No COLA? No Contract! The Stakes and a Strategy for Success in the Historic University of California Strike

by Members of both Black Rose Bay Area and UAW 2865

On November 14, over 48,000 teaching assistants, tutors, readers, associate instructors, other Academic Student Employees (ASEs), Graduate Student Researchers (GSRs), and postdoctoral employees across the University of California (UC) launched the largest coordinated strike the United States’s higher education sector has ever seen. On the crest of a growing national strike wave, the number of strikers out at the UC dwarfs the size of every other work stoppage since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This strike is 20% larger than 2021’s single-day sympathy strike of 40,000 industry-wide workers across Northern California’s Kaiser Permanente system, and twenty-two times the number of strikers as the same system’s mental healthcare workers’ ten-week long picket lines.

The foremost demand–a roughly 125% increase in wages, adjusted annually to the cost of housing–comes out of a basic human need: to work without fear of losing the roofs over our heads, and in some cases, to gain the ability to secure one in the first place. Workers across California–and increasingly the nation–face an insatiable drive by real estate speculators’ to wring as much profit from tenants as they can. Even more, some locales’ largest landlords include the UC itself. For example, the UC owns a large share of rental units in Berkeley, California, whose exorbitant rents push up the rest of the local market’s housing prices. Local administrators wield the city’s impacted markets–and ones found in other university towns–as a simultaneous bludgeon against demands for more pay and to expand their real estate empires: if they create more affordable housing, their story goes, workers won’t need more pay to keep up with soaring rents. 

The demand to end rent burden through a sizable Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) began differently than the workshopped and means-tested proposals typically crafted by union staffers behind closed doors ahead of bargaining. Rather, COLA came from rank-and-file workers ourselves who courageously–and without precedent in the UC system–initiated a months-long wildcat strike, beginning in Santa Cruz then spreading to every campus from as south as San Diego to the northern suburban farm town of Davis. Although the militant upswell seemed to spontaneously spread, frustrations following an insufficient 2018 bargaining agreement that included annual 3% wage increases for the contract’s duration spurred nuclei of rank-and-file workers to organize action directly with their coworkers and outside UAW 2865’s purview. 

We quickly learned the lengths administrators and our own union leadership would go to bring an end to the strike. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought statewide lockdowns, administrators pledged to fire ASEs who would withhold their labor in the digital classroom. Campus administrators at UC Santa Cruz made good on those threats, firing 41 workers before our systemwide campaign won their reinstatement. Similarly, UAW 2865’s elected leadership repeatedly warned wildcat strikers to return to our duties, promising to make COLA the central demand during contract negotiations two years later

Although these compounding pressures and a global pandemic temporarily halted our action, efforts of our small but fierce minority of workers were not without consequence. At UC Santa Cruz, every ASE won an effective 10% wage increase, administered through a yearly $2,500 ‘housing supplement. Elsewhere in the system, academic workers won a spate of smaller one-time payments. Perhaps most importantly, thousands of student-workers learned our capacity to organize mass collective direct action and saw our colleagues’ shared disgust with our living conditions. We also learned that through our action we could shape the union’s direction: eschewing a supermajority strike to demand modest gains, our militant minority strike pressured all three unions to put COLA on the UC’s bargaining table.

This time around, UC student-workers, researchers, and postdoctoral employees must hold our leaders to their word. Many of our coworkers will ask how many days must we put down our pens and keyboards, stay out of lecture halls and off Zoom classroom meetings, and return to normal university operations to win a COLA? The answer: one day longer than UC administration refuses to bring us out of rent burden

How will we do that?

  • Build rank-and-file power through networks that regularly check with all our coworkers to gauge strike fatigue and enthusiasm, share bargaining updates, and discuss any future tentative agreements. These networks should remind our coworkers, fellow organizers, and ourselves that mutual reliance will sustain long-term, open-ended strikes. We can do this by making picket signs together, joining the lines as a unified group, writing collective open letters, babysitting each other’s children, sharing meals and making sure we have each other’s and our own needs met during the long haul.
  • Exercise rank-and-file power by exerting pressure on the bargaining team to refuse concessions around the COLA demand. We’ve already seen the power of a Zoom room full of hundreds of academic workers, admonishing bargaining team members who edged too close to compromise. Attend these sessions as a group and make yourself heard. Similarly, contact the bargaining team members who represent you and make clear that you won’t settle for anything less than a COLA.
  • Expand the strike. From its own public transit systems to housing developments to on-campus dining halls, the university’s footprint is broad. Organize rank-and-file workers and tenants to take solidaristic collective action at sites related to the UC, like redirecting bus routes, walking off construction sites, halting package deliveries, occupying dining halls, or withholding rent.
  • Raise each other’s expectations–for ourselves, for workers across the country and globe, and for future generations of academic workers. Taking historic action offers an example of what a different world looks like, one where we take control over our collective and individual lives. We show that we can work together and fight for one another that we deserve more than we routinely get.
  • Live the minimal demands. Many groups will pressure us to approve a subpar contract, arguing a 13% wage increase over the next three years is “the best we can get.” We know that’s not true. More importantly, we must not make it true: encourage and ensure each other does not return to work without a Cost of Living Adjustment.

We won’t be cowed back to the UC’s crumbling classrooms and unaffordable housing. We won’t be forced to compete with thousands of our students, coworkers, and friends for the few units the UC’s meager wages can cover. We won’t allow anyone to make us believe we–and all working people–deserve less than our bosses routinely offer. The balance of power is in our favor–now it’s on us to wield it.

To keep up to date with our members in the Bay Area of California, you can follow their twitter page at @bayareabrrn or subscribe to their Telegram channel at

If you enjoyed this article, we recommend our previous reporting on labor organizing at the University of California: Wildcat Strike Launched by UC Santa Cruz Graduate Student Workers and this interview with Black Rose militants on the It’s Going Down podcast.