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Any other Monday morning, Josh Mesfin would have been in the lab, performing surgery on rats and devising new ways to help them heal from heart attacks — with the hope of one day using those same tools to help people.

But the fourth-year UC San Diego bioengineering graduate student spent the day chanting and marching alongside fellow academic workers who launched a strike at 10 University of California campuses on Monday, decrying low wages that Mesfin says make instant ramen a dietary staple for many and that leave students struggling to afford the region’s rising rent.

“I’m not usually the type of person to be doing a lot of activist work. This is one of the first protests I’ve been at,” Josh said. “[But] you have to stand for what’s right. At this point, it’s now or never.”

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There was a lot of that happening throughout the state. From San Diego to Davis, 48,000 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and other academic workers stopped their usual research and teaching activities, with many of them headed to picket lines to demand better wages, childcare support, and other benefits.

For life science researchers, that meant setting aside mouse experiments, nurturing cells in the lab, and tinkering with DNA. Instead, they spent the day blasting music, chanting, and hoisting signs in an effort to put pressure on a network of research universities dependent on their labor.

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At UCSD, individual protests scattered across campus eventually converged on Geisel Library, the university’s most recognizable landmark. And at UC Berkeley, academic workers danced, marched, and sang along while music blared, with “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton and “Respect” by Aretha Franklin in the rotation.

“People are really excited; they’re determined,” said Hayley Bounds, a sixth-year neuroscience Ph.D. student at Berkeley. “We’re ready to fight this fight.”

The protests come after months of stalled negotiations between the UC system and the United Auto Workers.

The UAW’s core demands include a $54,000 minimum annual salary for graduate students and $70,000 minimum for postdocs, with annual adjustments based on experience level and cost of living. The union is also demanding a monthly $2,000 reimbursement for childcare and extended paid parental leave.

The UC system’s counter-offer has been more modest. For postdocs, its offer includes an annual childcare reimbursement of up to $2,500 and a new salary scale with an average 7.5% increase above the current one. And UC’s offer to grad students includes an offer to cover tuition and other campus fees along with a 9% to 10% salary increase in the first year of a new contract followed by an annual 3% increase for most students.

“UC believes its proposals have been fair, reasonable, and responsive to the union’s priorities, and looks forward to continuing negotiations with the UAW and settling these contracts as quickly as possible,” the university system said in a statement posted online.

The statewide strike revolves around many of the same issues sending life science researchers out of academia altogether, a seismic shift documented in a recent special report by STAT News. Growth in private industry has fueled a mass exodus out of academia, with fewer life science Ph.D. graduates doing postdocs and more of them jumping into lucrative industry jobs.

In early November, 98% of UC academic workers voted to grant their union power to authorize a strike. But Mesfin said he and many of his peers were hoping a strike wouldn’t actually happen. A one-month strike, he said, could delay graduation for several months given how much time it takes to set up, prepare, and troubleshoot experiments. And as a Ph.D. student, he is less able than a postdoc to walk away from academia and jump directly into the workforce.

Another concern? Faculty retaliation. While he said his professor has been supportive, he added that there’s a general fear among students that they could be fired or otherwise punished for striking (though the Council of UC Faculty Associations notes that academic workers cannot be fired for protesting).

“The power dynamic between a [professor] and a student is insane,” he said. “That dynamic inherently puts stress upon the grad students.”

However, some faculty are openly supporting the strike. Kay Tye is one of them. Her neuroscience lab at the Salk Institute includes UCSD graduate students, and Tye has told them that as long as the strike lasts, lab meetings will no longer be a time to discuss science. Instead, they’ll become social events centered around eating dessert and making signs for the picket line.

And Tye plans to be right there with them protesting.

“Why should I as a [principal investigator] benefit from the labor of my graduate students, but then not be there to support them?” she said. “That’s just a very dehumanizing way to approach things. This is a mentor-apprenticeship relationship. It is not slave labor.”

It’s unclear precisely how long these protests will last. Postdocs and graduate students perform the bulk of the work that drives university labs. Without their labor, groups like Tye’s won’t be able to get much done. Striking workers will be paid $400 a week, hardly enough to make ends meet.

Life science researchers and their counterparts in other departments are betting that they’ll be able to hold out longer than the UC system. The coming days and weeks will put that hypothesis to the test.

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