Statewide Solidarity with UCSC COLA: Graduate Students Hold Rally and “Sick Out”

Graduate students at UCLA held a rally on campus on Wednesday to mark a campus-wide “Sick-Out,” after wildcat graduate strikers at UC Santa Cruz initiated a statewide call-to-action. Since fall 2019, the strikers at UCSC have withheld grades and have been demanding a living wage or “COLA” (Cost of Living Adjustment), the lack of which has exacerbated housing insecurity for thousands of students. 

In order to exercise the “Sick Out” at UCLA, TAs used one of their two contract-obligated sick days on Wednesday. They canceled section and office hours and did not attend lectures nor respond to students’ emails. They noted that the “Sick Out” and the rally were intended to spark conversation on campus about the issue and to invite students and faculty to participate in the growing actions. The speakers at UCLA emphasized solidarity with UCSC and noted that the movement is “spreading across all the UCs.” The various UC campuses are hosting solidarity actions with UCSC for the next two weeks.

Wednesday’s actions are part of a week-of-action at UCLA in response to the developments at UCSC. Last week, UCSC wildcat strikers announced an indefinite strike after weeks of a rejectionist response from UC administrators. This is part of a continued strategy of withholding labor and grades that began last quarter—meaning that they will not enter students grades into the university database system . Among their calls to end poverty wages are demands for a cost of living adjustment amounting to an increase of $1,412 a month. They are also demanding affordable graduate student housing and calling for the demilitarization of UC campuses and the UCPD. Solidarity strikers have noted that the proposed COLA for every PhD student in the UC system would amount to $37 million, an amount equivalent to 0.1% of the UC’s $34.3 billion budget and 21% of the $175 million UC President Napolitano put in a secret fund that was exposed during a 2017 audit. 

In a series of escalations, 17 students were arrested at the UCSC picket line, where police outfitted with riot gear dragged striking workers apart and struck them with batons. UCSC strikers reported that two students ended up with concussions and several others sustained bruises. UCSC brought in UCPD from various campuses as well as police from Alameda county as part of increased policing and surveillance directed at the strikers at a price tag of $300,000 a day. A speaker at the rally noted that the cost to the school has reached over $2 million. Organizers at the UCLA solidarity event distributed an open letter by UCLA Graduate Student Associate President Zak Fisher condemning police violence at UCSC and demanding accountability. As part of the demilitarization demands, Fisher wrote, “If the police cannot demonstrate that they will not act in a brutal matter, then police have no place at our school or any school.” 

Speakers at the UCLA rally—which was attended by over 100 undergraduates, graduates and faculty—shared the findings of a survey regarding wages and cost of living in Los Angeles. The survey, which included nearly 600 graduate students, showed that nearly one in three UCLA graduate students experience unstable housing, at least 90% said money worries affect their mental health, and 99% said they worry about money very often. Further, the statistics showed that one in two graduate students have serious concerns about paying rent over the summer and 30% rely on help from family members to get by. Among these figures is the fact that the rent burden of graduate students—or the percentage of their paycheck that covers rent—rests between 50% and 80%. This is a cost burden marked as “severe” by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development

A large portion of the rally included testimonies from graduate students, undergraduates and faculty. One of the first speakers said that “graduate student housing takes three-fourths of my paycheck every month. I live paycheck to paycheck. And I receive no funding over the summer.” 

Sharing her testimony, another graduate student said, “The combined income of my partner and I was not enough to re-sign our lease after our third roommate moved out. We were in an extremely precarious situation, worried about homelessness with a newborn baby.  We ultimately had to move out of our home. We were fortunate to find housing that did not demand proof of three times the rent as monthly income. UCLA does not pay graduate students enough to survive safely in Los Angeles.” Currently, TA contracts guarantee a child care subsidy of $3,300 per year, but many find the support insufficient. And at UCSC, “Student parents consider dropping out because they anticipate not being able to afford the new privatized childcare that is meant to replace a university-subsidized childcare center in May of this year.” 

Other speakers discussed the threats of deportation made by the UC administration against the striking international students at UCSC—echoing Janet Napolitano’s deportation history as former Secretary of Homeland Security. Senator Bernie Sanders rebuked these actions in a tweet Wednesday afternoon stating, “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 @payusmoreucsc.”

Regarding the need for campus unity, the Student Labor Advocacy Project (SLAP) discussed the ways in which the UC administrators deploy divisive rhetoric to undermine collective action. These same tactics were deployed during the AFSCME strike in 2018 when UC administrators smeared the strikers for the closure of the dining halls. SLAP noted that the dining halls were closed due to the administration’s failure to provide a working contract. They also rebuked the notion that the strikers’ demands would harm undergraduates by clarifying  that the UCSC demands include that the COLA should not be funded by increased student tuition. 

Anthropology professor Hannah Appel emphasized the shared struggle of all students and faculty at UCLA under austerity measures that have defunded public universities to the point that the majority of funds comes from student tuition—a private not public source—which leaves undergraduates locked into debt. She clarified that grade withholding strikes are a matter of not inputting grades into the university’s system, but that any student who needs an official grade for an internship or an application can ask for that grade specifically from the professor and TA. Grade withholding is part of disrupting business-as-usual in an oppressive system, it is not intended to target students, she emphasized. 

The conversation around affordable and safe housing at UCLA is a continued struggle that intersects with racial discrimination. In 2018, a Black resident in university housing was harassed by a housing employee. And last year, a Black family in graduate housing was verbally assaulted by a white supremacist shouting the n-word at them. Despite a series of town hall meetings with Black students, community members, and the administration, the university continues to sideline any transparent accountability for the racist actions. The university continues to renege on its responsibility to protect Black students and families on campus, and in so doing, they threaten the safety of Black UCLA students. This is part of a patterned structure of violence on UC students enacted by the UC administration and UCPD.

To date, 98 faculty at UCLA  have signed a non-retaliation pledge for any TA in their classes who strike if and when a campus-wide strike is initiated. The Anthropology Graduate Student Association voted unanimously (with over a 75% participation rate) to support the COLA and to ask their faculty to support it. They condemned the militarized violence taking place at UCSC.

Napolitano has responded to the UCSC strike by issuing a directive stating that “participation in the wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University.” Interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor at UCSC Lori Kletzer affirmed this position in a letter to TAs that reads, “those who do not submit full grade information by Feb. 21 will not receive spring quarter appointments or will be dismissed from their spring quarter appointments.” UCSC strikers have called for a UC-wide walk out on Friday as a response. The Council of UC Faculty Associations challenged Napolitano’s directive by asking the UC administration to arrive at a speedy and satisfactory solution to the cost of living crisis, stating that “A punitive response to these actions, resulting in the dismissal of hundreds of Academic Student Employees, will disrupt the education of thousands of undergraduates and will make the work of many UCSC faculty difficult or impossible.”

The organizers of the UCLA COLA events led a campus-wide general assembly meeting on Thursday evening in Kaplan Hall. The week’s actions culminated on Friday with a march to Murphy Hall, where they delivered their demands for a COLA to Chancellor Block. They note that more information can be found on the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts @ucla4cola and @payusmoreucsc. 

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