Just a month ago, picket lines surrounded the base of the University of California at Santa Cruz campus, the halls of buildings filled with chants like “My neck, my back, the UC is wack.” 

The graduate student strike calling for a cost of living adjustment started in Santa Cruz but quickly sparked solidarity actions at UC campuses across the state, garnering national attention. It was a wildcat strike, meaning not officially endorsed by the students’ union. Teaching assistants argued they weren’t earning enough to afford California’s pricey rents. The university said they should wait until their union contract expired to negotiate — and sent police armed with riot gear to confront them.

Now, with the coronavirus emptying campuses and rallies impractical due to social distancing, graduate students are figuring out how to take their movement online. 

At the end of March, strikers launched Strike University, a series of online classes for activists covering subjects like “Graphic Design for Social Justice” and “Rethinking the Benevolent University.”  The teach-ins aim to promote “free and accessible” public education, along with “critical thinking and skills not bound to the imperatives of the market,” the Strike University website reads.

Organizers are also holding epic Zoom calls in which hundreds of strikers across the state  discuss strategy and tactics.

Graduate students had tried to gain leverage with the university by refusing to submit students’ grades, but that became harder during a pandemic, said Yulia Gilich, a cinema & digital media PhD student at UC Santa Cruz.

“Because everything is digital now, we cannot physically withhold blue books and everyone has access,” they said. “If the faculty wants to do the extra labor, they can.”

At least 80 graduate students at UC San Diego who were withholding winter quarter grades recently voted to submit them, saying they didn’t want to cause undergraduates additional stress during a pandemic — though other campuses remain on strike.

The union that represents more than 19,000 UC graduate student workers, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, reached agreement on two points with the university in March: Eighty-two graduate students fired from UC Santa Cruz in February for participating in the strike will have their health coverage reinstated.  

While the fired students were told in their dismissal letter that they would not be considered for a spring appointment, UC Santa Cruz allowed them to apply if they submitted last quarter’s grades and agreed not to strike again unless the union authorizes it. 

“In the context of a global pandemic and mass joblessness, we felt it was crucial to do everything we could to preserve these jobs,” Kavitha Iyengar, the union’s president, said in a statement. 

The strikers, however, said that the agreement didn’t go far enough, as it didn’t ensure compensation for those who could no longer find spring appointments.

Other things have changed, too. UC Santa Cruz had been spending heavily to police the picket line, where 17 students were arrested in February. Not anymore.

Gilich and a dozen other UC Santa Cruz graduate students started their campaign nearly a year ago, after failed efforts to pass a rent control measure in the city of Santa Cruz and set up a safe overnight parking program for students living in their cars. 

“There was just a feeling of defeat with every campaign that we ended up working on that failed,” Gilich said. “Our situations continue to get more and more dire.” 

UC graduate students make $22,000 a year before taxes on average, according to the university; the average monthly rent in Santa Cruz County is $1,685. 

Since coming to UC Santa Cruz from Russia four years ago, Gilich says they have consistently spent more than half of their paycheck on rent each month, though they live with multiple housemates. Because Gilich is in the United States on an international student visa, they can’t legally pick up additional jobs beyond their teaching appointment.

“I like research,” Gilich said. “UCSC was my first choice for my PhD. I like teaching. I really enjoy the work that I do. But I can’t live here and do it on the salary I’m being paid.”

A poster supporting graduate student workers is seen from a window near UC Berkeley campus on March 15, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A poster supporting graduate student workers seeking higher wages is seen from a window near UC Berkeley campus on March 15, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Supporters of the COLA campaign began refusing to submit grades in December, except in certain cases, then stopped teaching and research in February. The strike was unsanctioned by their union because it came in the middle of a contract with a no-strike clause. But strikers’ demand for a $1,412 per month pay increase to cover the rising cost of living resonated with other UC graduate students. Some teaching assistants at UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine are now also on full strike, withholding all labor. Others at UC Davis and UC Berkeley are withholding grades. 

The COLA movement harnessed graduate students’ structural power, said Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at UC Hastings with expertise in labor law.

“Graduate students carry much of the teaching load across the campuses, and yet, their work to this end is often seen as peripheral to their role as academic apprentices,” Dubal said in an email. “The labor is central — not just to them but also to the universities.”  

UAW 2865 has also taken up the cause, filing two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board after the graduate student firings. 

UC has declined to bargain with the union over a cost of living adjustment, though UC Santa Cruz now offers graduate students a $2,500 need-based housing-grant.

“Striking while a collective bargaining agreement is in place undermines the collective bargaining process and erodes the ability of UC and its unions to enter into good-faith labor agreements,” the university said in an online statement. “This strike also hurts our undergraduates by disrupting their educational activities and preventing them from advancing to the next course level.” 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, graduate student life was stressful. A UC Graduate Well-Being Survey from 2017 found that over one-third of respondents reported symptoms indicating clinical depression. Two-thirds said they worried about money, with those who were confident about their finances more likely to be on track to complete their programs.

The pandemic has exacerbated that stress, as campuses finish the academic year remotely, and living conditions become working conditions. Graduate students say they are taking on additional work to help professors move classes online, while their educational and research experience has been upended by campus closures. 

At UC Merced, teaching assistants have been helping science and math professors convert their courses into “flipped” classes, in which pre-recorded lectures are given to students as homework and lecture time is used for students to split up into small groups facilitated by TAs, said Anh Diep, a graduate student and union representative.

“They’re becoming curriculum developers on top of being teaching assistants,” Diep said.

Diep added that those who left campus to live with their families now help run households, especially first-generation college students and those from immigrant backgrounds.

“Those students are caretakers — they’re helpers with siblings’ homework, elderly parents, relatives’ children, and they now have to do their homework and job while helping out the family,” they said. “I’ve seen [for those students] that the moment you come home, you become the point person to disseminate information to your family. You carry the mental burden of keeping up with the news, especially in this global pandemic, and needing to understand it and explain it to them.”

COLA organizers are trying to build bridges with undergraduates also affected by the pandemic. Some undergraduates have attended past COLA rallies, but others have expressed concerns about the movement affecting them.  

When undergraduate allies of the UC Santa Cruz COLA organizers disrupted a computer science midterm in late February, it drew the ire of several students.

“It just appears to me that you’re having a [expletive] party complete with a live band every day on the lawn at the base of campus whilst I’m beating my brain against the wall through sleepless night after sleepless night to get a [expletive] undergrad degree at age 40, which feels humiliating enough when all my classmates are 20 years younger than me,” one commenter wrote on Reddit.

A subreddit dedicated to UC Santa Cruz students against COLA is filled with stories detailing students’ frustration with the protests’ effect on classes and research.

To strengthen ties with undergraduates, some graduate students at UC Irvine decided to hold a “social welfare” strike: Instead of teaching or grading, they’re compiling resource lists for students who need help with food, housing, childcare or immigration cases. And they’re setting up mutual aid networks to connect those who need support to those who can provide it.

“The COLA campaign is […] a matter of public health, as people living in cramped or inadequate housing conditions due to low wages and high rent costs do not have the privilege of implementing ‘social distancing,’” reads a press release from the UC Irvine strikers. “Many students are living paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford rent, medicine or even food.”

Though the movement has become less visible in the wake of the pandemic, the UAW plans to hold a vote this month on whether to authorize an official statewide strike linked to the unfair labor practice charges. (Two thirds of members would have to sign off.) Union officials say they’ll ask UC to bargain over a cost of living adjustment that varies by campus depending on rents in the region. 

Whether or not they succeed, Gilich said the COLA movement has already drawn attention to structural barriers to higher education.

“If you are not independently wealthy or willing to go into debt to go to grad school, you cannot survive here,” Gilich said. “A fight for COLA is a fight for the future of higher education and who will have access to it.”

Salanga is a fellow with CalMatters’ College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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