UC Administration Threatens to Fire Striking Graduate Students

COLA support increases alongside UC pushback

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As the strike for a COLA continues on into its second week, picketers continue to gather at base of campus. Photo by Brandon Saglam

By Julian Barragan and Anna Maria Camardo

On their sixth day of picketing, UC Santa Cruz graduate students erected a plywood clock counting down to Friday, or, as they are calling it, Doomsday.

Last week, the UC administration sent a series of emails calling for an end to the wildcat strike and demanding that all grades be submitted by Feb. 21. About 230 teaching assistants have not submitted fall quarter grades as part of a two-month-long grading strike. More have joined the movement since the commencement of a full graduate student teaching strike on Feb. 10.

Entering their second week of a full work stoppage, graduate students and supporters face a choice — escalate or comply. 

“Today has been great because lots of people have turned out again, so that shows that we can sustain this,” said Graduate Student Association (GSA) co-secretary Jane Komori, on Feb. 18. “I think it’s really important we had a good turn out today because with the threats that were sent out Friday evening, we definitely have to stay strong and work collectively to deal with that and decide how to proceed.”

Administrative Escalation

UC President Janet Napolitano sent an open letter to UCSC faculty, staff and students on Feb. 14 urging TAs to “turn in their grades and return to the classroom.” In the email, Napolitano said the UC will not re-open the existing contract with graduate students nor begin new negotiations.

“Participation in the wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University,” Napolitano said in the email.

Later that night, graduate students received an email from interim Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor (CP/EVC) Lori Kletzer. Kletzer said in the email that graduate students who continue to withhold fall quarter grades after 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 21 will not receive spring quarter appointments or will be dismissed from their spring quarter appointments.

“The administration’s decision is driven by their desire to not appear weak and to not give other unions a sense that wildcat strikes work,” said GSA Co-President Yulia Gilichinskaya. “They’re scared of setting a precedent of workers demanding power and making change through direct action.”

After requesting a meeting with Kletzer, members of the GSA met with administration on Feb. 16 to discuss the employment termination threats. According to Gilichinskaya, Kletzer said the UCSC administration is serious about its warning and is prepared to follow through with firing graduate students who withhold grades. 

For striking graduate students, dismissal from spring quarter appointments means losing their main source of income and, in some cases, abandoning years of research.

“This solution that the administration is prepared to take is going to have a vastly more dramatic impact on undergrads than the strike had ever had, an impact which might be irreversible,” Gilichinskaya said. “I think it’s going to affect the entire community in ways the administration doesn’t realize yet. Firing 200 TAs will devastate all UCSC faculty, graduates and undergraduates.”

To discuss their response to Kletzer and Napolitano’s emails, strikers held a general assembly on Feb. 18 in Oakes College. There was discussion over the course of action striking graduate students should take given the possibility of being fired. The collective decided to postpone a vote on submitting grades until Friday.

STEM for a COLA

After marching down Hagar Drive, STEM students joined the picket line at 3 p.m. on Feb. 18. Strikers at the base rushed to meet them and briefly blocked one side of the intersection at Coolidge Drive and High Street.

STEM students and faculty marched down to the base of campus on Tuesday around 2 p.m. to join strikers and make speeches. Photo by Brandon Saglam

Before moving back onto the grass, several STEM graduate students spoke about the importance of solidarity. The general sentiment of the impromptu rally was encapsulated by their chants of “One struggle, one fight, STEM won’t break the strike.”

“How can we feel good about ourselves if other people are struggling?” said molecular, cell and developmental biology doctoral student Londen Johnson. “This is about community for us, and since our community is suffering, we want to uplift them as much as we can.”

GSA treasurer and microbiology and environmental toxicology doctoral student Juliana Nzongo spoke to strikers about generational, racial and societal trauma. The need for a COLA is especially pressing for everyone who identifies as a person of color, LGBTQIA+, disabled, first generation, undocumented or comes from an impoverished background, Nzongo said.

“We already come from a system of oppression,” Nzongo said. “We weren’t expecting to be oppressed at our own university, and we would never accept the oppression of other people simply because they’re not at the same level or type of education that we’re in.”

STEM students often make more money than their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences, but Nzongo said they still need to support other graduates.

Computer science and engineering doctoral student Sohum Banerjea spoke for fellow international students in STEM, with his analysis of Kletzer’s Feb.14 email garnering raucous applause from the crowd. She is threatening expulsion for anyone who is too poor or too “un-American” to matter, he said.

“Fire us all, Kletzer, and tell the world exactly what you stand for,” Banerjea said.

Cross-Campus Solidarity

Undergraduate support for the strike has sustained its momentum. 

The People’s Coalition, born out of the COLA movement, held an undergraduate general assembly at the Quarry Amphitheater on Feb. 14. The group strives to mobilize undergraduates in support of a multitude of struggles across campus.

Other UC campuses, including UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Davis, UCLA, UC Irvine and UC Berkeley, ignited similar strikes and protests since the graduate student teaching strike began at UCSC. UC Merced is hosting an event titled “Let’s Talk Rent: #COLA4ALL.” UCSB and UCD organizers are circulating petitions for campuswide strikes, with students from all seven campuses listed above calling for a COLA.

STEM students and faculty marched down to the base of campus on Tuesday around 2 p.m. to join strikers and make speeches. Photo by Josephine Joliff

In a Feb. 17 email, the UCSC Faculty Organizing Group (FOG) expressed that while many faculty have hesitations about supporting the work stoppage, the administration’s willingness to fire graduate students would contradict the educational mission of the UC.

“We are in agreement that the EVC’s proposed response to the wildcat strike runs directly counter to our values and purpose,” said literature professor and FOG member Kirsten Gruesz, at a COLA press conference on Monday. “I’ve been here 24 years and I’m ashamed. The administration’s proposed action will cause deep and lasting harm to both undergraduate and graduate education at UCSC well beyond the disruptions that are currently caused by this strike.”

The University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) condemned Napolitano’s threat to fire striking academic student employees in a Feb. 19 press release. 

“UC-AFT will not be instrumentalized in the service of brutality against our colleagues and co-workers,” read the statement. “We fully support [the United Auto Workers] UAW 2865’s demand to bargain over a COLA that adequately reflects the skyrocketing cost of living in California.”

At an Academic Senate meeting on Feb. 19, faculty vocalized their opposition to Kletzer’s and Napolitano’s proposed terminations. They voted 97 to 27 in favor of a resolution supporting graduate students in their fight for a COLA. 

“If we’re going to continue to be a research university that is dependent on graduate labor for teaching, for research purposes, for all kinds of things, this really needs to be resolved at the system level,” said sociology professor Deborah Gould. “I would have a hard time understanding why you wouldn’t ask [the UC Office of the President] UCOP to reopen the contract, dealing with this problem that is a systemic problem.”

Some professors and lecturers have shown solidarity by cancelling or webcasting their classes or meeting at the base of campus so as not to break the strike.

Humanities lecturer Roxi Power’s class decided to meet at the picket to learn about argument genres and how to analyze the letters from administration and the response from the GSA in terms of ethos, pathos and logos. 

“This is the most exciting organizing moment in my 21 years of organizing here because I’m seeing senate faculty, lecturers, graduate students and undergraduate students coming together around a singular cause,” Power said. “Recognizing the professional contributions of the precariat, a word which combines precarious and proletariat.”

Additional reporting by Weston Gray, Lluvia Moreno and Elena Neale