Since November 14th, some 48,000 graduate student workers, postdocs, and academic researchers across the University of California’s nine campuses have been on strike. Their demands and their rhetoric are predictable: they want higher wages and better benefits, and call themselves “exploited workers.” The bargaining unit seeks a $54,000 minimum salary for all graduate student workers, a $74,000 minimum salary for postdocs, and guaranteed annual cost of living adjustments. Unlike traditional labor strikes, however, the reality of the strike roiling the University of California is that 75% of those involved are graduate students workers, not employees in any conventional sense.
On the surface, the question of how to refer to these students is a purely semantic one—call them workers, students, agitators, or activists. And yet, the subtle use of “worker” makes it too easy to forget that the majority of those on strike did not just become exploited workers. Rather, they fought tooth and nail for the right to be exploited; the majority of UC schools are highly selective, and gaining admission requires significant investments of time, effort, and money.
While requirements vary by department, the typical graduate program at a University of California campus will require that applicants submit at least two letters of recommendation and a personal statement. Some programs also require applicants to prepare writing samples and submit standardized test scores such as the GRE, GMAT, or LSAT. Finally, unless they obtain a fee waiver, applicants are also responsible for paying an application fee of between $90 and $155. Depending on the campus and program, less than 20% of those who apply will be offered admission.
With the amount of effort required to gain admission to a University of California campus, taxpayers might expect the select few who are admitted to the UC system to have a clear understanding of the commitment for which they are signing up—a commitment that for most will last at least four years. In other words, taxpayers might expect applicants to weigh their options and do their research, as every financial aid office asks loan-bearing students to do already.
Am I prepared to make the sacrifices required to live on the stipend the university will provide, including delaying having children? Am I prepared to take out loans or seek part-time employment to cover any shortfalls? Do I expect to find employment after graduation, and do I expect that my salary will allow me to pay off any loans I’ve taken out? Or perhaps I should find employment now, and continue my education once I have savings upon which to draw.
Yet one gets the impression that after 16 years of schooling, some of our nation’s best minds, those now huddled together on the picket line, somehow never enrolled in Life Skills 101—at least this is the conclusion I draw from their seeming lack of even basic financial planning skills. What’s worse, they now try to force taxpayers (who for the upcoming year already provided the UC system with $4 billion in funding) to shoulder the burden of their own regretful decision-making.
Far from being exploited workers, these graduate student strikers are rather more like hostage takers. Having gained access to the exclusive club that is a UC graduate program, they now demand more than what they already agreed to—including for postdocs to make nearly $10,000 more than the median California resident. Their demands are not by themselves particularly noteworthy. What is remarkable, rather, is that in making their demands they insist that it is they who are the victims.
Are we to feel sympathy for the literate mouse who, scurrying past the fine print and ignoring the neon warning signs, finds itself caught in a mousetrap? Are to we to put stock in rights that conveniently materialize out of thin air, that turn one student's poor decision-making and burning desire to study literature or physics into a whole state’s financial burden?
All that said, those currently on strike are fully within their legal rights: California state labor law provides them with a bargaining mechanism, and they are taking advantage of it. Indeed, it could well be that the striking students are best understood not as sheltered and irresponsible agitators but as strategic and cutthroat businessmen, ready and willing to deploy all of the tools at their disposal to gain a few basis points. If that’s right, the students are unwilling victims in appearance only, and their rhetoric is but a PR stunt carefully planned to maximize positive public response.
One final point bears clarification. It may well turn out to be a good policy for the University of California to cave to some or all of the students’ demands. That is, if students and researchers are to do their best work, perhaps salaries should be higher. Similarly, perhaps better benefits and greater overall affordability are what we need to attract enough talent to stock the pipeline of professors and industry researchers. Such questions, however, are part of a much larger debate over the nature and structure of American higher education, and various competing answers will be compatible with my argument here. My concern is not with the feasibility or prudence of the strikers’ demands, but rather with their claims of exploitation and their denial of responsibility for their current predicament.
Ultimately, whether the students on strike are sheltered and irresponsible or are out to make a living through legal warfare, it is the University of California and the taxpayers who are the subjects of exploitation in this fiasco, not the graduate student workers.
Nikita Bogdanov is a senior data analyst at Uber and an incoming member of the NYU Law class of 2026. He holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a master's degree in literature from Columbia University.