UC retaliation against COLA strikers not in accordance with their principles

Graduate+students+demanding+a+412+COLA+to+be+added+to+their+salaries+were+met+with+aggression+and+intimidation+tactics+by+the+UC+system.+

Graphic illustration by news section and Youqi Huang

Graduate students demanding a 412 COLA to be added to their salaries were met with aggression and intimidation tactics by the UC system.

By Youqi Huang, Lynbrook High School - CA

Graduate students across the University of California (UC) system have gone on strike, demanding a $1412 cost of living adjustment (COLA) per student to be added to their salaries. The UC system has responded with aggression and employed intimidation tactics contrary to its progressive reputation. As of March 30, University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) has fired 54 graduate students and used police force against protestors.

While pursuing higher-level degrees, such as master’s or doctorates, many graduate students also choose to work at their universities as teaching assistants. Teaching assistants have responsibilities similar to those of full-time professors, such as teaching classes and grading papers, but their employment is part-time and they are paid much less than professors. However, many graduate students still take on the position anyways due to the burdensome costs of pursuing higher education, as well as living close to campus.

“I think it’s important that salaries are adjusted at a rate similar to the rise in cost of living in an area,” Lynbrook alumna and UC Berkeley student Abinaya Srikant said. “It is unfair to expect graduate teaching assistants to continue working if they are struggling to pay bills each month.”

Employing graduate student teaching assistants and adjunct, or part-time, professors to teach classes allows universities to avoid paying tenure. According to the American Association of University Professors, the percentage of teaching faculty on track to obtaining tenure decreased from 45 percent in 1975 to only 24 percent in 2011. By choosing to staff its workforce with teaching assistants instead of tenured staff, the UC system sacrifices stable, well-paying jobs for its faculty to chase profits.

“I thought my position as a teaching assistant at UC Davis was great. I was paid roughly $20 an hour and received 100 percent fee remission, which is roughly what the graduate students today make, when adjusted for inflation,” Lynbrook teacher and UC Davis alumnus Jeremy Dybdahl said. “It wasn’t enough then to cover my living expenses in Davis; the rest was covered by federal grants and loans.”

Santa Cruz residents, who live in what has been recognized as one of least affordable counties in the U.S., often spend 50 to 60 percent of their salary on rent. UCSC strike organizers determined the $1412 COLA value by calculating how much money a teaching assistant would need to bring home in order to keep them out of “rent burden”, a term defined as the need to spend over 30 percent of income on housing. The current level of pay is stretching the financial backbone of the UCSC teaching staff thin or forcing them to search for housing farther from the school.

“I, along with many other Santa Cruz residents, can’t afford to both live and work there,” Dybdahl said. “On average, jobs in Santa Cruz make about 65 percent what the corresponding job in Santa Clara county makes, so I think everyone in Santa Cruz should get paid more, not just teaching assistants.”

Strike organizers are asking for the administration to give them the appropriate COLA without raising tuition or campus fees and with a guarantee of non-retaliation . Teaching assistants started by withholding grades for the fall semester and progressed to a full strike on Feb. 10, when they began refusing to teach as well.

The strike has been referred to by the organizers as a “wildcat” strike as it is not sanctioned by their official union, United Auto Workers. The union currently has a no-strike clause in place, which requires members to resort to other methods when negotiating with employers.

The nature of strike is the primary reason members of the UCSC administration, including Vice Provost Quentin Williams and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer, refused to meet with the graduate student strikers. The administration argues that the strike is illegitimate and as a result, feels no obligation to bargain, even going so far as to file an Unfair Labor Practices lawsuit against the strikers for violating the no-strike clause in their union contract.

However, the no-strike clause means that the most powerful tool at the students’ disposal — the lawful withdrawal of their labor — is gone. By refusing to acknowledge the students’ demands due to the unsanctioned nature of the strike, the UC system is denying them the right to self-advocacy — a complete contradiction of the progressive values the educational institute represents.

As the movement gains momentum and spreads to all 10 campuses, the response from UC administration is becoming increasingly aggressive. On Feb. 14, UC president Janet Napolitano demanded through Kletzer that teaching assistants release grades and stop striking by Feb. 21 or face disciplinary action and dismissal from current or spring teaching positions. By Feb. 28, the administration made good on their threat, firing 54 teaching assistants and notifying 28 others that they will no longer be considered for appointments in the spring, further disrupting the already fragile financial state and job security of many teaching assistants.

“The administration’s decision to fire graduate students shocked me the most,” said Srikant. “Their decision led me to feel that they view these students as easily replaceable, rather than as valuable members of each campus.”

Campus police have been present since the strikers started picketing on Feb. 10, and have been violent on several occasions, even going so far as to arrest at least 17 students. Their presence is part of the intimidation tactics administration continues to use against protestors as tensions mount. On Feb. 12, 16 peaceful student protestors were arrested at UCSC, and the UC Irvine police used force against several protestors on Feb. 20, the day student strikes at that campus started.

In response to the firing of graduate students and the system’s refusal to bargain with the union, United Auto Workers has decided to file an Unfair Labor Practices lawsuit against the administration as well. The union is also preparing to hold a vote to initiate an official strike, but only if enough members demonstrate that they are ready to withhold labor when time comes.

An union-sanctioned strike would offer all strikers legal protections and be backed by the union’s resources, all of which were unavailable during the wildcat strike. The response from the United Auto Workers, while reactionary, proves the power of wildcat strikes offers to collectives of workers to kickstart a movement, launching meaningful discussions not only between laborers and their employees, but also among laborers and their union.

The UC system’s treatment of its graduate student teaching assistants reveals the harsh reality that lies behind its idyllic, progressive facade. For the administration to begin addressing the problems it has been faced with, it must first withdraw its threats and demilitarize its police force, so that it can do what students have been demanding it do all this time: talk.

This story was originally published on The Epic on April 9, 2020.