Academic Workers Of The World Unite | Crooked Media
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November 14, 2022
What A Day
Academic Workers Of The World Unite

In This Episode

  • 48,000 academic workers across the University of California’s 10 campuses walked off the job on Monday in the nation’s largest strike of the year. Labor historian and UCLA professor Toby Higbie tells us how we got here and what’s at stake.
  • As winter approaches, experts are warning of a “tripledemic” of RSV, COVID, and the flu. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, host of Crooked’s “America Dissected,” explains why it’s happening, and what you can do to protect yourself and your community.
  • And in headlines: a shooting at the University of Virginia left three people dead, Google agreed to a $392 million settlement over deceptive location tracking practices, and Amazon plans to lay off thousands of employees.


Show Notes:



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Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Tuesday, November 15th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson.


Abdul El-Sayed: I’m Abdul El-Sayed and this is What A Day where we’re founding our own microblogging platform for anyone who’s looking for a new microblogging platform. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yes, it’s called WADLER. And it’s all the rage, I promise. 


Abdul El-Sayed: For cool kids, it’s called WADLAIRE. [laughter] On today’s show, the Supreme Court said the January 6th committee can obtain phone records from a prominent Trump ally. Plus, Jeff Bezos will give away billions of dollars to charity as Amazon gears up to lay off thousands of employees. 


Tre’vell Anderson: But first:


[clip of academic workers at UCLA striking] Get up! Get down! L.A. is a Uniontown, get up, get down. L.A. is a union town. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That is the sound of academic workers at UCLA yesterday. They are among the 48,000 who walked off the job Monday across the University of California’s ten campuses. They’re calling for, among other things, better pay and benefits. And that massive number makes this effort both the nation’s largest strike of the year and, according to union leaders, the largest strike at any academic institution in history. 


Abdul El-Sayed: I love that. And you’ve got to love academic workers saying it how it is. I was expecting them to say something more like ascend descend. [laughter] So tell us Tre’vell, who all is involved in the strike? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. So there are a total of four bargaining units representing the folks striking. And the overall collective here includes teaching assistants, postdoctoral scholars, graduate student researchers, tutors and fellows. Basically, most of the folk who performs so much of the teaching and research throughout the University of California system and because of the sheer size of this block, the work stoppage Monday prompted the cancelling of classes. Labs were closed and a number of other academic disruptions, all just a few weeks before final exams. As of Monday evening, it appears the strike will continue for at least one more day. As only one of the four units, the one representing 17,000 grad student researchers had actually entered into a bargaining session with university officials. According to one leader with one of the other three units. No new progress had been made with their groups. 


Abdul El-Sayed: It’s frustrating to watch universities try and stop union movements. Now you said that they’re striking for better pay and benefits. Can you tell us more about that? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. So workers are demanding significant pay increases, but they also want child care subsidies, enhanced health care for their dependents, longer family leave, public transit passes and lower tuition costs for international students. But just to illustrate the pay point here, the workers are asking for a $54,000 base salary a year. They say that that would be fair because the current average workers pay is about $24,000 a year. As one student told the Los Angeles Times, quote, “We are overworked and underpaid and we are fed up. We are as a whole just asking to be treated with dignity.” But we wanted to learn more about how we got here. So one of our producers, the MVP, Raven Yamamoto, spoke with UCLA labor studies professor Toby Higbie. Raven caught up with Higbie just before he left for a union rally. And one of the things he wanted to make clear is that this strike was a long time in the making, dating back decades. 


Toby Higbie: There was a time when there was no tuition. University of California was tuition free. It was established to provide accessible, essentially free, high quality education to the people of California and eventually that became registration fees. Those registration fees got so big, they just decided to call them what they were, which was tuition. And then tuition went up and up and up and up. That money that used to come from the state to fund the uh university now comes from largely undergraduate tuition. Then when the tuition kept going up to try to cover those costs, California parents got very unhappy with that. They demanded there be a cap on tuition. And once there was a cap on tuition, uh they also demanded that there be more students accepted into the system. So you have less money coming into the system, more students. There’s a financial squeeze. And that financial squeeze has been going on at least for 20 years, especially more intensely after the 2008 financial crash. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Higbie also told us about how these low wages are taking a toll on these workers, some of whom are his own students, and their ability to afford basic necessities. 


Toby Higbie: Housing and food insecurity is frighteningly common among graduate uh students and graduate employees, as it is among undergraduates. But graduate employees don’t really have access to things like Pell Grants and that type of uh support. On many campuses, four or 5% of graduate students are experiencing homelessness. One of my graduate students lived in his car for the better part of a year because rent is so expensive, you know, it’s just very difficult for people to survive on the salary that they’re provided. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Higbie also pointed out that many graduate students are technically considered part time workers, even if they are working full time on grading or teaching and they’re discouraged from looking for outside work. 


Toby Higbie: The result is that, you know, you just can’t make enough money. Students go out and find other jobs outside of the university. They also, of course, scrimp and save sometimes rather than rent an apartment thus sleep with friends. It’s not a good situation for a major university, and it’s something that is not simply the result of, say, university management doing bad stuff. It’s also the result of the state not providing enough money to support the university at the actual cost that it is. 


Tre’vell Anderson: He also noted how university faculty and others are showing solidarity with those on strike. 


Toby Higbie: You see people walking the picket line with the students. There are people donating to the Strike Hardship Fund too, because if this is going to go for a long time, the students are going to need food and potentially rent. In our meeting, we just talked about people donating some of their research funds to a departmental hardship fund for students. Many people who are either cancelling their classes or holding their classes on the picket line, some are holding classes on Zoom. In general, the big question is for these very large classes that have a lot of graduate employees who are the section leaders and who do the grading and the sentiment among the group of faculty that I was with was that to the extent that we are, those Senate faculty have the privilege to resist picking up that struck Labor. We would resist doing that. Really what this is about is the union members going out on strike, because that’s the key important thing in a strike is that as many union members are striking as possible, the solidarity is also important. But what’s key is that the workers that are bargaining show up in force. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That was Professor Toby Higbie. He’s a labor historian at UCLA. We, of course, will keep following the strike as it continues. 


Abdul El-Sayed: Let’s shift gears to some news that’s causing some concern in the public health world. With late fall and early winter comes cold and flu season. But this year’s season is looking to be one of the worst in some time, prompting experts to describe what could become a, quote, “tripledemic.” Most pressing is a surge in RSV, short for respiratory syncytial virus. It’s a common source of lung infections in infants and toddlers, and it causes serious illness in kids around this time of year, every year. This year’s onset, though, is just way worse. What we think is causing it is the fact that for the past few years, kids have been protected from RSV because of COVID precautions like masking, which alongside stopping COVID also stops RSV. That means there’s a whole generation of young children who weren’t exposed for the past two years or have never been exposed at all. Immunity is like the rest of our bodies. You use it or you lose it, and the lack of exposure may mean that kids simply lack the immunity to protect them. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Okay, Abdul, you mentioned that word, tripledemic. I don’t like it, but I’m going to circle back to it in a moment. Let’s stay on this RSV point. Is there anything about the virus itself that has changed? 


Abdul El-Sayed: That’s a good question, Tre’vell. RSV is a lot like COVID. It’s an RNA virus, which means that it’s prone to evolving and its used this time to do just that. The consequence is a perfect storm in evolved RSV hitting a population that’s less immune. My local children’s hospital C.S. Mott Children’s hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is at 100% capacity, which is super scary considering I have a child who’s four years old. Dozens around the country are also just as full. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Gotcha. So now you said it’s a tripledemic, not a great word. FYI for whoever came up with that. But what else should we be worried about? 


Abdul El-Sayed: I think we’re all a little bit allergic to the word demic. And then when you see big numbers next to it, that’s real bad. And you’re right, Tre’vell. It’s not just RSV, it’s also the flu which has hit us far earlier than in past years. And we don’t think about it this way, but the flu is deadly. It kills tens of thousands of people every single year, usually kids and seniors who are at way higher risk. While it’s still unclear that this year’s flu season is going to be worse, the early jump has us in the public health community really worried. And then rounding out the trifecta is good old or new COVID. COVID, as we’ve learned, is a seasonal disease, and there’s been a jump in cases every single fall since the pandemic started. Cases are starting to climb this year, too, but fortunately, nothing like what we saw last fall just yet. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Okay, with COVID, are we still on Omicron? Have we moved to another Greek letter alphabet I don’t know how to pronounce? 


Abdul El-Sayed: You know, the irony is the next letter up would be PI, which has a whole different meaning in the fall. But right now it’s still Omicron. It’s just it’s Omicron’s distant cousins. Our current increase in cases is attributable to a series of sub variants that are evolving out of the OG Omicron from last year. They’ve got odd names like XBB and BQ.1, which sounds like the name of a New Age Austin barbecue joint. They’re all competing with each other to ascend to the Covid throne. The fact that none of them have fully emerged victorious is good news so far. But if one of them does, it’s because, well, it’s going to have racked up a much higher infection total than the others. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Okay. Gotcha. So three different viruses here that we’re dealing with. What does this mean overall for us? 


Abdul El-Sayed: Well, that’s what makes this a, quote, “tripledemic”. And while we may have three different viruses, we’ve only got one health care system. And it’s at risk of getting pummeled because of all three of these viruses surging at once. And so it’s critical, just like at the beginning of the pandemic, that we stop the spread and flatten the curve or in this case, curves. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Okay. So what can we do to protect ourselves and the health care system right now? 


Abdul El-Sayed: Well, Tre’vell, in case anyone out there hasn’t heard there is a safe and effective vaccine for both COVID and the flu. One should get them. And I don’t want to hear from anybody out there that every time I get the flu shot, I get the flu. No, you don’t. Flu shots can’t give you the flu. And I also want to be clear about something else. Just like COVID vaccines, it’s still possible to get the flu if you get the vaccine, you’re just less likely to and you’re way, way less likely to get really sick, like wind up in the hospital sick. And for all you folks who heard me say something about kids and seniors being more at risk. But no matter how old you are, you still can get really sick from the flu. And maybe even worse, not getting vaccinated at all makes it more likely that you spread it to someone who could become seriously ill, too. And one thing that protects against all three. Well, that’s masking, a well-fitting N95 mask does the trick. Indoor public places. You all know the drill by now. They really work. And if you’re interested in learning more about this, we hosted doctor, Katelyn Jetelina, on my podcast to talk about just this. And it’s out today. So check it out in your podcast feed. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Definitely. As we know, we are moving into the holiday time. There will be a lot of traveling and so, you know, protect yourselves, everyone. We’ll definitely keep an eye on all of this. But in the meantime, that’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads. 




Abdul El-Sayed: Let’s get to some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Another election denier bites the dust as we went to record Monday night, the Associated Press called the Arizona governor’s race for Democrat Katie Hobbs. She is set to become Arizona’s first Democratic governor since 2006 after narrowly beating Trump backed Republican Kari Lake. As we mentioned on the show before, Lake falsely called the 2020 presidential election rigged and did not commit to accepting the results of the race. 


Abdul El-Sayed: That’s really great news because I always felt like watching Kari Lake on TV is like being haunted by the ghost of your best friend’s mom. A 22 year old University of Virginia student has been arrested in connection with a shooting that left three people dead and two others wounded. Investigators said it happened as a bus full of students were returning from a field trip to the Charlottesville campus late Sunday. It triggered a university wide lockdown while authorities searched for the suspect for over 12 hours before they found him in Richmond, which is over 70 miles away. We don’t know yet the motive for the attack, but the victims who were killed were on the UVA football team. The suspect was reportedly on the roster back in 2018 but never played in a game. 


Tre’vell Anderson: President Biden met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Indonesia yesterday. And according to experts who speak diplomacy, it went well. The leaders met unmasked and the three hour conversation touched on topics like the ongoing situation over Taiwan, the war in Ukraine and North Korea’s recent barrage of missile tests. As we discussed on yesterday’s show, this meeting was meant to improve increasingly tense Chinese U.S. relations. President Biden said this in a press conference afterward. 


[clip of President Joe Biden] I’m not suggesting this is Kumbaya, you know, everybody is going to go away with everything in agreement. I absolutely believe there’s need not be a new Cold War. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And a spokesperson for Xi described the sit down as, quote, “in-depth, candid and constructive.” Those are good words. I like those words. 


Abdul El-Sayed: They might not be on TV anymore, but the January 6th committee is still hard at work. And yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that Kelli Ward, the chair of Arizona’s Republican Party and an ally of former President Trump, must turn over phone records to the congressional panel. The high court voted 7 to 2 with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissenting without giving any explanation except for Thomas’s objection could have something to do with the fact that his wife, Ginni, pressed dozens of Arizona lawmakers to help overturn the 2020 election. Hmm. We don’t know if Ward was in direct contact with Ginni, but we do know that Ward served as a, quote, “fake elector” to upend that state’s election certification process. Also, now might be a good time to remind you all that Justice Clarence Thomas has never recused himself from any matter involving the January 6th probe, even though his wife testified before the committee back in September. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Your friend who gets worried if they don’t know exactly where you are at all times, Google just paid a huge price for being so thoughtful. The tech giant agreed to a $392 million dollar settlement with 40 states over deceptive location tracking in what state attorneys say is the largest U.S. Internet privacy settlement of all time. Google is accused of misleading users by continuing to track where they are, even after location tracking had been turned off from 2014 to 2020. The resulting sale of that data was part of Google’s advertising business, its primary source of profit. Under the terms of the settlement, Google must also make its location tracking practices more clear. But for people who truly want data privacy, there is only one place you can find it, and you’ll need a time machine to get there. 


Abdul El-Sayed: Meanwhile, there’s always web crawler. [laughter] Thousands of Amazon workers will soon be on the hunt for their next adventure, according to The New York Times, 10,000 of the company’s corporate and tech employees are set to be laid off as soon as this week. That number would represent about 3% of Amazon’s total corporate workforce, and the downsizing comes in a year with slower than normal growth for the retail company. Amazon is the latest tech company to respond to the economic downturn with mass firings. Twitter, Lyft, Salesforce, and Facebook’s parent company Meta have all made major staffing cuts this month, and this is now the second major ne’er do well billionaire who’s just slashed his workforce. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And while Amazon tries to save money, its founder is realizing he might have too much of it. The second richest man on earth, Jeff Bezos, told CNN yesterday that he plans to give away the majority of his wealth during his lifetime. Bezos was light on the details, of course, about how he’ll divvy up his estimated $124 billion dollars. One thing we know, though, CNN says he’ll put his donations towards fighting climate change and healing, quote, “deep social and political divisions” such as one would have to assume the divisions that would lead people to argue about whether billionaires like Bezos should have to pay actual taxes. 


Abdul El-Sayed: Or the divisions that might result from, say, announcing this charitable approach the day your company just laid off 3% of their workforce. 


Tre’vell Anderson: I mean, he’s definitely wants us to look in another direction and not at these layoffs, but you know I’m a mind my business. 


Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. I’m surprised he didn’t, like, do it on a rocket on the way to space, but maybe not even really space because well. And those are the headlines. [music break] That’s all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Give away $60 billion dollars if you have it lying around and tell your friends to listen. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And if you’re into reading and not just reams of Google location data like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Abdul El-Sayed: And I’m Abdul El-Sayed. 


[spoken together] And WAD at us on WADLER.


Tre’vell Anderson: It’s a safe space. I think maybe for some people at least. 


Abdul El-Sayed: We’re going safeish, right? I mean it’s like, here’s a philosophical question, like if you’re not truthing, are you lying? 


Tre’vell Anderson: No. [music break] What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein and our executive producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.