Following up on our previous coverage of the wildcat strike and work stoppage launched by UC Santa Cruz grad student workers, participant Cameron A. writes on the workers next move: launching a full strike this coming Monday, February 10. See below for how you can follow and support.
By Cameron A.
Graduate Student workers at University of California Santa Cruz have been on a partial strike since December 9th. Prompted by the extreme cost of rent, workers initiated the unsanctioned wildcat action to demand a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). Now almost two months into their limited withdrawal of labor, they have voted to launch a full strike on Monday, February 10th. For further details on how the strike started, read our report linked here.
It’s been almost exactly two months since my fellow graduate workers and I voted to launch an unprecedented wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz. These two months have felt at once sped up and drawn out. Below I’ll do my best to lay out what has happened since our strike vote in early December, though I don’t anticipate I’ll be able to get to everything.
Despite the warnings from our union (UAW 2865) and threats from our bosses – the administration of UCSC – a militant minority of graduate workers voted to engage in an unsanctioned and indefinite grading strike, which started on December 9th, 2019.
There’s no doubt that we were punching above our weight in agitating for a strike. Strategically, there had been recognition that it would be difficult to convince the more than 800 graduate students to commit to the action, given that it would be self organized, rather than directed by the official union leadership.
Despite this, we also understood that a significant minority is more than capable of wreaking havoc, if not grinding operations to a halt entirely. This theory has been proven correct to an astounding degree, as it was revealed at the end of fall quarter that the strike has withheld over 12,000 individual undergraduate grades.
Outside Support, Internal Militancy
As the strike has gone on, it seems only to be picking up steam — both in the form of solidarity from outside and militancy among our own ranks.
Worker organizations ranging from higher education faculty unions, to graduate worker unions in places as far away as the UK, to the massive 35,000 member United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), have issued statements of solidarity with our wildcat action.
On the campus, agitation has continued to put pressure on the administration. I believe that we’ve adeptly engaged in activities which consistently win undergraduates (the largest population at UCSC) to our side. COLA4ALL, a parallel campaign closely associated with the strike, has undertaken a series of dining hall takeovers under the moniker “no swipes, all smiles”, wherein students are able to bypass payment and eat for free. This action has been replicated multiple times, always making clear that it’s being carried out in solidarity with graduate and service workers.
But undergraduates aren’t the only population that we’ve built strong bonds with. In early January, the unit of craftspeople employed by UCSC and represented by AFSCME 3299, voted to go out on an indefinite strike after nearly two years without a contract. Because graduate workers have been proactive in maintaining relationships with other organized workers on campus, we were able to adequately prepare to support their strike ahead of time.
Graduate workers joined the striking craft workers on the picket line and helped to flood campus request lines to report “broken fixtures” (which the craft workers are tasked with maintaining). Additionally, while no one has thus far claimed responsibility, campus police sent out an email in the midst of the craft worker strike, reporting that campus electrical infrastructure had been tampered with, that numerous fixtures had been “vandalized,” and plumbing in multiple locations had been “intentionally broken.”
After two weeks on strike, craft workers met with the university and were able to secure a new contract with major concessions.
Spread the Strike
Perhaps the most heartening turn of events so far has been the development of COLA campaigns on multiple campuses within the 10 campus University of California system. Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego have all either launched fledgling COLA campaigns, or have held events in solidarity with the Santa Cruz wildcat strike.
This development reflects that graduate workers aren’t content with waiting for our contract to expire, only to negotiate another meager single digit pay raise. Clearly, there is willingness to circumvent the union bureaucracy that has produced compromise positions up to this point.
Graduate workers from Santa Cruz have traveled to a number of other campuses so as to further agitate workers there, holding information sessions on our campaign and how we got organized.
Our goal is to spread the strike and bring the UC to its knees.
Going Beyond the Union, But not Without It
For legal and contractual reasons, UAW 2865 would not endorse our wildcat action. This was to be expected. Internally we received the requisite warnings from our local’s president, telling us that an unsanctioned strike would violate our contract. Publicly the union kept its mouth more or less shut, which was the best that we could have hoped for.
Unfortunately, some union officers were ticked off by our action, penning a public article tut-tutting the way that our strike had unfolded. This article was answered in kind with a piece by a UCSC grad worker, emphasizing that the militancy and self organization of the rank and file at Santa Cruz has the potential to energize the base of the union across the state.
Despite our union being unable to back us initially, we have not forgotten that we are its rank and file. In fact, it’s our interest to do away with this distinction: the rank and file IS the union.
We’re already making headway in this regard. After more than a month of lagging behind the developments at UCSC, UAW 2865 finally issued a formal demand to bargain with the UC over cost of living issues. I’m firmly of the mind that this would not have happened under different circumstances.
Solidarity Beats Repression
In late January, a number of graduate students received disciplinary summons from the administration for their strike activity.
While we don’t have specific numbers as of this writing, the proportion of workers on strike to those who actually received a summons appears to be small. Moreover, the administration doesn’t seem to have used a clear metric to decide who would receive a summons and who would not.
Because so much work was done on the department level to secure non-retaliation agreements from faculty (who report grad worker hours), we feel that this has disallowed the university from clearly identifying who is and who is not on strike.
According to individuals with inside knowledge, the university was forced to use the IT department to determine who had removed grades from online gradebooks, as a blunt tool to find out who was on strike. Our best guess is that this has led to the uneven and seemingly random pattern with which disciplinary notices have been issued.
So that brings us to the last couple of weeks. The administration has continued to stonewall us, flat out refusing to meet, let alone negotiate with graduate workers.
In late January the office of the chancellor announced a new “housing supplement” program, which promised to selectively issue an extra $2,500, on a yearly basis, to workers who the administration determines are most at need. While it should be said off the bat that this supplement would be wholly inadequate to cover the extreme housing costs in Santa Cruz, it must also be noted that this supplement is not universal and appears not to be available to international workers on visa.
This announcement also included a thinly veiled threat, promising further retaliation against graduate workers who continue the strike.
Graduate workers have taken this announcement as a slap in the face, not only for the reasons mentioned above, but because it was sent out as a proclamation, rather than being the product of a good faith negotiation. We are having none of it.
On January 30th, graduate workers convened another strike assembly to assess our response to the new development. With hundreds of student workers present, we collectively and democratically determined that our only path forward was escalation.
Our response to the administration’s failure will be to go on a full teaching strike starting on February 10th.
This means that in addition to not grading, graduate workers will cease to engage in any and all university labor, until we vote to return to work.
Five days out, as I sit writing this, I am in awe witnessing the ability of my fellow grad workers to organize ourselves. When we win this fight, it will be a result of this mass level of engagement and participation.
If you are interested in supporting our strike, I would urge you to donate to our strike fund. We are anticipating the possibility of docked pay and other expenses — please give to help mitigate this.
Cameron A. resides between the Bay Area and Los Angles and is currently a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. They are involved in renter struggles and a member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra.
For the previous article see “Strike Launched by UC Santa Cruz Grad Student Workers.” If you enjoyed this piece we recommend reading “Picket Line Lessons: The UTLA Teacher Strike” and “The State of Labor: Beyond Unions, But Not Without Them.”