machine of production. I was equally shocked to notice an unfamiliar feeling creeping in: hopefulness.

I got more and more involved.

Personal and Political Transformation

When I began talking to coworkers about joining the union, not every conversation was easy. Sometimes I got a hard “no” or a door in the face. But when I brought things back to our shared issues and our power to change them through collective action, I saw people transform before me. I spoke with coworkers who believed there was no need for a union — and then after sharing my experiences rationing food so I could afford to pay rent, they would reveal the pressures affecting them as well.

I was changing too: I no longer felt like the odds were stacked against my survival in the academic industry. It’s amazing what we learn to put up with until presented with an alternative vision and a real plan to get there.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Even once a supermajority of the UC’s seventeen thousand student researchers signed cards to form our union last May, the university fought us every step of the way. They refused to recognize our democratic decision to unionize until we forced their hand with a strike authorization vote.

The six months leading up to that vote were challenging. I stretched my comfort zone asking coworkers to take more and more actions, bringing them into closer and closer conflict with our employer. But the result was amazing — thousands of people awakening to the fact that the UC administration wouldn’t respect our rights as workers unless we fought for them. And then fighting to win, we received union recognition last December.

Now, we’re in a new struggle: bargaining our first contract. I decided to run for a position on our bargaining team because I want UC to live up to its promise as a truly public institution, accessible to everyone, including trans, immigrant, first-generation graduate student workers like myself. Not only do I deal with the daily humiliation of walking across my building to the only gender-neutral restroom nearby, but I struggle every month to pay rent and meet my expenses, despite working for a prestigious university with a $7 billion endowment.

The low wages UC pays its graduate workers along with the high cost of living in California mean that the people working to fulfill UC’s research mission are struggling to get by. For those of us without savings or family wealth, the situation is barely tenable. For example, I’ve ended up in crowded apartments with transphobic roommates because I couldn’t afford other options. I’ve known other UCLA employees who live out of their cars, or far from their kids and partners because they had to move out of state to afford housing.

We could all easily have a safe living space if UCLA offered affordable on-campus housing. But instead, they charge graduate student workers $1,400 to $1,700 per month — about 60 to 75 percent of my monthly paycheck. To afford the basics of life and to conduct our research in a decent environment, we need a union contract that makes big, enforceable improvements.

How can we win that kind of contract? While there’s a lot to learn about collective bargaining when you’re negotiating a first contract, the bargaining team members and I have come to a few conclusions. First, the key to making the UC move is high worker participation beyond the bargaining table. As my coworker put it two years ago, the union is only as strong as our willingness to participate in it. Second, it’s crucial to create strong organizational structure in every workplace — a lesson we learned from our fight for recognition and from the experiences of our union siblings in UAW 2865, the union of teaching assistants at UC, and UAW 5810, the union of postdoctoral and academic researchers at UC.

And not only do we benefit from their years of experience, but we now have the opportunity to fight side by side. For the first time in history, all forty-eight thousand UC workers represented by UAW are negotiating new contracts at the same time.

Strength in Unity

The alignment of our UAW contract negotiations creates a historic opportunity to dramatically boost our working conditions. Academic workers are also meeting in coalition with three other unions currently bargaining with the UC: the California Nurses Association (CNA), Teamsters Local 2010, and the Committee of Interns and Residents with the Service Employees International Union (CIR/SEIU). The gains any of us make at the table can be leveraged to improve working conditions for all. But to realize this potential, we will have to constantly build unity across every position, department, and campus.

The UC’s bad policies — creating unsustainable conditions for all academic workers — have made building that unity easier. During our strike authorization vote, which coincided with a separate strike authorization vote by postdocs, I talked with postdocs in my lab and other labs. I learned that they, too, were fighting for protections from abuse and harassment, and struggling with the high cost of housing and long, expensive commutes.

Our new campaign, United for a Fair Workplace, comes out of that realization. It’s a cross-union effort to win solutions to the problems that affect all forty-eight thousand of us, from teacher’s assistants to postdocs, and to building unity against those who have a vested interest in slimming down our power and resources. The last two years have shown me that my union family is the strongest force to do that in a sustained way. And that when we align with other union locals, we have a powerful opportunity to go on the offensive for new rights and benefits.

I have a theory that 2022 will be the last year we will have to live out of our cars, away from our families, or in unsafe homes. And I know now that I have forty-eight thousand academic workers to back me up.