In a show of solidarity, hundreds of California state scientists took to the streets of Sacramento, marking the commencement of a historic three-day “Defiance for Science” strike. This unprecedented movement sees over 4,000 state scientists dedicated to crucial roles such as safeguarding water supplies and tracking foodborne outbreaks, rallying for equitable pay.

The city was filled with chants and noise as these scientists, who usually work away from the public eye, came out to show they were unhappy. Jacqueline Tkac, 29, the newly elected union president and a state scientist specializing in water quality, voiced her discontent: “This is something that needed to happen. And it’s unfortunate that the state put us in this position. We want equal pay for equal work.”

Their placards showed how vital their work is, even though we don’t always see it: “I am a scientist, and I give you safe food,” one sign said. Another sign warned, “No science? No salmon!”  A particularly striking message called for the Newsom administration to address the “sexist gender pay gap.”

The origins of this strike can be traced back to a lengthy negotiation deadlock, spanning over three years, between the California Department of Human Resources and the California Association of Professional Scientists union. This union represents approximately 5,600 state scientists, including about 4,600 subject to collective bargaining. The last contract expired in 2020, and despite ongoing talks, a resolution seemed distant.

The California Department of Human Resources complained to the Public Employment Relations Board last week to try to stop the scientists’ strike. The department called the strike an “illegal pressure tactic,” saying the scientists were trying to push too hard in their pay talks.

Camille Travis, who speaks for the department, said they were disappointed about the strike. “The state views the strike activity with disappointment,” she said. But she promised they would keep trying to make a fair deal. Meanwhile, the government is also taking measures to minimize public service disruptions during the strike.

The situation started in 2020 when people working for Gov. Gavin Newsom pointed out that scientists weren’t getting paid enough in comparison with others. They noted this was especially true for environmental scientists. For example, while state engineers made around $114,012, the scientists only earned about $83,586 on average. This difference in pay is even more noticeable because nearly half of the scientists are women, unlike the mostly male engineers.

Scientists from different areas like water agencies, health departments, and pesticide control are all part of the strike. Many are dealing with their own money problems. Jacqueline Tkac, the head of their union, shared a sad story about needing money to visit her sick father. Another scientist, Christina Burdi, said she has to walk dogs on the side to make ends meet. She checks how using water affects nature. Another scientist who spoke under the condition of anonymity talked about how hard it is to pay for childcare and not having enough time off when she had a baby. These stories show the challenges these scientists are facing.

Kaylynn Newhart, an experienced environmental scientist who’s been working for over 30 years and is close to retirement, shared how hard it is for her to live the ‘American dream’ with the way things are. Like many others, she says she is just getting by with each paycheck and wonders if she can afford to stay in California after she retires.

The strike also shows sacrifices made by scientists. Brandon Adcock, who investigates foodborne illness outbreaks, expressed concerns about missing three paydays. “We worry about what we’re gonna buy for groceries,” he said, and many of his fellow scientists feel the same way.

As the strike continues, with many scientists marching alongside their families, the air is filled with chants of “Lead with science; it’s not too late!” Scientists say this highlights how important their work is for everyone’s health and safety, and how urgently they need fair pay and recognition.