Last Thursday, five weeks into the largest strike in US academic labor history—with some 48,000 workers participating—bargaining teams representing graduate workers across the University of California system signed tentative agreements with the institution. The occasion was, however, not marked only by celebration or relief. Instead, tensions coursing through the body of union membership burst into the open. For weeks, discontent with union leadership’s concessionary approach had simmered; that discontent has now galvanized a campaign to reject the tentative agreements and continue striking.

California is a state with a prohibitively high cost of living, second only to New York in the contiguous United States. According to UAW survey data, 92 percent of UC graduate workers—including those living in university housing—are rent-burdened, which means at least third of our income goes to rent. For the average grad student, this figure comes to 52 percent. Wages have therefore represented a major sticking point during negotiations, alongside onerous fees charged to international students, health care for dependents, and access needs for disabled workers.

The two locals on strike are Student Researchers United (SRU–United Auto Workers), representing graduate researchers, and UAW 2865, representing teaching assistants, tutors, and readers (those who teach and grade at the university). There is overlap: As graduate students in UC Los Angeles’s Department of Geography, and like grads across campuses and disciplines, we move between 2865 and SRU depending on the source of our income any given year. In response to unfair labor practices from the university—including bypassing bargaining to unilaterally change work conditions of organized workers and withholding information necessary for bargaining—the 36,000 graduate workers represented by these two locals began striking on November 14, alongside UC’s postdocs and academic researchers. The postdocs and ARs, represented by a separate local, ratified a contract on December 10. Graduate workers are now in our sixth week, up against a mammoth institution that has repeatedly cried poverty, moved slowly, and for weeks peddled wage increases that fail to keep pace with inflation.

Four weeks into the strike, on December 10, the UC and union entered voluntary mediation. Governor Gavin Newsom handpicked Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg as mediator. Steinberg worked quickly, coming to the 2865 and SRU bargaining teams on December 14 with a revocable “supposal” from the school, asking that the union respond within two days or lose the deal and see mediation dissolve. While union leadership invited comment on the contract, they took his warning at face value. The crunched timeline bewildered many members. What exactly was in the contract? Could we not demand more time to consider? The grade submission deadline was still ahead of us—and still is, after most campuses scrambled to delay it—and, having organized widespread grade withholding, we seemed to be approaching a point of major leverage.

Nonetheless, our bargaining teams voted to accept the contract by Steinberg’s deadline. Leadership quickly pivoted to stumping for it. The contract offers wage hikes of between 25 and 80 percent over the next two and a half years, a timeline that allows us to negotiate—and perhaps strike—again sooner than is typical in university settings. Yet in real terms, accounting for the rising cost of living and the low starting point, these raises fail to relieve many workers’ precarious living conditions. Workers in UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UC San Francisco will get a higher wage than workers at other campuses. UC Santa Barbara workers, per the UAW’s internal surveys, currently pay lower rents than the other coastal campuses, although data pulled from HUD indicates that Santa Barbara’s overall housing costs are comparable to the most expensive campuses. Workers at UC Santa Cruz will retain a housing stipend that is discretionarily granted by the school rather than guaranteed in the contract. The supplemental tuition fee remains in effect, charging international students $5,000 a quarter to work, but is now remitted for three years after a PhD student advances to candidacy. Dependent health care reimbursements are marginally more generous, and the contract offers more robust protections against workplace bullying and harassment.

Yet avenues allowing rank-and-file members to steer the process were scarce. Earlier concessionary decisions had already occasioned widespread discontent. An initial community safety proposal demanding divestment from the UC Police Department (UCPD) and reallocation of funds to mental health services and unarmed community service officers was dropped over the course of bargaining—for context, the UCPD’s annual budget for the 2021–22 fiscal year was an unjustifiable $155,028,345. During the strike’s second week, bargaining teams removed language tying wages to rent; this language, codifying a cost-of-living adjustment, had been, for many, the beating heart of the strike. When, the following week, the bargaining team dropped its wage demands from $54,000 to $43,020 in spite of vocal opposition from membership—and despite the university’s having hardly yet moved—many more strikers were outraged.

This sense of outrage on matters both procedural and strategic is feeding a campaign to vote no on the contract. At key moments, our union seemed to bargain as if the strike were weak and our tactics either impossible to maintain or inconsequential. It is no easy task to gauge the strength of a strike that spans 10 campuses and involves tens of thousands of workers. Debates have raged on what constitutes a strong strike: the size of the picket line? The sum total of lectures, discussions, and labs canceled? The financial hit to the university? Moreover, how long does it take for our withheld labor to cost the UC more than what we are demanding at the bargaining table? Ultimately, though, our union’s bargaining strategy has led to a weaker contract than tens of thousands of us have been fighting for.

UC Rank and File United, a caucus affiliated with the bargaining team members who voted against tentatively agreeing to the contract, argued in a December 19 e-mail: “By voting no, we help our bargaining teams. We are giving them a strong show of support to return to the bargaining table and demand that we get what we need.” If the contract is voted down, we remain on strike. This involves risk: The school might regress to an earlier, worse offer. Student researchers, who are bargaining collectively for the first time, are almost certain to approve their contract; a “no” vote would likely leave the 19,000 academic student employees striking alone, and bargaining on separate timelines in future negotiations. Could 2865 maintain enough power to achieve a better contract? And the school could escalate—thus far it has continued to pay us throughout our strike, but that could change.

But there remains reason for resolve. A focus on withholding the labor of grading for fall and the refusal to help set up courses in the new year could well allow for clarity of purpose and a sharper analysis of our strength. The school has proven itself callously willing to allow students to miss more than a month of instruction, but the impact of withheld grades and teaching is likely to grow the longer it lasts. And as strikers, we have powerful and creative avenues for escalation: Some bold organizers have established pickets at delivery docks and construction sites across campuses, allowing other unions to walk off the job in solidarity. Striking with the support of unionized workers across other sectors demonstrates that the UC’s immiseration of its grad workers is of a piece with its impoverishment of working people generally. In addition to being the third-largest employer in California, the UC is also one of the state’s largest landlords—in many cases with enough holdings to heat or cool local markets with its rents. It stewards a $152 billion endowment it is determined to grow in financial markets. A continued, and more successful, strike would contribute not only to the slow undoing of this profit-making machine but also to the much-needed transformation of higher education in this country. Already, other institutions watching the UC strike have preemptively opted to raise graduate worker pay.

No contract will be perfect. It may be that the strike has gone on long enough already to tire many of our comrades out, that enough strikers are satisfied, and we will emerge with the contract at hand. In that case, it will be incumbent on us to assess our wins and losses with clear eyes, and to organize quickly toward our next negotiation, including by establishing systems to deepen the union’s democracy. A “no” vote only heightens the urgency of these projects: It offers a commitment to continue organizing now, to demand that our current strike translates into the strongest possible contract it can—one that lifts graduate workers out of rent burden and enables all workers to teach and research without unnecessary distress. We have often called our strike historic. It is our duty to make it so.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this text described the vote to accept Steinberg’s deadline as passing by a “slim majority.” The vote was actually approximately 60 percent percent in favor, 40 percent opposed. The text has been updated to reflect the accurate vote count.

An earlier version also neglected to state that internal UAW polling indicated that current UC Santa Barbara workers are paying lower rents than UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and UC Santa Cruz. The text has been updated to reflect this information.