Graduate student workers vote to authorize strike

The bargaining team can call for a strike at any time and will picket on Nov. 9.

Graduate student workers held their first rally Aug. 31 after the negotiations between USC and their bargaining committee, which had begun in April, continuously stalled and yielded unfavorable offers for workers. (Drake Lee / Daily Trojan)

The USC Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee, who are represented by the United Auto Workers union, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike late last week, allowing the bargaining team to call for a strike at any time they feel it is warranted, according to a press release published by union organizers Friday morning. 

The vote took place from Oct. 24 to Oct. 26 and 95% of those voting — or 2,158 student workers — voted in favor of a strike. The vote yielded a 70% turnout, according to the press release. 

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The 15 person bargaining team has been negotiating with USC since April and has claimed that the University has been negotiating in bad faith. 

“They’ve been very slow in getting offers to us,” said Stepp Mayes, a member of the union’s bargaining team and a doctoral candidate studying environmental engineering, in an interview with the Daily Trojan Sunday night. “Their offers don’t change much from one offer to another. And their offer is, frankly, pretty insulting because they’re proposing wage increases that don’t even keep up with inflation.”

Although the University and graduate student workers have reached 16 tentative agreements thus far, the last agreement being reached Sept. 26, graduate student workers have two issues that remain unresolved: the proposed economic package, which addresses wage increases and benefits, and an independent non-discrimination grievance process. 

“One of our big proposals that’s a huge issue for the graduate student workers here at USC is non-discrimination,” said Jackie Johnson, a member of the union’s bargaining team and a doctoral candidate in cinema and media studies. “The University’s proposal essentially separates the non-discrimination article from an independent grievance process. When it comes to discrimination, to harassment to abuse, the University wants to investigate itself.”

Although the bargaining team has the power to call a strike at any time, both Mayes and Johnson said that one could still be avoided and were optimistic for future bargaining talks. The next meeting between the bargaining team and the University will take place Tuesday. 

“I, of course, remain really optimistic that USC is going to come to us with an offer that we’re excited about and that our membership is excited about, but I think that we are absolutely prepared to call strike if we don’t see that happen,” Mayes said. 

Andrew Stott, dean of the USC graduate school and vice provost for academic programs, said he did not think a strike would be necessary because of headway that’s been made in negotiations.  He said he wanted the University’s economic packages to be viewed as a whole.

Stott said graduate student workers are given a minimum of $35,700 for 20 hours of work a week. 

“In addition to that, [workers] get health care, dental and vision, they get the remission of all mandatory university fees, which we’ve agreed to do, which is worth several thousands of dollars a year plus they get up to 36 units of tuition free a year as well, which is worth over $66,000. So when we look at the overall compensation package, that is a very generous package that we provide to students for 20 hours a week of work,” said Stott in a press conference with the Daily Trojan last Tuesday. 

On Oct. 23, USC offered graduate student workers a third economic proposal that included an increase to all stipends by 2.5% for the 2024-25 academic year. A 2% increase would follow in 2025-26, followed by another 2.5% increase for the 2026-27 academic year. 

The proposal from GSWOC-UAW calls for an increase of 9% to current minimums for this academic year. Subsequently, graduate student workers would get a raise of 8% for 2024-25, 7% for 2025-26 and 6% for 2026-27. The proposal also gives students who have already worked for more than two years an additional 2% raise. The proposal specifies that each graduate student worker must make $45,000 annually. 

The University proposal also creates a healthcare fund for dependents of graduate students worth $250,000 and a $1,800 child care subsidy per semester made available for graduate students’ children under the age of 6 by applying to receive a portion of a limited yearly fund worth $250,000. The plan also gives graduate student workers five days of sick leave and reimbursement of typically mandatory University student fees. For international graduate students, the plan includes a $10,000 fund in the event they lose their visa status while working.

In a message to USC professors Friday, Stott urged professors to plan for disruptions if their course or lab has a teaching assistant, research assistant or assistant lecturer that may go on strike. 

“Priorities include planning for final examinations; ensuring that all students receive their final grades by the December 19, 2023, grading deadline; and maintaining research continuity,” Stott wrote. 

It is unclear when a strike would occur if the bargaining team sees fit. 

GSWOC will hold a “Last Chance Picket” on Nov. 9 in an attempt to show the USC administration its willingness to strike. 

“That really illustrates to the university what it might be like for a day, if we really were on strike and it gives the University one last chance to bargain in good faith with us,” said Johnson. 

Correction: An article ran Oct. 31 with the headline “Graduate student workers vote to authorize strike” that stated an economic proposal from USC to the USC Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee contained “a $1,800 child care subsidy per semester for each child of a graduate student under the age of 6.” This information omitted the fact that the $1,800 subsidy was only available to GSWs who applied to a limited yearly fund worth $250,000. It has since been corrected online to “a $1,800 child care subsidy per semester made available for graduate students’ children under the age of 6 by applying to receive a portion of a limited yearly fund worth $250,000.
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