Graduate students at UC-Santa Cruz have been engaging in a wildcat strike for some time now and it is coming to collision with the anti-union administration led, of course, by former Obama Cabinet appointee Janet Napolitano. The basic issue is that graduate students simply can’t afford to live in Santa Cruz and the university doesn’t really want to address that.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Sarah Mason, a graduate student in sociology at the University of California Santa Cruz, tells a crowd of several hundred students, wrapping up the fourth day of an unprecedented wildcat strike that has drawn threats of mass dismissal and captured the attention of UC campuses across the state. Using a megaphone, Mason reminds them that LA teachers went on strike for six days last year and Oakland teachers for seven before getting their pay raises. She asks for a show of hands to see how many wanted to continue to picket the following day. Arms shoot up all around her.
Graduate student employees have been on a work stoppage since February 10, refusing to teach, hold office hours, or do other work until the university meets their demands for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of $1,412 a month to help alleviate the rent burden in Santa Cruz, one of the least affordable housing markets in the country. This was an escalation from a grade strike that over 200 graduate students launched on December 9.
Last Friday night, UC President Janet Napolitano published a letter threatening to fire students if they don’t call off the strike, and reiterated the university’s position that it refuses to negotiate with the students. “To accede to the demands of a group of employees engaged in an unauthorized wildcat strike would undercut the very foundation of an agreement negotiated in good faith by the UAW and ratified by thousands of members across the system.”
The university has given them until 11:59 p.m. tonight to submit grades for the previous fall quarter or face dismissal. For international students on a student visa—about 30 people, in all—this is de facto deportation. For teaching assistants who are parents, this could endanger a child care subsidy of $3,300 they receive per year as part of the union contract. The high stakes have challenged the unity of the strikers, as each student faces distinct and personal consequences should they lose their jobs. They will be taking a vote on Friday on how to proceed, and some appear ready to submit grades.
The strike “has been a longtime coming,” says Yulia Gilichinskaya, a student in the Film and Digital Media Department and co-president of the Graduate Student Association. She is part of a group of students that for the past year or so has been organizing around the cost-of-living crisis. A majority of student union members in Santa Cruz voted down the statewide contract signed by the UAW in summer 2018 because the annual three-percent wage increase cannot keep up with their housing costs. After Measure M on rent control failed to pass in the 2018 midterm election, Gilichinskaya says, the students started to call for a campus-specific solution out of a feeling they had no other recourse. “Everyone is so damn desperate. Some of us have been homeless and a lot of us are one paycheck away from homelessness. Housing in the Bay Area is pushing boundaries in terms of what is possible in organizing.”
In Santa Cruz, downzoning is one of the main culprits, according to Steven McKay, associate professor of sociology and director of the UCSC Center for Labor Studies. Since the 1990s, county residents have voted for leadership that prioritizes single-family homes on large lots. Attempts to build more affordable, multi-family homes have been met with resistance by NIMBY organizations that push for zoning regulations and land-use policies to block new development. In Santa Cruz, many are averse to even four-story buildings. “There’s a skyrocketing demand for housing, but no new housing, especially affordable housing,” McKay says. This has only intensified in recent years, as Santa Cruz became a commuter town for Silicon Valley. And with a student body of over 18,000, some of whom are squeezed into converted common dorm areas the university has been under pressure for a while to build more housing. A plan to build 3,000 new beds for graduate students has been frozen for over a year due to legal challenges from environmental groups.
McKay says the problem is much bigger than just Santa Cruz, and that if the university concedes, it would push the state to more fully fund the entire UC system, one of the largest employers in California. “California is as flush as ever. It has a $20 billion surplus in its budget,” he says. “The strike is a real opportunity for UC to lead on a much bigger national issue: the funding of public higher education. The strike’s caught fire because it speaks to the real need for living wages and for truly affordable college for everyone.”
Now, it’s unclear in most stories as to exactly how many students are participating in this strike and I know that it is far from all graduate students. But the issues are real. It’s California. It’s a very blue state run entirely by Democrats. And they don’t want to do anything to build the housing or fund the students in a way necessary for basic standards of life to be upheld. Graduate students are already among our most exploited workers. They are drawn to a great school like those in the UC system for obvious reasons. And then they get there and they can’t afford to live with dignity. Honestly, the difference financially between someone like myself who went to graduate school in Albuquerque, at a school that isn’t highly ranked but where one can live on the TA stipend and someone who goes to Santa Cruz is enormous and reverberates through their whole life, even if they do get a tenure-track academic job. They will be years behind in paying off student loans and engaging in other regular life decisions. And let’s be clear, the issue is very real.
Their contract sets pay across the University of California statewide. So, a graduate student teaching assistant in Santa Cruz or Berkeley is paid about the same as graduate students in Riverside or Merced, which have much lower housing costs.
In Santa Cruz County, the median rent is $1,685, according to the most recent data from the American Community Survey. That’s compared to $1,374 in Riverside County.
Of course, those are rough comparisons. In Santa Cruz, a tourist destination, the crisis is compounded by a particularly tight supply.
And Santa Cruz, unlike, say, Berkeley, has rejected efforts to implement rent control.
Yulia Gilich, a 31-year-old international student from Russia who is co-president of the graduate student association, said they’ve moved four times since they came to Santa Cruz; it’s been cheaper for them to fly home than to stay in California during the summers. They added their visa doesn’t allow them to get another job while they’re a graduate student.
So what’s next?
Administrators have said they may discipline protesters. But organizers said the strike would go on indefinitely.
Sarah Mason, 33, said she saw the strike as part of a broader struggle for public education.
“It involves teachers and students at every level,” Ms. Mason said. “We are all in this together.”
The graduate students have very little leverage outside of holding up the posting of grades. It’s unlikely they will succeed. But this is a struggle worth having because it’s becoming the struggle in many states, most of the dominated by Democrats who don’t really want to do that much about economic justice issues. But there is some level of support, from the first link again:
UCSC faculty members have urged the university to halt disciplinary measures and instead open a direct line of communication. Some have joined students at the picket line. The Santa Cruz City Council voted unanimously to endorse the students’ demands. The executive board of the Council of UC Faculty Associations, representing faculty on all 10 UC campuses, issued an open letter of support urging a resolution. Over 2,000 non-UCSC faculty across the country have signed a noncooperation pledge to boycott UCSC until it “provides a more equitable standard of living.” The West Virginia teachers who went on strike and successfully increased their wages in 2018, sent a letter of support. City bus drivers in Santa Cruz have refused to cross the picket and drive into campus. And on Wednesday, Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders tweeted his support for the strikers.