Illustration by Louise Leong.

Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 ratified a new contract with the University of California ending a four-day voting period Dec. 2 of last year. The proposed contract was approved with a final 62.4 percent vote in a statewide tally.

The union represents more than 12,000 academic student employees, whose members were divided on the terms of the new contract. While the University of California and the UAW were able to reach an agreement after six months of negotiation, some members are unhappy with the contract’s terms.

“The contract’s a joke,” said Brian Malone, literature graduate student and campus unit chair in UCSC for the UAW Local 2865. “I think we’re only seeing that more clearly now. By UC’s own admission, our stipends are wildly below what they should be.”

The UC Office of the President’s recent graduate student survey report found that UC’s average net stipend offer was lower than its competitors’ by $2,697. Adding in the average cost of living at UC locations over non-UC locations, the UCOP report found academic student employees had an overall shortcoming of $4,978.

“I really think this drives home the point that UC is making itself noncompetitive with similar institutions,” Jessica Lancaster, UCSC academic student employee representative, said in an e-mail.

In an open letter, Malone and Lancaster of UCSC, Nick Kardahji and Jessica Taal of UC Berkeley, and Bron Tamulis of UC Irvine, all dissenting academic student employee representatives, said they felt disappointed by the annual 2 percent wage increase, which falls short of the 3 percent annual inflation rate reported in 2009.

“It’s so expensive to live here in California, already [without the 2 percent increase],” Lancaster said.

The dissenters are in the process of forming an additional organization within the UAW called Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), which stemmed from the “no” vote campaign on the contract. Those who disagreed with the tentative agreement, which was settled Nov. 16 of last year, raised a campaign within the two weeks before the voting period.

“It was really exciting to see people coming together so fast at so many campuses,” Lancaster said. “There was this large coordinated effort to blow down the contract, so we could go back to negotiations and get something better for our members.”

AWDU members are now creating official chapters on UC campuses, with headquarters in Berkeley. The UCSC chapter is expected to officiate by the end of this month. Because the current contract is legally binding, Malone said the group cannot change the terms of the current contract, but instead hopes to change the structure of the UAW.

“We’re organizing these caucuses as offering a different vision than how the UAW executive board has been running the union,” Malone said. “I got the feeling that a lot of [representatives in the UAW bargaining team] were tired and scared of the UC, and felt like, ‘If we can get anything, we can then go back to our members and say that we squeezed something out of the UC.’”

Michael Strack, an academic student employee for UC Santa Barbara, had a different take on the results of the contract.

“[The contract] is a really good deal for me, being a TA,” Strack said. “I’m very satisfied. The major win was obviously that, as things are getting worse, and programs and everything are getting cut, being a TA is still an appealing job.”

Santa Barbara, which received one of the highest number of “yes” votes, holds the majority of UAW leadership.

“I haven’t met anybody who’s complaining about the contract,” Strack said. “This is my specific department [in electrical engineering], so I can’t speak for everybody else, but I know that we’re very happy. It seems to be all positive feedback from the community.”

UC Irvine and UC Davis were the only campuses where voting results were close in number, reflecting division with the campuses.

“Irvine is a really interesting case,” Malone said. “A group of activists has sprung up [in UC Irvine], very independent of the UAW… and sort of said, ‘We’re willing to fight, and we’re not willing to take whatever the UC and the UAW leadership tell us.’”