California graduate students expand strike for cost-of-living adjustment

If you go on the website of University of California graduate student workers who are now fighting for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to manage extremely high rents, you will see daily updates like this:

 “UC Wide Blackout – today, March 5. At UCSC, both entrances to campus have been closed since 5:30 a.m. No class, no work! Come to the picket for food and community. Wear black! …

 “We are disappointed that UCSC administration, UCOP, and the UC Regents have consistently refused to negotiate in good faith in order to find an amicable solution to the needs of UC students and workers, instead choosing to retaliate against precarious community members and prolong strike activity.”

Those graduate student workers at U.C. Santa Cruz, members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, representing 19,000 student workers at the U.C. system, began a wildcat strike in December after unfruitful negotiations with administrators. They are demanding a $1,412 per month COLA to meet skyrocketing rents in the area.

That militance reflected the anger at the news last Friday that U.C. Santa Cruz had issued termination letters to 54 graduate students and the frustration of student workers across the U.C. campuses who pay well over 50 percent of their salary on rents, leaving little for food, health care and transportation, especially if they have children.

Veronica Hamilton, vice president of U.C. Santa Cruz’s graduate student association and chair of the campus unit of UAW Local 2865, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 28 regarding the challenges of workers: “Housing is expensive in Santa Cruz, and student workers have a difficult time living on the typical stipend of $2,400 a month before taxes.

According to the Cost of Living Adjustment White Paper done by U.C. graduate students, a one bedroom apartment in the city of Santa Cruz costs over $1,800 per month, eating up 75 percent of that $2,400 stipend.

And it’s not just Santa Cruz that has extraordinarily high rents. Workers at the Berkeley campus suffer from area rents costing over $1,700 per month for a one bedroom apartment.

Instead of negotiating in good faith, the U.C. administration reportedly decided to spend an exorbitant amount of money in one week — money which could have been used to pay a liveable wage — on riot police bussed in from other campuses to intimidate and terrorize striking students and their supporters.

Yulia Gilichinskaya, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Film & Digital Media who has insider knowledge of meetings with administrators, told Salon on Feb. 25 that the university spent $300,000 per day on cops.

Students were beaten with batons and arrested. And this police violence occurred on other U.C. campuses as well.

The work done by graduate students with regard to academic achievement, according to faculty, is irreplaceable. In fact, of great concern to the faculty is how the hostile tone of the U.C. administrators, especially U.C. President Janet Napolitano — who threatened the workers with firing early on — could possibly help contribute to getting the work of the faculty done.

“Napolitano never addressed who would replace grad workers,” James Sirigotis, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Sociology, told Salon in that same article.

Sirigotis, who was one of the protesters physically injured by the expensive terrorist police force, noted that faculty members understand this contradiction: “What was the plan if they were willing to fire these TAs? How do you expect us to be able to teach? How do you expect the university to operate?” he continued.

The strike has now expanded to other U.C. campuses. On Feb. 27, U.C. Santa Barbara and U.C. Davis graduate students joined the strike.

After receiving news about the fired student workers many more grad student workers joined the strike and pledged to not accept any of those newly opened positions. According to the grad students’ website:

“About 80 grad students withheld Fall grades and, as of Feb. 28, are out of a job next quarter. Fifty-four had already received Spring appointments and were dismissed, and the rest simply won’t get hired (they received notice that they “will no longer be considered” for these appointments). But the fight isn’t over! More TAs will withhold Winter grades, and 559 grads have pledged to refuse TAships vacated by dismissed grads. The strike continues. Together, we win! See you on the picket.”

The U.C. administration, in an attempt to break the strike and solidarity, offered $2,500 for one year, amounting to about $200 per month instead of the $1,412 requested. The money goes to all Master of Fine Arts and Ph.D. students at U.C. Santa Cruz only, excluding other master’s programs and applies to graduate students in general, not to graduate student workers, allowing the offer to not fall under a union contract.

In a statement regarding that offer, UAW Local 2865 President Kavitha Iyengar writes:

“While we are glad to hear this news [of the $2,500 stipend offer], it is not enough, for three reasons: first, because it is not under the framework of a union contract and thus not legally enforceable, it is not guaranteed. Second, it is limited to workers at Santa Cruz. As our framework for a COLA demonstrates, workers at every single campus are rent burdened and need this relief. And third, even with these funds, student workers are still rent burdened.”

To get caught up on the strike, you can visit the various social media sites for the nine U.C. campuses participating, found on the website https://payusmoreucsc.com/.