Could the #Red4Ed strike wave spill over to higher education and graduate student organizing? Participant Cameron .A. writes on the announced strike hours after the vote was taken.
By Cameron A.
Graduate student workers at the Santa Cruz campus of the leviathan University of California have voted to launch a wildcat grading strike in the lead up to final exams. Organized under Local 2865 of the UAW, these workers perform a wide variety of duties — everything from carrying out faculty research, to lecturing, to evaluating the coursework of tens of thousands of enrolled undergraduates — all in order to keep the university running smoothly.
The Housing Crisis in Santa Cruz
Universities, especially large public institutions like the UC, rely almost exclusively on the labor of graduate students to handle the ever increasing volume of bachelors seeking students who arrive on campus. Despite the institution’s total reliance on grad student labor, these workers have had to fight tooth and nail to win the meager pay and benefits that have so far been secured. Still, of course, it is not enough.
Many may be aware of the (capital manufactured) housing crisis that has struck the heart of California’s major cities. Santa Cruz, while somewhat isolated from the larger Bay Area, has not been immune to its effects. In fact, the conditions in this small, sleepy beach community have acted to concentrate and supercharge what has been ongoing in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and other nearby cities.
With its already highly constricted housing stock, Santa Cruz was long ripe for landlords big and small to take advantage of renters. Recognizing the rapidly rising value of their commodity, Santa Cruz landlords have adjusted their rates to reflect the gobs of money that tech companies pour into the region. This has directly led to renters persistently falling in and out of homelessness, living in their cars, or having to relocate to far flung areas of the region.
A Simple Demand: “We need a Cost of Living Adjustment”
This was the reality that I walked into when I accepted an offer to join a graduate program at UC Santa Cruz. Assuring myself that my conditions couldn’t be any more dire than those I had faced throughout my many years working in the service industries of Los Angeles and the Bay Area — I soon came to the realization that I was completely mistaken.
During 2018 contract negotiations, our union was able to secure a 3% wage increase for all student workers, the first since 2014. However, during this same period of time, the average cost of rent in Santa Cruz shot up by a staggering 15% – with many graduate student workers paying forty, fifty, sixty, or even seventy percent of our already atrociously low income, simply for our basic need for shelter.
This is perhaps the core reason why 85% of union members at the UC Santa Cruz campus voted in 2018 to reject the statewide contract that was hammered out. Union leadership unfortunately showed little care for the specific conditions that workers on the UCSC campus were and are facing, as they moved to ratify the contract anyway.
Recognizing this dire state of affairs, grad student workers began organizing both within and without the official channels of our union. A simple demand was put forward: We need a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) — specifically the university must begin issuing a monthly payment of $1,412 in order to bring the nearly 2,000 student workers employed by the university out of a state of rent burden.
This call immediately resonated with both active and inactive members of our union. A march and rally to deliver our singular demand to the Chancellor’s office was attended by more than 200 student workers and their supporters.
The Beginning of a Wildcat
Unsurprisingly, the university administration has done little other than issue vague pronouncements about “creating new opportunities for student workers” and “uncertainty that a cost of living adjustment would achieve the desired effect”.
This intractability has only generated more ire on the part of graduate student workers.
Now, at the tail end of the quarter, there has quickly materialized a threat to strike during the most crucial grading period of the academic cycle. A straw poll of union members revealed that there was a massive willingness to launch a strike immediately.
Perhaps most thrilling is the fact that this militancy is erupting in the face of a contract which prohibits an unscheduled withdrawal of our labor. To put it bluntly: the rank and file don’t care what the contract stipulates — we are strike ready.
This has created an even more unprecedented situation where 6 of 7 members of our local union leadership have resigned in support and anticipation of what would be a wildcat action.
“We Strike Tomorrow!”
On December 8th, 120 graduate student workers gathered in an auditorium on campus, accompanied by another 140 via Zoom video chat. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of violating our contract in order to begin a wildcat strike the very next day.
After about an hour of discussion, those present (both in person and online) cast their ballots. Speaking in a loud, firm, and nearly unanimous voice, they said: We strike tomorrow!
As long as we are on strike, as long as management refuses to provide us with a living wage, graduate students will not turn in grades for any of final exams, papers, or other academic material that they are tasked with evaluating.
This story is developing. As the situation evolves, we will be providing updates about movements on the ground.
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.
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.”