LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of thousands of undergraduate students at the University of California face a chaotic finish to their fall term as a strike by academic workers grinds through its fourth week.
Finals were in full swing this week even as some 48,000 employees represented by the United Auto Workers union remain on strike, including the tutors and teaching assistants who lead class discussions, provide one-on-one mentorship and support, and help faculty grade coursework.
While many students and professors have joined the picket line in support of the workers striking for better pay and benefits, concern is growing about the disruption's impact on California's premier higher education system.
“Everything has been affected,” said Jesus Hernandez, a first-year student at the UCLA. “Our grades have been delayed, we don’t know how grading is going to work and we’ve had to do more stuff on our own. It’s definitely a weird situation.”
The strike comes as rising inflation and a severe housing shortage makes it difficult for moderate- to low-income earners to pay for even basic necessities, like food and rent. The strikers join a long list of people employed by public agencies, like teachers and police officers, who cannot afford to live where they serve in high-priced cities like Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
This week, 17 striking workers were arrested on trespassing charges during a protest outside the University of California's administrative office in Sacramento and another 10 in Los Angeles, the union said in a statement. Members have occupied school buildings, picketed outside chancellors' homes and drawn the support of other unions, including the Teamsters, whose members refused to deliver packages last month to UC campuses.
Since the strike began in mid-November, lectures across the 10-campus system have been canceled and workloads reduced for UC's more than 230,000 undergraduate students. The content of some final exams has also been adjusted to exclude material that could not be covered because of the strike, officials said.
Some campuses, including UCLA, have pushed back deadlines for submitting grades because faculty members rely so heavily on teaching assistants to assess student performance.
Without these crucial academic workers, who hold study sessions, tutor students, read term papers and proctor and grade exams, nothing less than UC's reputation for excellence hangs in the balance, said students, professors and striking workers.
Some faculty members who joined the picket line told students that classes would be on hold indefinitely.
Anna Markowitz, an assistant professor of education at UCLA, said she had to rework a final exam after her teaching assistant, who oversees lab instruction, went on strike.
“I can’t expect my students to know something they didn’t learn,” Markowitz said. “It’s such a challenging situation, but that’s why folks want to do it, to call attention to the fact that these classes don’t run without the labor of these workers.”
Hernandez, a freshman, said teaching assistants help him with assignments and show him how to better tackle complicated subjects.
Teaching assistants are integral to UCLA's "cluster" program that gives first-year students an opportunity to immerse themselves in smaller learning groups led by faculty and teaching assistants, he said.
But Hernandez and classmate Joshua Golshirazi lost one of their teaching assistants to the strike, and both worry they won't be able to finish their final assignments without the additional support.
"Our TAs are very insightful and helpful with us forming our essays, but with them on strike, our resources are limited," said Golshirazi, a first-year student at UCLA. “It’s not the same without them."
Tentative agreements reached last month with two of the four striking bargaining units, representing postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers, include pay hikes of up to 29%, increased family leave, child care subsidies and longer appointments.
The 12,000 employees in those bargaining units have said they will continue to strike in solidarity with student researchers and academic student employees.
Ryan King, a spokesman for the University of California, said in a statement that the tentative agreements and the proposals made to student employees and researchers are "fair, reasonable and honor the important contributions these bargaining unit members make toward the University’s mission of education and research."
Union organizers said they have not set an end date for the work stoppage.
Vincent Doehr, a second-year grad student in political science at UCLA, said he is paid "poverty wages" as a teaching assistant.
"We can't even afford to live in the housing the university provides us without working multiple other jobs," Doehr said.
The average annual salary for student employees, including teaching assistants and tutors, is about $24,000, and the union is seeking a minimum annual base salary of $54,000.
Doehr, who lives in Los Angeles, said he has to work full time at a convenience store during the summer when graduate students are expected to conduct research.
As he tries to balance his study workload with the ongoing strike, he faces another challenge: He's a teaching assistant for a class of about 400 students and leads three discussion sections of about 20 students each. That means roughly 60 undergraduates depend on him for help with assignments but also to weigh in on their final grades.
This term, in support of striking employees, Doehr is only submitting grades for those graduating in the immediate future or whose visas or financial aid are dependent on GPAs. He said he would make exceptions as needed.
"We don't want anyone losing their scholarship or visa," he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Doehr stood in a long line on campus waiting for a free lunch prepared by union members. It was another attempt to save a few dollars, he said.