The U.C’s Playing the Thimble Game – How Post-Docs Are Economic Stimulus

Note: this is a cross-post from The Realignment Project.


Tomorrow at noon, pickets will spring up on every campus of the University, a familiar sight especially since the U.C regents decided to raise undergraduate tuition by 32% this fall. This time, it’s PRO-UAW (the union for post-doctoral scholars or “post-docs”) and UPTE (the union for research and technical workers) who are protesting the U.C’s stonewalling contract negotiations over wages and benefits.

Lest anyone mistake this picket as just one more expression of discontent at the U.C’s budget woes, let me point out an important fact that shows why this protest shows how both sides of the U.C’s mission as a public research university are being undermined by the Regents’ drive towards privatization: these workers are being paid through Federal grants, not from the U.C’s general budget.

So why would the U.C refuse to pay for cost-of-living increases and benefit improvements when the money isn’t coming out of their funds?


The U.C Playing The Thimble Game:

People who’ve been following the news know that the U.C’s in budget trouble and took an $800 million cut from the state legislature this year. What they might not know is that at the same time, the U.C has been raking in Federal grant money hand-over-fist: UCLA’s researchers, for example, have been winning grants at the rate of $4 million a day in 2009, exceeding the 2008 rate that saw the U.C pull in nearly three billion in Federal research grants in Fiscal Year 2008-9. The reason that the U.C is flush with Federal grants is that the Federal stimulus and Obama’s first budget greatly increased Federal spending on research in order to create the kinds of good jobs in high-tech and research and development that we need to pull America out of the recession.

Despite taking this grant money from the Federal government, the U.C is refusing to spend money in the labs to provide cost-of-living adjustments (cost of living adjustments which are already budgeted for under the grants) and decent health care to front-line researchers and technical staff, the same people whose work is winning the U.C this grant money. Those wage adjustments and health benefits would act exactly as the kind of economic stimulus that was intended when Congress passed the stimulus back in 2008, boosting the local economies of each of the 10 U.C campuses.

In essence, the U.C is acting just like the banks and the state of California- instead of using Federal funds to ease the foreclosure crisis or prevent public sector job cuts, they’re crying poverty and refusing to stimulate the economy. The U.C’s bargaining team has been arguing that the state’s cut to the U.C means that researchers should shoulder the burden of wage freezes and health benefit cuts, in the same way that a con man running the thimble game tries to distract you when they palm the pea that’s supposed to be under one of the three thimbles. U.C researchers are paid out of grants, not state funds, and grant money is abundant and includes money for cost-of-living adjustments.

What makes the U.C’s stonewalling even more illogical is that by law that grant money can’t be spent to make up for the U.C’s state budget cuts. Either it gets spent in the lab or it doesn’t get spent. Thus, not only is the U.C’s penny-pinching hurting the California economy, but it’s also damaging the U.C’s purpose as a public (research) university.

The Purpose of a Public (Research) University:

When Yudof and the rest of the Regents approved a 32% tuition hike for U.C students, they couched it as an unpleasant necessity in order to “preserve and nurture our world-class public research university system.” And yet at the same time, the U.C is refusing to use Federal grant money to support its researchers.

What this points to is that the Regents aren’t interested in preserving either of the two purposes of a public (research) university – namely to promote the general welfare of the people through providing free higher education to anyone who wants to learn, and to promote the general welfare by doing research and develop that improves people’s lives by creating new technologies and new industries. These two priorities should go hand in hand, especially when Federal funding means that wage increases for researchers doesn’t have to raise student tuition by a dime.

Rather, what the Regents want is a privatized model of a university where no worker is paid a living wage or receives decent benefits. The only reason the U.C could have for playing “dog in the manger” to the post-docs and research workers is that they don’t want to create a precedent of giving any U.C worker a wage increase or decent health care, lest other groups of workers demand the same treatment.