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The New School of Labor Rights

Grad students work long hours for low wages while universities absorb the profits. At UC, they’re finally walking off the job. Will it be enough to force action?

By noon, the striking students were already abuzz at the mouth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, filling the intersection with their bodies and crowding the horizon with picket signs.

Some of those signs were emblazoned simply with soda cups and four key letters: COLA, for “Cost Of Living Adjustment.” Others made a more pointed statement, as with a banner reading “COST OF POLICE PRESENCE: $300,000 PER DAY.” Police officers, on motorcycle and foot, loomed nearby as the mass grew and grew. A movement that started with graduate student workers asking for $1,412 more a month in their paychecks had ballooned into a literal and metaphoric standoff, with graduate teaching assistants refusing to submit fall grades and attend classes. Undergrads, faculty and staff had rallied around the cause too, and on February 21st, there they were — a thousand strong, blocking the main entrance to the campus.

It was a day better known among strikers as “Doomsday.” Every striking TA and graduate instructor at UC Santa Cruz had a decision to make in the next 12 hours — either submit the fall grades, or be cut from their positions for good, as University of California President Janet Napolitano had declared in a memo one week prior. It felt like a credible threat. In its honor, a makeshift clock made of plywood stood in front of the university sign, showing a blood-red hand just one tick from midnight. 

That night, after the chaotic energy of the day’s rally had faded, dozens of graduate students gathered in a lecture hall to vote whether to continue the work strike. Withholding grades since mid-December had done the job of disrupting the school and gaining the administration’s attention, but no real negotiations for a COLA were underway. Since February 10th, they had been absent from classrooms, instead chanting and stomping down streets while also watching friends get ripped from human chains and detained by police, all under the specter of pepper spray and riot batons. No immediate offers for cash lay ahead. 

But the sea of hands that shot up in the night’s meeting made the vote clear: Firings be damned, the strike would surge on. For organizer Yulia Gilich, also the co-president of the graduate student association, the outcome was never in question. Over countless conversations since December, she grew to understand that an unsustainable number of grad students at Santa Cruz are on the edge of being broke. It’s common to hear stories of people who spend more than 50 percent of their income for rent in the notoriously expensive city, Gilich told me the day after Doomsday. She and hundreds of graduate students believe the UC system bears responsibility for a crisis that has brewed over the past decade. 

The issue of housing and wages has sparked the biggest “wildcat” strike in America today, meaning unionized workers are protesting without official backing from the state-wide union that represents graduate teaching assistants, United Auto Workers Local 2865. It’s a complicated position for students to be in, and for months, the union and the UC have pointed fingers at each other over the strike and organizers’ attempts to negotiate with the university directly — both of which constitute a breach of the contract that the UC and UAW have through 2022. On the asphalt in front of the campus, however, the picket line is holding firm. “Since we first went on strike, we agreed that the strike will only end when the strikers decide it’s finished,” Gilich tells me. “We said that whatever offer the administration gives us will be put for a general assembly vote. No offer has been made to us. So, we strike.” 

And, for a little while, it looked like the university administration had bluffed after all — Doomsday came and went. Then, late last week, the hammer dropped. After doing a little accounting, UC Santa Cruz admins decided that more than 80 TAs had officially failed their duties. They were done, and no spring TA appointments were coming, either. 

Gilich was one of them. 

“I can’t say that I’m all that surprised,” she deadpans over the phone. 

The 31-year-old sounds calm about what happened, even noting that people made up a jaunty slogan (“We’re fired, and fired up for COLA”) in the aftermath, but there are serious considerations ahead. She’s an international student from Russia, with a visa that only allows for employment at the university. Other students who are already struggling with money will face steeper challenges in the spring quarter. The worst-case scenario, having to move back to Russia, hangs over Gilich’s head. 

For now, she chooses to focus on the other reality: The momentum of the movement itself. “The university leadership has escalated things every step of the way. And the firings just mean that solidarity movements happening across the UC system are going to have more motivation than ever before,” she concludes. “They’ve been watching.” 

The strike and consequent firings at Santa Cruz have drawn the eyes of people all over the University of California, which has a student body of more than 280,000 and stands as one of the largest postsecondary educational systems in the world. Small shows of solidarity for Santa Cruz on neighboring campuses are now blooming into full-fledged COLA protests, from San Diego to Davis. Organizers have also gathered thousands of signatures from college faculty around the country, pledging solidarity and “non-cooperation” with UC Santa Cruz until the strike is resolved. And amid all this activity, countless graduate students are learning, many for the very first time, the radical language of direct action — about protest and policing, colonialism and whiteness, and how institutions sow inequality. 

UC Santa Barbara grad student Sheila Kulkarni recalls the vivid elation of watching their inbox fill up with emails over the course of Doomsday. The messages came from TAs across a wide array of UCSB departments, all with the same declaration: If anyone from Santa Cruz was fired, they would reject their own spring appointments, too. The UCSB supporters of COLA had staged a solidarity rally in December and a “sick-out” in January, but Kulkarni sensed new resolve in the wake of Napolitano’s threat to fire strikers. 

“It was just a very happy moment. We were occupying Cheadle Hall in the heart of campus, on the fifth floor, screening The Matrix on the walls and just hanging out. An Asian-American Studies professor brought pizza for everyone,” they recall. “And seeing these emails flow in, seeing hundreds of people show up on our campus, on the campus of UC San Diego, everyone ready to strike, it’s just… The mobilization across the state that happened on Doomsday is still making me reel. This is it. I don’t think the university can committee this one away. It’s not going to stop.” 

Three days after Doomsday, a general assembly of graduate students at Santa Barbara voted to strike. Last Thursday, the teaching strike commenced. In a show of strength, UC Davis organizers also kicked off the withholding of grades on February 27th. The firings at Santa Cruz the following day only cemented these plans to fight back. For Santa Cruz’s Gilich, the collective action only confirms what she already believed: Students want a living wage for their labor, and they want it now. 

“When we started imagining this question, ‘What would COLA mean for you?’, we thought people would answer with their hopes and dreams. But that hasn’t been it at all. It’s true of me, too,” she tells me. “COLA means I wouldn’t need to think twice before turning on the heater. I wouldn’t need to think twice about getting peanut butter. I don’t have to fixate on how to pay for my summer here and actually start writing my dissertation, without stressing constantly about losing housing or getting a medical bill.”

In other words, Gilich says a raise would allow her to do the work she came to Santa Cruz to do. And across the system, UC leaders are wondering whether it can and should meet these students at the bargaining table, as the onus to do something swells ever more. 

* * * * *

In Veronica Hamilton’s eyes, the Santa Cruz administration has had more than enough opportunities to connect with strike organizers in good faith. Instead, the third-year social psych PhD recalls what happened on the first week of the teaching strike: Streams of UC police, many summoned from other campuses, lining up to break up and arrest groups of students occupying the intersection at the mouth of the Santa Cruz campus. 

“This is a time when we’re asking them to consider graduate students’ needs in the budget, and instead it’s revealed that the administration is spending $300,000 a day on policing the picket line,” Hamilton says. “They weren’t there to observe. They were there brutalizing students.” 

Seventeen protesters in all were arrested on February 12th, but the escalation struck a nerve with students and faculty, many who didn’t anticipate a confrontation with armed police donning helmets and holding rifles. Hamilton remembers watching a friend and longtime striker, James Sirigotis, bleeding from his head after being dragged by his hair from a human chain and tossed to the ground by police. A Food Not Bombs volunteer in a van who was delivering water to protesters was snatched out of the car and detained. Police formed phalanxes to intimidate people off the street, as if responding to a riot call. All these altercations with law enforcement triggered a flood of videos, photos and texts — which in turn attracted waves of people to the strike. 

The following is from this story by…

Posted by UC Student Workers UAW 2865 Santa Cruz on Friday, February 14, 2020

“It was an amazing showing of faculty and young undergrads, in particular, who were so enthusiastic in confronting the cops, even when we were surrounded in the intersection,” says Scott Hunter, a graduate student in the literature department who has been involved in the strike since November. “My professors in the literature program have been showing up, with some even putting their bodies between police and strikers. It felt, for maybe the first time, like a true display of solidarity.” 

For Hamilton, the first week of the teaching strike was the culmination of months of uncertain and often touchy communication with UC admins, whom many activists claim have been “reading off a script” and only meeting with COLA strikers for superficial conversations. She claims this has been the case since November, when Hamilton, Gilich and other COLA organizers first initiated a vote to withhold grades in protest. 

Behind the scenes, it’s been a frustrating run since 2018, when the UAW and the UC kicked off negotiations for a four-year union contract. The union ultimately settled on a 3 percent annual wage increase for workers — and Santa Cruz union members immediately voiced their disapproval, with 83 percent voting against the ratification of the contract. Hamilton says the union saw only two resolutions: Ratify or strike. Seeing a fight as too big, Santa Cruz activists pivoted to campaigning for a local rent control measure that could help stem rising housing costs. That failed on the ballot, and desperation started to grow. 

“What came next is that a bunch of us ran for graduate student association positions last spring, and we won those seats on a COLA campaign. Since then, we’ve met with administrators about how dire the cost-of-living situation is for us. But what we’ve heard when presenting examples of grad students who are houseless or hungry are things like, ‘Sign up for food stamps or use the campus pantry,’” Hamilton says. “After six or seven months, it just felt inadequate. So we delivered our demands on November 7th.” 

Organizers claim more than a month passed without a meaningful message from the administration. Hamilton says the only message they received was an email from Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer, who noted that while they were free to protest, their actions could be reviewed under the student code of conduct. The implication was crystal clear. 

“It was tone-deaf, and it backfired,” Hamilton says. “Some 40 responses in the email thread can be summed up as, ‘Fuck you, pay me, I’m ready to strike right now.’ And, after seeing this thread, six of our seven UAW union representatives resigned outright, in order to speed up the conversation around a wildcat strike. Only I stayed on to be a union liason, to file grievances, hold orientation, all of that.” 

In early December, more than 250 grad students voted to withhold roughly 12,000 grades for the fall quarter. As the grading deadline of December 18th rolled around, student instructors and TAs worked quickly and quietly to erase online grade books, keeping copies of the documents only for themselves. The day-to-day job of teaching and reviewing student assignments did continue — at least until a lack of negotiations, and more threats of discipline toward strikers, triggered another assembly vote in January, this time for a full teaching strike. 

Looking at the economic landscape, it’s easy to see why the strike has such urgency. UCSC’s own research on housing shows that nearly 70 percent of people in Santa Cruz County are “rent burdened,” meaning they spend a third or more of their income on rent and utilities. Graduate student workers, who on average earn about $2,400 a month for nine months of the year, are no exception. The scale and severity of the housing crisis is so great that in 2018, UCSC admin begged faculty and grad workers to house incoming undergrads who couldn’t find or afford local options. 

An increase of $1,412 a month for every grad student, as organizers demand, would require a substantial budget allocation from the UC system. But Hamilton, Gilich, Hunter and other Santa Cruz strikers say that a living wage is the only ethical way to preserve the graduate student worker system, which churns through new labor on a regular basis. And the strike appears to be working as designed: With more than 500 students pledging to refuse spring TA appointments in support of the strike, the university has begun warning departments that class enrollment may be slashed next quarter. In the meantime, UCSC announced an annual $2,500 need-based housing stipend that would be offered to graduate workers who gave up the strike; this was an insult to organizers, who claim university leadership created the plan to undercut the COLA movement while also lowballing people in need. 

“I’m a TA, and I see this long-held idea that graduate school has to be a time of suffering. It’s like a rite of passage that you have to be miserable for four, five, six years, and it’s like every academic goes through it. It’s just part of the deal. And I’m motivated by a realization that that doesn’t have to be the case in the future,” Hunter says. “The process of becoming someone who works in higher education, that needs to be available to whoever wants to do it, and not just people with rich parents or a safety net. And I see what’s going on right now at UCSC and as a crucial moment in defending that principle.”

* * * * *

For Santa Barbara’s Kulkarni, the events that have unfolded in Santa Cruz prove that UC leadership needs to feel a lot more pressure before they truly grasp the scale of the crisis. The COLA movement at UCSB is asking for a larger cost-of-living adjustment, of roughly $1,800, along with demands to not raise tuition and not punish those who were on strike. While the effort is fairly new, watching Santa Cruz’s activism has taught Kulkarni and fellow activists in Santa Barbara a potent lesson. 

“We’re really seeing for the first time how far the university and state apparatus will go to defend their power,” they say. “The stakes are enormous, the UC knows it, and now people are starting to realize that, ‘Wow, these strikes are legitimately threatening and growing big.’ Our soul is extremely powerful right now, and students aren’t hesitating to show it.” 

Last Thursday’s strike kicked off with only two dozen people, but by noon, the crowd had ballooned to more than 1,000 students, all rallying loudly at the iconic Storke Tower in the center of campus. Some 80 faculty members, dressed in black clothes or black graduation regalia, also delivered a set of demands to the office of Executive Vice Chancellor David Marshall in Cheadle Hall, calling for zero retaliation against students or faculty for supporting the strike. The size of the rallies have only grown at Santa Barbara over the course of this week, and like at Santa Cruz, Kulkarni says the strike will only end once the students vote to — regardless of what the union or university says. 

UC Davis’ grade strike is rolling forward with a little more momentum each day, and in Southern California, organizers at UC Irvine and UC San Diego are plotting their own actions in parallel with the Santa Cruz struggle. The Doomsday alert served as a call to action, with nearly every UC campus planning some display of solidarity, says Eleanor Castracane, a third-year chemistry PhD and an organizer in San Diego. Their bond to the Santa Cruz COLA movement didn’t just grow from a distance — Castracane met Hamilton and other UCSC organizers at the winter union conference in January, talking in between meetings and learning about how a wildcat strike can continue even despite the UAW’s no-strike clause with the UC. 

Half of their income goes directly to rent, but Castracane quickly adds that their story pales in comparison to students who struggle to get by every day. These stories are fueling an increasing number of direct actions on the San Diego campus, including a rally on February 20th that briefly shut down the library and got the campus buzzing with reactions on Reddit and a Facebook page for UCSD memes. More attention arrived the following day, on Doomsday, when San Diego students marched along campus and took to the bullhorn to publicly discuss their stories of being broke and, for some, homeless. Some 150 people took part in the rally — a modest crowd, but enough for Castracane and other San Diego organizers to seriously consider mobilizing a strike of their own. 

“I wasn’t particularly politically involved until the 2016 primaries, and since then I’ve participated in marches and rallies, but this is the first time that I’ve organized anything,” Castracane says. “I’ve met so many people in the past two weeks across the state. Just having this shared experience, it’s incredible. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also something that brings us together. If you had asked me two weeks ago whether I could fathom seeing this kind of solidarity from academic workers on this campus, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

And Courtney Echols, a PhD student in criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, says that activists around the UC system are done simply thinking about solidarity — they’re defining their own COLA requests and finding ways to connect wages to bigger questions of race, privilege and capitalism. A rally at Irvine on February 20th culminated in a march to the chancellor’s office, which led to a lockdown by campus police that barricaded some protesters in the building and many more on the outside. The atmosphere was tense, and Echols wondered out loud whom, exactly, the police were protecting. Then a black UCI alumus, who wasn’t participating in the rally, was wrongfully arrested by police while trying to get to an academic office for her transcript. 

“Our chancellor was recently bragging about how UCI was named a top college, and the institution frequently touts itself as being a path to the American dream. Then you see how it exacerbates student vulnerability, overpolices students and pays unfair wages in the face of unjust housing costs. This is more than COLA,” Echols says, her voice hardening. “We firmly believe that the arrest of that black woman is indicative of the kind of anti-blackness that pervades the UC system. And we see that this is a fight against capitalist exploitation.” 

There are big questions that UC leaders and organizers must ask, including where the money to pay for a system-wide COLA can come from. Activists are adamant that either the money exists or can be allocated, given the breadth and depth of the UC’s coffers and the sheer number of revenue streams it has. And while such protest language can seem idealistic, there seems to be genuine truth in the assertion that the UC can find the funds. “California is as flush as ever. It has a $20 billion surplus in its budget. The strike is a real opportunity for UC to lead on a much bigger national issue: the funding of public higher education,” Steven McKay, associate professor of sociology and director of the UC Santa Cruz Center for Labor Studies, told Mother Jones.

The details will take time to hash out, especially with the state union finally jumping into fray with an official response to the TA firings at Santa Cruz and mobilization of the union’s bargaining team. The absence of the union in the fight has long been a point of criticism from numerous organizers I spoke to, but the actual culling of workers appears to have been the final straw. Meanwhile, UCLA has planned a one-day solidarity strike on March 4th, while graduate student workers in the African-American Studies Department at UC Berkeley just announced they will strike if COLA demands aren’t heard by March 6th. Even UC San Francisco, which has withheld from solidarity actions, has COLA organizers now. At the same time, labor groups at other American universities, and even in the U.K., are taking detailed notes.

Amid the uprising, the shouting, marching and teach-ins at the picket line continue at the once-sleepy entrance to Santa Cruz. Its cause is both hyper-local and universal. And the outcome, one way or another, will inevitably energize tens of thousands of college students as they wait for the struggle to bloom on their own campuses. 

“We know we can completely paralyze the work of the university. But at the same time, we’re educating people on the colonial settler history of our school, about politics, about identity. We’re hosting jazz concerts and dressing up in costume. There’s a lot of joy and community-building that’s very palpable at the picket line,” Gilich, the fired Santa Cruz organizer, tells me. “But there’s also so much anger and desperation, too. I suppose it’s a perfect storm for militant direct action.”