Graduate Student Workers: UC Must Pay!

grad students blocking traffic in the street with signs that read "The Pay Is Too Damn Low"

UCSC graduate employees continue to hold steady in the face of strike-breaking tactics. Photo: Morteza Behrooz.

University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) graduate student workers have been on a wildcat strike for a raise since December 2019. Since February, nearly 80 strikers have been fired, while the strike has spread to other UC campuses.

Graduate student workers at 10 UC campuses across the state receive the same wages—$2,434 a month—which after taxes amounts to $19,000 a year, given that we are only paid for nine months.

In Santa Cruz, the least affordable area in the country, this wage is insufficient. So we’ve been demanding an additional monthly payment for all graduate students to account for the exorbitant cost of living and rent.

In 2018, Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, representing student workers across all the UC campuses, settled for a contract that the Santa Cruz membership overwhelmingly voted against. Its 3 percent annual wage increase fell far short of dealing with the cost of living here.

Local organizers are campaigning for a campus-specific cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Despite a no-strike clause in the collective bargaining agreement, student workers voted in December to withhold their labor to win their demand.

STUDENTS OR WORKERS?

Instead of addressing the cost-of-living issue, UCSC administration has been set on breaking the strike. The administration responded to our demand with discipline, intimidation, an unfair labor practice charge against the UAW, and even a monetary incentive—a small housing stipend, only available to students not engaged in strike activities. We continue to hold steady in the face of these strike-breaking tactics.

UCSC rejects our demand to bargain for a livable wage. The administration insists that we are students first and workers second, and if we were to get more support, it would be given to us as students. The reason for this arbitrary distinction is UC’s unwillingness to set a precedent by settling a wildcat strike through a side letter (an enforceable agreement that can be negotiated without having to re-open the entire contract)—a solution we, as strikers, are pushing for.

We insist that graduate students are workers. The labor graduate students provide is essential to the operations of the university: we do the majority of teaching, grading, mentoring, tutoring, running labs, and much more.

When we account for all the labor graduate students provide to the university, it quickly amounts to 60 to 80 hours a week. We should be fairly compensated for our labor and we are demanding a livable wage.

VIOLENT ARRESTS

After UCSC administration sent out an email announcing discipline against strikers, the grading strike escalated to a teaching strike.

For four weeks, from February 10 to March 9, strikers picketed at the base of campus, near the two entrances to the university. The first week we saw intense police presence at the picket line. Extra police, brought from UC San Francisco, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, and Alameda County, cost the university $300,000 a day, as the vice chancellor told us in a meeting.

On February 10, a Food Not Bombs volunteer drove past the police barricade to deliver water to the picket line and was immediately arrested. To protest the arrest, strikers surrounded the police car chanting “Let them go!” but were violently pushed away with batons.

A direct action on February 12 led to a four-hour standoff with police and 17 arrests. Hundreds of strikers and supporters were occupying the road and blocking the entrance to UCSC when more than 100 law enforcement officers in riot gear moved in on protesters, who were sitting in circles with their arms linked. One by one, police dragged students from their circles using “pain compliance” techniques—pressing on their necks and pulling their joints.

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ORGANIZING IN A PANDEMIC

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All reported injuries from the first week of striking were exclusively the results of police violence. After heavy criticism from UCSC faculty and the media, the administration called off the extra police and limited UCPD involvement in the strike.

DOOMSDAY

On February 14, Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California and a former head of the Department of Homeland Security, sent an email to UCSC students and faculty, threatening to fire all strikers who didn’t submit fall quarter grades by a February 21 deadline.

Doomsday, as the deadline was named, did not deter the strikers, who voted to continue to withhold grades. On February 28, 54 strikers received letters of termination and nearly 30 others were emailed that they wouldn’t be considered for spring employment.

Student parents, pregnant students, disabled students, students with chronic illnesses, international students on a visa, and undocumented students are among those who were fired and lost their tuition waiver and health insurance.

GOING STATEWIDE

Other UC campuses responded to the mass firing by escalating their own COLA campaigns.

On February 27, before the letters of termination were sent out, UC Santa Barbara grads went on a full teaching strike and UC Davis grads went on a grading strike. UC San Diego joined the grading strike a few days later and UC Berkeley declared March 16 the first day of their teaching strike. UCLA is waiting for 10 departments to declare themselves strike-ready to hold a strike vote.

“We joined the strike to both support UCSC wildcats and to highlight the fact that they are not alone in their struggle with rent burden—this is a state-wide issue that cannot be dismissed any longer,” said Emily Fox, a COLA organizer at UCSB. “Graduate students, and public higher ed in general, are at a breaking point, and a wildcat strike is the only way to make ourselves heard.”

All other UCs—Irvine, Merced, Riverside, and San Francisco—are organizing in solidarity with the fired workers and for their own COLAs.

ZOOMSDAY

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the University of California moving Winter final exams and Spring classes online—instructors are advised to use the digital platform Zoom. The strike also moved online: the digital picket line means that strikers will be withholding students’ Winter grades and won’t teach over Zoom.

UAW 2865 is responding to this rapidly changing situation. The union demanded that UC bargain over our changing labor conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The union won the remission of health care premiums for all student workers who were terminated and will continue bargaining to win a COLA.

Until then, we strike.

Yulia Gilich is a PhD candidate in Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz and co-president of UCSC Graduate Student Association.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 493. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.