The University of California (UC) system has been in a state of near-constant strife for the last month and a half. Last month saw the UC Regents attempt to further hike up student tuition, only for their meeting, during which they were meant to vote on the hike, to be postponed because they failed to post details regarding the increase 10 days before the meeting as is standard procedure. Days after this tuition hike fiasco, news broke of UC’s dwindling application rates at key UC campuses. This month, the UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) graduate student wildcat strikes seem to be coming to a head.
Last December, UCSC graduate students serving as teaching assistants at the university began withholding grades and refusing to teach classes in demand of a proper living wage. Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive offered two support programs for graduate students, but the teaching assistants were still unsatisfied, culminating in a full strike on Feb. 10, and they have been picketing at the entrance of the campus ever since. Roughly 350 students have participated in the strike, with over 200 of those students being teaching assistants.
Campus administrators have insisted that negotiating with the strikers would be illegal because the demonstrations were not authorized by the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 union, the union that teaching assistants are members of. This response is woefully lacking in empathy for the financial burdens Santa Cruz graduate students are subjected to. Santa Cruz is known for its high cost of living, and, before taxes, the teaching assistants at UCSC make $2,434 nine months out of the year. Many of these graduate students spend nearly 50% of their income on rent alone. In light of this, the struggling graduate students are requesting a $1,412 a month raise.
In a belittling attempt to threaten the strikers, UC president Janet Napolitano issued an open letter to UCSC faculty, staff and students, reminding the teaching assistants of their current benefits under the UAW collective bargaining agreement struck in 2018, which include a waiver of tuition and a remission of health care premium among other perks. In her letter, Napolitano insisted that these benefits should be enough, and admonished the strikers for disobeying the “no-strike” clause in their UAW contract. The UC president then went on to refuse further negotiations, insisting that those participating in the wildcat strike either return to work or face the termination of their employment at the university.
Of course, had the aforementioned benefits of the UAW contract been enough, the graduate students would not be striking in such great numbers. It is ridiculous to assume that these graduate students, who are also students in their own right and therefore laden with their own coursework and projects, would be able to properly lecture to a room full of undergraduates when they are worried about whether or not they will be able to make rent that month.
It is even more ridiculous to criticize the workers for striking without the support of their union. The current UAW contract, which met virtually none of the workers’ key demands, was pushed through to approval without the support of many of the UC student workers it affects, much to the disappointment of the graduate students. Student workers have attempted to engage campus administration through official channels multiple times after the contract was agreed upon, but the administration would not budge.
And then, of course, there is the general understanding that if the workers did not initiate some sort of strike the UC administrators would not give them a second thought. The administration is notorious for disregarding the plights of their students. One need only look to the aforementioned tuition hikes for evidence that they value money over all else. The strikers had no other recourse, and to suggest that they did is equal parts disrespectful and duplicitous.
The UCSC graduate student workers must hold fast in their strike, and the UC administration would do well to listen. Withholding grades and refusing to teach may be some of the only forms of leverage the teaching assistants possess, but they are a powerful form of leverage. Undergraduates who need to see their grades for whatever reason, be it for an application or simply out of curiosity, can ask their TA directly. The strike isn’t meant to affect the students. The UC is the intended target, and a lack of inputted grades reflects poorly on the institution.
Sure enough, the administration may very well be moved to fire the strikers as President Napolitano threatened, but doing so will have effects that cascade throughout the school. Filling 200 teaching assistant positions would not only be embarrassing, it would be hard work. Once the strikers are fired, the school would have to hire new teaching assistants in their place, which would likely take some time, possibly delaying the posting of grades even further.
Assuming the firing and rehiring process went smoothly, the issues that prompted the initial strikes won’t go away. The incoming TAs will still find themselves struggling to pay rent, and there will be more strikes to come. The only real solution to this issue is the $1,412 pay raise and a revision to the current UAW contract.
The UCSC teaching assistants must take heart, stand strong and know that they are supported. On Wednesday, Feb. 19, UC Los Angeles graduate students followed in the footsteps of their UCSC kin and participated in a sick-out, and they aren’t the only UC school to do so. Graduate students at UC Davis rallied on Feb. 10 in solidarity with the UCSC workers. Of particular note is Democratic frontrunner and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ recent endorsement of the UCSC graduate students over Twitter, during which he urged President Napolitano to cease her threats of termination. If the administration believes that they will be able to fire the striking teaching assistants without backlash, they have quite a storm coming for them.
The UCSC wildcat strikes are an inspiration to any and all who are trying to resist that bureaucracy of UC management. It should not be this difficult to secure a living wage, especially at a prestigious college like UC Santa Cruz. A compromise can and must be reached, and the UCSC students must not let the administration crush their spirit. They have the support of their fellow students and workers behind them.