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UC students fight for higher wages and more affordable housing

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Protest art depicting student peers standing in solidarity with UCSC students. Art by Meagan Spencer

Students at various University of California campuses are striking for more affordable housing and higher wages.

Participants of the strikes at UC Santa Cruz have taken a variety of actions drawing attention to the current situation. Some actions that picketers at UCSC have taken consist of blocking entrances to campus and class walkouts. The protesting students at UC Santa Cruz have set in motion a strike that is starting to expand throughout the UC system. 

Graduate teaching assistants from UC Santa Cruz have continued an open-ended wildcat strike that commenced on Monday, Feb. 10. Although the strike had been in the works since November, according to the official Cost-of-Living Adjustment campaign page, this strike confronted the exacerbated financial stressors that UC graduate students are facing. 

“People are living in their cars,” said Melissa Cronin, an organizer and doctoral candidate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCSC. “They don’t make enough money to buy food. For so many people, this was the culmination of months or years of continuing to slide into poverty. And something just broke.”

The grad students and teaching assistants (TA) are picketing without sanctions or a license from the UC Workers Union (UAW). Since this strike was not officially organized with the UCSC Graduate Student Association, there are no clear numbers of how many students attended. 

Tony Boardman, co-president of the UCSC Graduate Student Association, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel News that he estimates half of UCSC’s 750 teaching assistants and graduate student instructors were striking. The grad students are asking for a Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA).

TA’s will not be holding class, office hours or releasing grades until their needs are met. The apparent danger for the TA’s are their student’s concerns about the issuing of grades needing to be submitted by Dec. 18.

Fifty-four teaching aids have been officially fired, according to Shauna Hussain of the L.A. Times. An estimated 30 other students who had yet to secure spring teaching jobs were told they would not be eligible for the positions. 

The main concern for approximately 70% of the students on campus is the rent burden, according to UCSC’s NewsCenter. Financial stressors are affecting students at UCSC enough to where they feel the need to escalate their endeavors to draw attention to their situation.

Lending platform LendKey recommends not spending more than 30% of wages on rent. Graduate students in Santa Cruz, the least affordable county in California, reportedly spend as much as 50-60% of their wages on rent.   

This table represents what the rent burden is for TA’s (based on a monthly salary of $2434 before taxes for 9 months): 

Median monthly rent ( med.) Percentage of yearly salary going to rent
1 Bedroom – $2242 123%
One Room & 2BR- $1385 76%
One Room & 3BR $1154 63%

UC Santa Cruz grad students proposed a monthly raise of $1,412. The students estimate that this will allow them to pay 30% of their monthly salary toward housing.  

The graduate students are holding Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system, and the UC Santa Cruz college board accountable for meeting needs and negotiating with the picketers. In attempts to potentially de-escalate the situation, Napolitano wrote an open letter to the faculty, staff, and students of UC Santa Cruz.

 “The University of California respects its labor unions and its unionized workers,” Napolitano said. 

Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system, is under fire for not meeting strikers’ demands. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Napolitano made new proposals for the TA’s, including: 

  • A waiver of tuition, plus a $300 campus fee remission
  • 3% annual wage increases (in line with other university employees)
  • A child care subsidy of $3,300 per year (unique to TA’s)
  • A one-time signing bonus
  • Complete remission of any health care premiums

Despite these benefits, the students would not be receiving their desired monthly increase of $1,412. 

“We are sympathetic to the high cost of housing in Santa Cruz and the pressure this puts on TA’s, but a wildcat strike is not the way to get relief,” Napolitano said.

To address the needs of these graduate students, UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive has proposed two measures to help graduate students: a $2,500 need-based housing fellowship; and for doctoral students, a five-year funding program at the minimum support level of a 50% teaching assistantship.  

The TA’s are breaking their contracts by refusing to release grades and hold classes. Napolitano did confirm that there would be consequences for the strikers.

“The university will not re-open the agreement or negotiate a separate side-letter,” Napolitano said.

Despite the consequences of their peers in the UC system, the strikes do not end with UC Santa Cruz. Students from UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, and UC Berkeley have all joined the strike to demand a cost of living adjustment (COLA). 

A social media movement has started under #spreadthestrike. Many posts have addressed the firing of the UCSC students workers, and COLA organizers across the UC campuses are taking action. 

UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis are on a wildcat strike, while UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine are all organizing a day of collective action in solidarity with fired UCSC graduate student workers. 

Since the outbreak of COVIDd-19, the nature of the strikes has evolved. Students are no longer able to congregate in physical protests on campus due to the shelter-in-place mandate. This has not fully halted the efforts of protestors to gain COLA. UC students have shifted the focus of the strike to protest not paying rent while they are unable to work. 

The cost of rent issues that students had been combating to change is now being highlighted while many worker’s incomes have been temporarily cut off. These students are still advocating for the TA’s who have been fired. Since being fired, TA’s have lost their health insurance and benefits. It is unclear where the USCS and UC strikers will take this next but they are not showing any signs of stopping.