The University of California Strike Has Been 50 Years in the Making

Union academic workers and supporters march and picket at the UCLA campus amid a statewide strike by nearly 48,000 University of California unionized workers on November 15, 2022 in Los Angeles. The strikers are calling for improved wages and benefits at the 10 UC public university campuses across California. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Close to 50,000 academic workers across the University of California system have walked out this week in what may be the largest strike in California history. Since Monday, when the strike began, classes across the system’s ten campuses have been canceled because there’s no one to lead them. “Postdocs, researchers, graduate-student teaching assistants basically run the university in many ways,” Lavanya Nott, a researcher and graduate student in the UCLA geography department, told the Los Angeles Times. Their demands — higher wages, paid leave, child-care stipends, and transit passes — are familiar in a state where the cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years, but the crisis they say they’re confronting has been nearly half a century in the making. If you want to understand the conditions that created the strike, first you need to understand a single law that went into effect 44 years ago: Proposition 13.

In June 1978, California voters were asked to consider a ballot measure called “Tax Limitation — Initiative Constitutional Amendment” that sought to freeze all residential and commercial property tax rates at the point of purchase. (The father of the campaign, a boisterous Republican named Howard Jarvis, called the tax revolt a way to stand up to the “moochers and loafers” in government.) At the time, inflation was rampant while taxes for property owners were climbing, and California voters gladly said yes. Now, almost 50 years later, a homeowner who bought their house in 1980 is still effectively paying 1980 property taxes — regardless of any increase in the assessed value as long as the house has remained in their possession. (A loophole allows homeowners to pass their properties to their kids without triggering a reassessment). The resulting math is dizzying: One 2018 report found the owner of an Oakland home purchased decades ago paid $1,168 in annual property taxes compared to the $13,000 owed by the owner of a similarly sized neighboring property purchased in 2016. A 2022 study also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the biggest tax breaks from Prop 13 have gone to whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.

This bled the state of much-needed income, just as Jarvis intended. While exact numbers are difficult to come by, a failed 2020 effort to partially repeal Prop 13 estimated that if just the state’s commercial-property owners were taxed at fair market value, it would provide California an additional $11.5 billion in annual tax revenue — most of which would be paid by giant corporations.

This lack of funds, paired with other divestment decisions at the state level, impacted all of California’s public institutions, and education arguably suffered the most. By 1982, the introduction of student fees had effectively declared the end of free college tuition in California. As public-education spending plummeted, Prop 13’s generous subsidies to homeowners who got in early — and the incentives it provided to stay put — made it incredibly difficult for all but California’s wealthiest residents to break into the housing market. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the neighborhoods around UC campuses, where housing has been made scarcer because longtime homeowners have organized against the development of any new units — and continue to grow wealthier thanks to Prop 13. This disparity also plays out on UC campuses, as university chancellors receive competitive compensation and free housing (including a $6.5 million mansion recently purchased with state money) while the average grad-student worker makes $23,247 per year.

Given this history, and the punishing rise in housing costs over the last few years, it’s little surprise things have come to a head. A staggering 92 percent of unionized workers are rent-burdened, with 52 percent paying more than half of their income on rent, according to internal union membership surveys. And being grad students, the striking workers have tried to assemble the data to make their demands clear: Alexander Ferrer, a housing researcher and geography Ph.D. candidate at UCLA who is currently on strike, surveyed the apartments available around the school. Using 2021 census data, Ferrer could only find 952 units for rent within ten miles of campus that would cost less than 30 percent of the average grad-student salary. There are 14,300 grad students at UCLA.

The UC Strike Has Been 50 Years in the Making