Wildcat Strike For a COLA Escalates

Administration declines to negotiate until strike ends

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Graduate students and supporters gather outside the Humanities building on Dec. 10. Photo by Ry X

The deadline for grades to be submitted at UC Santa Cruz came and went as graduate student strikers continue demanding a cost of living adjustment (COLA). As part of their campaign, hundreds of graduate students have vowed not to submit grades until the university meets their demands.

Over 100 graduate students, undergraduates and other supporters rallied for a COLA outside McHenry Library on Dec. 9, kicking off a turbulent finals week. 

In addition to graduate students, the rally included speakers from the Worker-Student Solidarity Coalition, the Black Student Union, Anakbayan Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Democratic Socialists of America and the undocumented student community. Each speaker emphasized the importance of inter-group solidarity in the fight for a COLA.

“With a COLA, I and others like me could focus to a greater extent on our studies and on teaching,” said fourth-year psychology doctoral student Kelsey James, in an email. “I absolutely adore teaching and I love research, but when I have to worry about my food and my housing, I cannot give these things the amount of attention they deserve. With COLA, we can eat healthier and sleep easier, knowing that the smallest thing going wrong will not bankrupt us.”

Though organizing began in September, the COLA campaign kicked off with a march from Quarry Plaza to Kerr Hall on Nov. 7 to present demands to Chancellor Cindy Larive.  

Graduate students circulated a poll on Dec. 6 to determine support for a wildcat strike. Eighty percent of currently employed graduate students who responded to the poll voted in favor of the strike, which began on Dec. 9. The graduate students’ decision to initiate a wildcat strike comes after a series of failed attempts to improve their living conditions through negotiations.

The Santa Cruz Faculty Association began a petition addressed to Larive and Interim Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor (CP/EVC) Lori Kletzer on Dec. 6 expressing solidarity with graduate students. At time of press, 438 associated faculty members have signed the petition. 

“It’s an emergency, and it requires an emergency response. And if they do the right thing, if they increase the COLA now, then that will set the tenor for much more successful bargaining across labor relations across the campus,” said Roxi Power, UCSC lecturer of 21 years. “If they don’t, they’re setting the grounds for an explosive collective response that will put Santa Cruz on the map as being the opposite of what they’ve always wished to be.”

Graduate students held a rally outside the humanities buildings on Dec. 10 after informing administrators they were welcome to appear to initiate dialogue. About 40 minutes into the rally, graduate students received an email from administrators stating they would not engage in negotiations.

The following day, graduate students assembled at the Cowell/Stevenson Dining Hall and told students not to swipe and to eat for free.

Most recently, strikers held a press conference outside Kerr Hall on Dec. 17, the day before grades were due. 

A graduate student speaks about STEM support for the wildcat strike during a Dec. 17 press conference outside Kerr Hall. Photo by Haneen Zain

“I know that there are hundreds of graduate students and faculty in solidarity who are not going to submit grades [on Dec. 18],” said Veronica Hamilton third-year social psychology doctoral student and Santa Cruz Unit Chair of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865. “I know that without those grades the university can’t just keep going. Waves are already in motion. The next steps are sort of up to the administration. If they have a solution, they should stop playing games and just offer it to graduate students so that we can decide, we can vote on what happens next.”  

Fourth-year social psychology doctoral student Roxy Davis emphasized that graduate students are taking measures to prevent undergraduates from being harmed by the strike. Teaching assistants will submit an individual student’s grade at the student’s request, Davis said.

Undergraduates, graduate students and faculty beyond UCSC have demonstrated strong support for the COLA movement. UC Santa Barbara graduate students rallied in support on Dec. 13 and UC Berkeley held a solidarity strike on Dec. 16. Students and unions from several other UCs and schools as far as New York and the United Kingdom have submitted statements of support as well. 

The UCSC administration has refused to engage with graduate students’ demands until the strike ends. 

“We look forward to engaging with graduate students in their role as students once the illegal work stoppage ends,” wrote CP/EVC Lori Kletzer in a Dec. 13 email to the campus community. “UC Santa Cruz cannot negotiate a cost of living adjustment, which would be a change to the terms and conditions of employment for members of UAW, while they are under contract.”

Last year, the UC finalized a four-year contract with the UAW despite nearly 83 percent of UCSC graduate students opposing the terms of the contract. The UAW ultimately voted in favor of the contract after a majority of other UCs did.

Many UCSC graduate students were dissatisfied with the contract because, while it included a 3 percent pay increase, Santa Cruz rent prices increased by 54 percent over the period of the previous contract. 

“The campus can work to support graduate students through other ways, you know, there’s subsidized housing, in some cases there can be fellowships,” said UCSC Director of News and Media Relations Scott Hernandez-Jason. “There’s other mechanisms in which the university can support graduate students that’s not related to their employment.”

Anthropology graduate student Brenda Arjona lives with her 10-year-old son in family student housing (FSH), which costs $1,767 per month plus partial utilities. The university lists the rent price as a benefit of living in FSH. At the Dec. 17 press conference, Arjona told the crowd she spends 78 percent of her paycheck on rent.  

“UC Santa Cruz, by neglecting to give us a COLA, you are not only exploiting our labor as teachers and researchers and forcing us into debt, but you are also chipping away at our mental health because, in addition to the extremely stressful process of earning a PhD or masters degree, we are constantly worried about meeting our basic needs,” Arjona said at the press conference. “At the end of the day, you are taking away the ability to earn an education for all except the most privileged students.”

Additional reporting by Haneen Zain