Bernie Sanders supports UCSC Wild Cat Strike
edit to add: https://newrepublic.com/authors/andrew-schwartz
Ultimately, as with so much else, who wins out will likely hinge less on legality than on power. “There’s a saying in the labor movement,” said Barry Eidlin, who studies labor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “There’s no such thing as an illegal strike—only an unsuccessful one.”
Even after the 2018 contract was ratified by United Auto Workers Local 2865—which has had collective bargaining rights for graduate students throughout the UC system since the 1990s—Santa Cruz graduate students worked to close the gap between their established wages and the local cost of living. They appealed the contract through the union, and pushed, unsuccessfully, to pass rent control in Santa Cruz, according to Veronica Hamilton, the UC Santa Cruz UAW unit chair. But these efforts “didn’t materialize any kind of change.”
Hamilton said members of the Graduate Student Association met with university administration throughout 2019 to convey the urgency of many grad students’ plight, but felt the administration responded with vague, non-committal “platitudes.” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive said in a statement to The New Republic that the university has no authority to change an already agreed upon system-wide contract, and that the UC Office of the President—which manages the fiscal and business operations of the University of California system—“is best suited to talk about [the] systemwide collective bargaining agreement.” The administration acknowledged “the very real and difficult challenges” presented by the high cost of housing.
According to Hamilton, tensions escalated into the fall of 2019 as students began holding rallies for the desired “cost of living adjustment,” or “COLA,” of $1,412 monthly on top of current TA pay. Their demand was for the administration to support the wage increase without passing the expense on to students in the form of fees and tuition. Toward this end, an early stage of the strike began in December: Graduate students held a “general assembly”—big lecture hall, pizzas by the dozen—and voted to go on what they called a “grading strike,” during which participants withheld their student’s final grades from the administration. (If specific students wanted their grades posted, all they had to do was ask, Hamilton said.) In January, with the new term set to begin, many TAs decided to maintain the grading strike.
In late January, an email signed by Larive announced two new school policies to begin next fall: a need-based $2,500 annual housing supplement, as well as guaranteed funding for doctoral and MFA students (previously, some students received multiyear funding packages but they were not guaranteed as a matter of course, a spokesperson said). A response on the strikers website characterized the offer as “the bare minimum for a university that touts itself as a progressive research leader.”
The chancellor’s email also noted that punitive action was a possibility for instructors who continued to withhold grades. This led to another general assembly of more than 270 graduate students, the majority of whom indicated they favored an escalation to the teaching strike that ultimately began last Monday.
Though it has not sanctioned the strike, UAW Local 2865’s staff leadership, citing the failure of recent legislative measures to address California’s housing crisis, said in a letter to the UC Office of Labor Relations reviewed by The New Republic that “we believe the circumstances have changed to such a degree as to necessitate immediate bargaining over this important issue.” But in an open letter published on Friday, UC system President Janet Napolitano wrote that the university “will not” reopen the contract or negotiate a side-letter, a kind of supplement to the contract, with strikers. “To accede to the demands of a group of employees engaged in an unauthorized wildcat strike,” she wrote, “would undercut the very foundation of an agreement negotiated in good faith by the UAW and ratified by thousands of members across the system.”
Talks between grad students and the administration have been unfruitful as the strike threatens to carry into its second week. A UC Santa Cruz spokesperson told The New Republic that approximately 200 graduate students continue to withhold grades from the fall quarter. In a Friday evening email, a university administrator wrote that all students who have continued to withhold fall grades have until this Friday to submit all missing grades, to end the strike, and to fulfill their contractual obligations. Those who do not submit full grades “will not receive spring quarter appointments or will be dismissed from their spring quarter appointments,” according to the email.
The striker’s website has urged participants to hold off on submitting grades at least until a Tuesday general assembly of graduate students, and characterized the threats as a “last-ditch scare tactic, a desperate bluff.” But the possibility of losing work carried significant weight because the union contract includes a tuition waiver, without which continuing graduate studies could be prohibitively expensive for many TAs.
Still, underneath the rhetorical battles and power plays, there remains the bare facts of housing costs in Santa Cruz with no easy resolution in sight. “This is the situation: We can’t live on this salary in this town,” said Lopez. Some graduate students are already on the brink of being forced from the program for financial reasons anyways, Lopez added, “so they want to at least put up a fight.”
UCSC grad students are fighting to have their labor rights acknowledged. I strongly urge the president of the UC system to stop threatening them, especially immigrant students, for organizing. I stand with @payusmoreucschttps://t.co/x03yyR70ZT
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 20, 2020
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