Since organizing a wildcat grading strike in December, graduate student workers at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) have countered the university administration’s intransigence and mounting threats by escalating their campaign for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to keep their wages in line with inflation. Now, with at least eighty-five graduate workers still retaining grades withheld since fall quarter, they’ve launched a full-on teaching strike that has snowballed into a broader fight against university cutbacks.
The leap from a “digital picket” to a physical one, now in its third week, has enlarged the scope and efficacy of their campaign. Hundreds of undergraduates have joined the picket line, motivated by issues of debt and dwindling university resources; adjunct instructors have accelerated their fight for job security and fair wages; tenured faculty have begun to flex their organizational muscle to oppose retaliation and restructuring; and staff and workers have found creative ways to support a wave of protest that has pitted administrators against nearly every sector of the university. Solidarity statements have come in from the West Virginia teachers who went on strike in 2018 and Lect_s en Lutte, an association of precarious faculty in metropolitan Paris; donations have poured in from as far away as Palestine.
The administration has responded with retaliation and brute force to the wildcat strike (i.e., conducted without the sanctioning of the workers’ union, UAW-2865). Graduate workers and undergraduate students were met on the first day of picketing, February 10, with scores of strike-breaking police from other UC campuses near and far (which the university admits cost $300,000 per day). An undergraduate Food not Bombs volunteer delivering water to the picket line was arrested, and a phalanx of police, batons drawn, rushed a crowd that was demanding their release. At least one student was struck on the head in the encounter and was later diagnosed with a severe concussion.
On February 12, during a four-hour standoff with riot police, seventeen more graduate and undergraduate students were arrested while peacefully occupying an intersection with hundreds of other protesters. Some sustained serious injuries, and all those detained were immediately hit with two-week suspensions and campus bans (without being charged with any formal student conduct violations), on the grounds that they posed a threat to the academic community. The police repression, however, has only further galvanized support.
Throughout the first week of picketing, university officials distributed online forms to all undergraduate students that allowed them to report both class cancellations and changes to teaching content — a form of surveillance in clear violation of academic freedom. Officials further demanded that chairs and provosts clear all strike-related communications to the student body with top-tier administration. They have also leaned on faculty to leverage their mentor relationships and force their graduate students to submit fall grades and return to the classroom. Administrators have suggested it would be acceptable for faculty and instructors of record to submit grades behind the backs of striking graduates, even if they have only partial or incomplete knowledge of a student’s performance in the course. And in the most sinister move, administrators informed striking international students that participating in strike activities would get them fired and, as a result, deported.
But the threats have backfired so far. Organizing activity has only increased, as graduate student workers on other UC campuses begin to join the effort. A broad base of UCSC professors have come together under the banner of the Faculty Organizing Group (FOG), in solidarity with the striking workers, in opposition to administrative restructuring of the university, and in assertion of faculty shared governance. Other faculty organizations, including the system-wide UC Academic Senate, have issued strong condemnations of the proposed retaliations, and a petition is circulating among graduate students across the University of California system that promise a grading strike if administrators carry through with their threats.
The university administration’s willingness to crush the graduate students’ action has never really been in doubt — not only because of the strikers’ concrete demands but because of the dangerous precedent administrators fear that bowing to a wildcat strike would set. For months, administrators have claimed every reason imaginable for refusing to negotiate, insisting in particular on their inability to settle the matter without the UAW-2865 (which represents student workers across the University of California system and negotiated the current contract, including its no-strike clause). They were forced to retract this argument when the union requested to open negotiations over cost-of-living issues with university labor relations.
Months of evasion came to a pointed conclusion on Valentine’s Day, when UC president Janet Napolitano demanded that graduate students end the strike by Friday, February 21, under penalty of termination. And yet, hours before Napolitano’s midnight deadline for submitting fall grades and ceasing strike activities, graduate students voted overwhelmingly to risk their jobs (along with potential deportation, loss of health care, and loss of childcare subsidies) in order to maintain their collective strength against the administration.
They did so knowing that over a thousand supporters had once again gathered during the day to shut down the Santa Cruz campus and force class cancellations; that many more fellow graduate students and undergraduates across the nine UC campuses had simultaneously held rallies, pickets, sick-outs, general assemblies, and presentations of their own COLA demands; and most importantly, that graduate student labor is essential to the operation of this sprawling institution.
In her February 14 email, Napolitano claimed that “the University of California respects its labor unions and its unionized workers,” but rather than attempting to negotiate with the UAW, she called a meeting with the UC Graduate and Professional Council. (They declined the invitation to discuss the COLA campaign, insisting this was the job of UAW-2864.) Local administrators are now conducting ad hoc meetings with various department chairs and handpicked graduate students (who may not even be strikers themselves) to circumvent any genuine meeting with the striking rank and file. Wildcat graduate workers at UCSC, however, continue to argue that they should take the lead in any potential negotiations, while the leaders of UAW-2865 must follow.
If graduate student workers had any second thoughts about standing firm in the face of threatened termination, their decision was vindicated by an email from administration early Monday morning, which pleaded with them for the withheld grades while also setting another “hard” deadline for strikers. But strikers didn’t ask for an extension — they asked for a COLA. And they are feeling the growing power they have to get it. With graduate students at UC Santa Barbara joining the strike this Thursday, and others poised to follow, they just might.