Militant Journalism

Academic workers picket at UC San Diego against unjust firing of pregnant worker

Academic workers are once again escalating their campaign against workplace harassment and abuse at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Li Jiang, a post-doctoral researcher in the Pathology Department, is facing non-renewal of her position — essentially a firing — after she raised concerns that her supervisor had pressured her into falsifying data. 

Dr. Jiang, an international worker from China, is now facing a loss of health insurance and possibly even deportation despite being more than seven months pregnant! In a statement to the university’s student newspaper, The Triton, Dr. Jiang said, “When I became a Postdoc at UCSD, I never imagined I would have to choose between participating in unethical research practices or losing my job right before giving birth to my first child.”

In response to the University’s retaliation, Dr. Jiang contacted UAW Local 5810, representing Postdocs and Academic Researchers at the University of California system, which mounted a swift response. The union immediately circulated a petition calling on UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla to extend Dr. Jiang’s contract, while simultaneously calling on signatories to participate in a direct action to apply pressure. 

In less than a week, the union was successful in mobilizing more than 100 academic workers from departments across UCSD. For the entire day on August 4, workers picketed both entrances of the Biomedical Sciences building. While people were not physically prevented from passing the picket line, each passerby was stopped, informed of Dr. Jiang’s situation and asked to sign the petition.

The picketers included many Academic Student Employees, represented by UAW 2865, as well as members from the recently-formed SRU-UAW, the union of Graduate Student Researchers. This solidarity is not unusual as all three units — representing a total 48,000 workers at UC — are currently in simultaneous contract negotiations. The membership of each organization understands that their labor struggles are deeply linked with each other.

Towards the evening, a group of picketers decided to move to occupy the office of the Chair of the Pathology Department, Steven Gonias. At this point, the door to the office was locked and the university police were called. After a phone call — possibly with the Chancellor — Gonias eventually made his way outside with a police escort. In a statement caught on camera, Gonias said that he believes “a six month extension is what has to happen” and that he will “work on that tomorrow.” This encouraging development, while not a resolution to the issue, is a testament to the power of collective action by workers. 

Dr. Jiang’s circumstances highlight the way in which labor struggles are inextricably linked to the struggle for reproductive rights and the struggle for the rights of immigrants. While her situation is particularly egregious, similar situations are common. In another recent example, a postdoc studying climate science at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is also in San Diego, has faced disability-related harassment and retaliation from their supervisor, culminating in the denial of their visa renewal and possible deportation despite having a contract. 

Adam Caparco, another postdoc at UCSD, stated that “there is an extreme imbalance of power between postdocs and their supervisors at UC, especially when a supervisor can exert control over a postdoc’s visa status. And it’s all too common for supervisors to exploit that power.” This is backed up by a study published in 2020, which found that for postdocs, “when asked to identify the type or types of mistreatment they had experienced, most (65%) pointed to power imbalances or bullying, 40% reported gender discrimination and 24% reported racial discrimination.” According to a more recent article published in Nature, 56% of postdocs in the United States are on temporary visas. These workers are likely to face more frequent and severe harassment with threats to their visa status being a commonplace tactic. 

Fortunately, the movement to undo these conditions is gaining momentum. Increased union membership, activity and militancy highlight the fact that workers everywhere are being pushed to organize for their security and needs. During negotiations with UC, the three UAW locals have proposed strong anti-bullying language along with a host of provisions on other crucial issues such as rent-burden, wages, childcare, disability accommodations and rights for international workers. While the university administration has been dragging its feet, the 48,000 workers who are the engine of the UC system are prepared to go the distance to secure the lives they deserve.

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