UCSC Fires At Least 74 Graduate Student Employees

Hundreds more pledge to refuse spring quarter appointments

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Students occupied one lane of traffic on McLaughlin Drive as they walked from one teach-in to the next on Feb. 27. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

UC Santa Cruz is facing an uncertain future after the administration fired dozens of striking graduate students last week. Since Friday, more graduate students have received notice that they will not get teaching assistant (TA) positions this spring.

UCSC Executive Communications Manager Marc DesJardins confirmed that 74 TAs will not receive spring quarter appointments because they continue to withhold fall grades. At time of press, “a small number of cases remain under review,” according to DesJardins.

An additional 560 UCSC graduate students pledged to decline spring appointments in support of their fired peers, said Graduate Student Association (GSA) co-President Tony Boardman. 

No one has been fired for the full work stoppage, only for withholding grades, said history of consciousness doctoral candidate Stephen David Engel. Difficulty tracking who is participating in the full work stoppage means administrators have not developed a plan to respond to the wildcat strike, he said. 

“I’m optimistic because we still have a month until spring quarter starts. We have a month to win before anyone is actually materially impacted by this,” Engel said. “A lot can happen in a month, a lot of upheaval can happen across the UC system. There will be time to get our allies where we are, and then I think we will be in sight of making Janet Napolitano go back on her insistence that she will not reopen the contract.”

Spring Enrollment Disruption

While the full impact of losing so much graduate student labor is yet to be felt, many departments are left reeling after losing so many TAs. The spring enrollment start date was postponed from Feb. 24 to March 2 and departments cancelled some spring classes or reduced the number of available seats.

The psychology department has 498 fewer seats than planned in its spring undergraduate courses and lost 12 TAs, with some appointments rescinded and others turned down in solidarity, said professor and department chair Phillip Hammack in an email. 

“In broader ways, the impact to our department increases stress and reduces morale for all members of our community (staff, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students), reduces research productivity (since graduate students play vital roles in our research labs), and impedes the academic progress of our graduate and undergraduate students,” Hammack said in an email.

The psychology department cancelled one lower division course , reduced enrollment for three upper division lecture courses and replaced two upper division lecture courses  with senior seminars, which do not utilize TA support, Hammack said. The department is encouraging students to take available courses in other departments.

In a Feb. 28 letter to undergraduate cognitive science and psychology undergraduates, Hammack said the department would only be able to hire about 20 of the 40 graduate student TAs needed for its planned curriculum.

Eleven Literature TA’s and graduate student instructors received notices of intent to dismiss or notices of ineligibility. The department’s capacity to offer seats in classes is reduced by 350-400, said Carla Freccero, Literature Department Chair

Each department will be impacted differently, said Executive Communications Manager Marc DesJardins.

“It’s too soon to say exactly how class offerings and schedules might be affected in the spring quarter,” DesJardins said. “At our campus, faculty have responsibility for curriculum. Our campus provost has kept in close contact with our deans and department heads throughout this unsanctioned labor action. They are the ones, along with faculty, who are currently creating plans for spring quarter teaching in their various departments and divisions.”

UAW 2865 Files Unfair Labor Practice Charges Against the UC

The United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, the union representing graduate students across the UC, filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge against the UC on Feb. 27. The union filed additional ULP charges on March 2.

The original charges assert that the UC violated the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act by bargaining with university-funded student organizations like the GSA and UC Graduate and Professional Council without consulting UAW 2865.

Additional charges came in the wake of UCSC’s decision to fire 74 TAs. These charges claim the UC can’t engage in double discipline, said Santa Cruz UAW 2865 Unit Chair Veronica Hamilton.

“This new ULP charge is about disciplining workers through student conduct, which excludes the union from our negotiated disciplinary process,” Hamilton said, “and therefore does not allow workers the recourse that they need to appeal the discipline that they received through student conduct.”

Hamilton is referring to a Feb. 28 email from the Dean of Students office alerting graduate students who withheld grades that their behavior “may represent violation(s) of the Code of Student Conduct.” 

“The University’s use of the Code of Student Conduct, rather than discipline system for employees established in the [collective bargaining agreement], constitutes an unlawful unilateral change in the terms and conditions of employment and is inherently destructive of union rights,“ the UAW 2865 said in its March 2 ULP charge.

At the Picket

The last week of picketing saw lower turnout than previous weeks, so to sustain momentum organizers decided to promote one large day of action each week. 

On Feb. 27 — “Doomsday 2.0” or interim Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor (CP/EVC) Lori Kletzer’s extended deadline for firing those withholding grades — over 100 students marched from Quarry Plaza to the base of campus for the Radical History March and Teach-in. 

The teach-ins covered an abridged history of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and an overview of its current land trust projects, the legacies of activism at UCSC and the importance of bringing STEM into the cost of living adjustment (COLA) movement. After marchers returned to the base, they briefly held the intersection at Bay and High Streets before returning to the grass.

Around noon on Thursday, a small faction of strikers peeled off the group to march through Thimann Hall. The decision to interrupt class received backlash from the students in the classroom who were taking a midterm exam and others who watched footage of the incident.

“While strikes are inherently disruptive, protesters did not realize that they were disrupting an exam until it was too late,” said the COLA Campaign in response to the incident. “Our intent was to invite STEM students, many of whom have been hesitant to join the picket line, to learn about the history of radical activism at UCSC. It was not our intent to interrupt an examination in progress.”

After fired graduate students gave statements at a March 2 press conference, supporters chanted and rejoined the picket. Photo by Maria Cordova

In general, police presence at the picket declined since the first week of the full teaching strike, but officers did trail the teach-in march and stationed cars at high-traffic intersections on Friday.

On Monday, strikers, supporters and reporters gathered at the base of campus for a press conference during which fired graduate students spoke about their new and exacerbated precarity.

Through Wednesday, graduate students and supporters across the UC system prepared for a systemwide “Blackout” of no work or class on Thursday.

COLA Across UC Campuses

Momentum for the COLA movement is building steadily across other UC campuses, with graduate and undergraduate students showing solidarity in impressive numbers. A UC-wide walkout strike is planned for March 5.

Graduate students at UC Santa Barbara began a full teaching strike for their own COLA on Feb. 27. Students at UCSB first demanded an additional $1,807.51 per month on Feb. 10 and held several actions in solidarity with UCSC strikers before then.

“I don’t think we’d be where we are if it wasn’t for Santa Cruz,” said Sheila Kulkarni, a UCSB chemistry graduate student and COLA organizer. “Now we know that if we strike for a COLA, we can really move at it in a lot of different ways.”

The same day UCSB began their strike, graduate students at UC Davis embarked on a grading strike, vowing to withhold winter quarter grades until they are granted a $1,553.20 per month COLA. 

Students at UC Irvine organized a two-day sick-out March 2-3, and UC San Francisco students held sit-ins at each of its two campuses on March 4 in support of a COLA for all. 

“As graduate students at the University of California, San Francisco, a campus that prides itself upon promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, we should show up and stand in solidarity for those on strike at UCSC and other UC campuses, and for all the students without the financial means to pursue their dreams of attending graduate school,” UCSF 4 COLA wrote in its invitation to sit-in.

Graduate students at UC Irvine organized a two-day sick-out March 2-3 in support of COLA.

UCLA graduate students voted on March 2 to join the day-long strike on Thursday. A tweet from UCLA4COLA stated the strike is meant to protest the UC firing 74 TAs at UCSC and demand a COLA for UCLA students.


At time of press, a UC Berkeley faculty statement of non-retaliation against striking graduate students had gathered 343 signatures from faculty pledging to ensure that graduate students’ fellowship support and GSI allocation will not be affected by their decision to participate in strike activity.

Testimonials

It just happened, so it’s not like I’m packing, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. Worst case scenario I’m going to have to drop out and leave the country because I’m here on a student visa and without a tuition waiver I can’t afford to pay tuition. Terminating my employment could effectively mean terminating my student status.


– Yulia Gilichinskaya, film and digital media doctoral candidate and international student, fired

Even if we didn’t have any TAs fired, the department still would have been on a shortage for spring quarter, which is why we usually take in TAs from other departments. Now that we have had a few TAs fired, and so many students who’ve pledged not to take these vacated positions, the department has even more of a shortage.

On the bright side, we raised over $100,000 in funds to help our graduate students. We still need another $100,000 more, depending on how many of our grad students can actually find their own funding, like me for spring quarter. But I’m optimistic with all the national attention we’ve been getting, and that we’re on the right side of history and that people will continue to show up for us and we’ll show up for each other.


Clara Qin, environmental studies doctoral candidate, fired

It’s really important for me to stand in solidarity with the people who have already put themselves at risk of being fired for the COLA movement. A lot of them have already put a lot on the line, and I had to put my skin in the game, too, and make sure we send a message to the university administration about how this move of firing students is seen by the graduates.


Jordan Eizenga, biomolecular engineering and bioinformatics doctoral candidate, withholding grades, hasn’t been fired, is declining a spring appointment

I was fired from my spring quarter appointment. I was slated to be a graduate student instructor. It was my own course that I designed. I’ve wanted to teach this class for 10 years, it was called ‘Histories of the Atom’ […] There are far worse things happening than me not being able to teach that class. International students could be effectively deported, undocumented students fired from spring appointments, I don’t know what they’re going to do. Students of color, mothers to be, parents to be, people with abusive landlords who will now have less money to get out of their situations. So I just want to highlight that the class is really insignificant […] that is a sacrifice I am willing to make and I’m willing to make more sacrifices for this.

I, like many others here, care deeply about educating. We didn’t just come here to do our precious research, we came here to become better teachers, to have the opportunity to go on and make significant impact as teachers beyond this university. So it’s not only heartbreaking because people are being rendered more precarious — and that is the real problem — it is also heartbreaking because we are being cut off from our students. We love our students, we never want to hurt our students, we want to empower them. But what we’re saying is we’re unable to teach effectively with our full energy and power as educators without better support.


Stephen David Engel, history of consciousness doctoral candidate, fired

Our healthcare is tied to our employment, so by losing a TAship I lose paid maternity leave and health insurance. So my options are to pay an exorbitant amount out of pocket, or as I’ve been trying to do, get on Medi-Cal ASAP. But that means changing providers, going to different doctors. All of these transitions are extremely stressful to do seven and a half months into a pregnancy. […] Without insurance things start costing upwards of thousands of dollars. I have the hope that Medi-Cal will work out, it’s been a really stressful decision to make knowing that health insurance is probably the most important thing in my life and it’s in limbo.

The administration would rather fire us knowing full well that graduate students were already in financial distress, will be under even more financial duress, but they would still rather take punitive measures rather than try to address our needs.


Luling Osofsky, history of art and visual culture doctoral candidate, withholding grades, hasn’t been fired, 7.5 months pregnant

I’m actually on fellowship next quarter so I was not terminated but my husband was terminated. In terms of my health insurance, I was actually abroad last year and found out when I got pregnant in the summer that I didn’t have health insurance from the university anymore and that they wouldn’t allow me to access it because I had lost the window of time in which to do that. So I experienced an extraordinary amount of stress at the beginning of my pregnancy finding out that I had zero health insurance. I was able to get on Medi-Cal then and I am still on Medi-Cal instead of the UC insurance which is a huge relief to me, but I think it’s important to state that the amount we make as TAs qualifies for Medi-Cal, that’s how low it is.


Rebekkah Dilts, literature, will be on spring fellowship

Last week my teaching appointment for the spring was revoked. It was revoked for my participation in this strike. My wife and I are expecting a child next month, spring quarter. That means that I forgo paternity leave which, at least in this country, is anchored to employment. As grad students we have no savings, we have slim prospects for institutional support. It is a strange situation to be fired for fighting against terrible pay and working conditions and skyrocketing costs of living only to be thrust into a situation where exposure to these things becomes more likely and more extreme, especially with a newborn child. And yet it happens to workers every day all over the world who decide to resist.


Dylan Davis, politics doctoral candidate, fired

Dilts and Davis are married and expecting a baby. Davis spoke at Monday’s press conference. Dilts spoke to City on a Hill Press directly.

My mom had a heart attack last year. She had to be on leave for nine months. Since undergrad I was helping my family by sending my work-study money home. I sent it to my family because they are in more need of it than I am. I’m from Hawai’i so the cost of living is pretty similar to here. […] Now I’m trying to find a job so that I can send more money home to my family and still support myself.

I’m not sad for myself, I’m more angry about how other people are going to deal with this. […] I’m very afraid for my colleagues, I feel like I can manage something but I’m more worried about how they’ll be able to manage because they want to stay in school.

I’m one of the head organizers for the UCSC Mauna Kea Protectors on campus. I’m Native Hawai’ian, so my hope of getting into this program was doing Native Hawai’ian archaeology because there needs to be more indigenous scholars in academia and that’s why I was so inspired to go to grad school […] I changed my archaeology project from understanding Native Hawai’ian migration to the west coast to understanding Native Hawai’ian sacredness and archaeology and how the UC is exploiting Native Hawai’ian land. I’m one of the few Native Hawai’ian scholars and scholars of Native Hawai’ian archaeology in the UC. I’m abandoning this research I’ve been working on for, I want to say, seven months […] now I can’t do that work I was doing, both academically and activism on campus because I can’t afford to live here.


Karli DeRego, anthropology doctoral candidate, fired

Additional reporting by Julian Barragan and Thomas Sawano