For wildcat strikers at the University of California in Santa Cruz, there’s no turning back.
The following collects viewpoints from the COLA movement, COLA4ALL, and the People’s Coalition at University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). These groups are fighting for a graduate student cost-of-living adjustment at UCSC.
The COLA movement grew out of union organizing, after statewide leadership of UAW 2865 (the graduate student union) rammed through a 2018 contract that over 83 percent of voting UCSC graduate students rejected. This widespread discontent culminated in a wildcat grading strike at UCSC in December 2019. COLA4ALL is an autonomous student-worker direct action group that emerged at the same time as the grading strike and in tandem with the COLA movement, and which aims to reimagine and decolonize the UC system. The People’s Coalition comprises different undergraduate student groups (the Black Student Union, the Undocu Collective, Mauna Kea Protectors, and others) aiming to win not only a COLA but “more than a COLA,” from the abolition of tuition and police on campus to the end of the white supremacist and capitalist university.
Summer for graduate students is all about “catching up,” because the rest of the year is all about getting behind — grading sometimes hundreds of student assignments per quarter while writing our own term papers, master’s theses, and dissertations. Summer is also, across the UCs, when teaching assistants must make wages stretch from nine-month annual salaries. This means other jobs, along with loans. Last summer, while playing this impossible game with what the university calls “normative time,” many of us started talking.
Some of us had already begun this process, and were picking up where discussions in the union (UAW) and the Graduate Student Association (GSA) had left off. Many of our conversations revolved around our frustrations as university workers, but also our frustrations with the local rent-control campaign. We were soon able to articulate something important: the UC is our landlord. That was where the language of a “cost-of-living adjustment” — the COLA we’ve been demanding — emerged.
In so many ways, the demand for a cost-of-living adjustment seemed entirely reasonable. We weren’t asking for anything more than an income enabling us to pay for both rent and food. It seemed far more unreasonable that so many of us were spending 50, 60, even 70 percent of our wages on housing alone. Once we calculated the pay increase required to ease this rent burden and began to reach out to other graduate students and faculty at the university, we were told again and again that we were being unreasonable — that our demand was impossible to reach.
We kept talking anyway.
In early November we held a rally, and a lot of people came out. That was one of the first times we felt like we weren’t alone. That month we joined members of AFSCME (the UCSC skilled workers’ union) who were striking, and we started connecting our struggles.
For many of us, December was the turning point. A planned speak-out was canceled due to weather, so instead we sent emails — lots and lots of emails. When administrators responded with intimidation, there were even more emails, this time angry ones, in a tide of rage and frustration. Then we held a General Assembly, where hundreds of grads voted to withhold fall quarter grades. We will never forget that moment, when everyone’s hands raised together.
A few days after the General Assembly, some of us held an event at the library where we invited people to share their experiences. We asked them to think about how much they were working, whether they were able to take care of themselves and each other. We asked people to talk about what they normally try not to think about, because not thinking about it is the way we’ve learned to survive. But talking about it, we discovered, was much more empowering than silence. We saw everything we’d compromised to exist at UCSC.
What the administration doesn’t really understand is that, in the end, we are heartbroken. We worked all our lives to be here, where we now feel trapped. Most of us came to UCSC because, in one way or another, being here helped us imagine a future for ourselves. And we are not willing to let this university turn our dreams into nightmares.
We were left with no choice but to strike. But we knew that if the strike wasn’t accompanied by other kinds of actions, everything would come down to some bureaucratic struggle that probably wouldn’t go anywhere. We discovered, in time, that each one of us has a specific form of wisdom, a specific form of power. And this collective power has kept our movement growing. Some of us have come to imagine this as a matter of finding our own magic, and of learning how to stick together with our shared magic-making.
Last December, many of us became more acutely aware that traditional ways of organizing, and specifically the roles people play in the union, do not represent the way we need to do activism. We wanted to start bringing about material, concrete change. Using our connections with workers on campus, some of us began taking over dining halls, inviting anyone who was hungry to a free meal. Our campus is full of under-fed students, and many of them showed up that day. They showed up and continued to show up as we did it again and again. And each time we took a dining hall, we were reminded of why we struggle together: to take care of each other.
So we kept talking.
Winter break didn’t throw our struggle off track but made it stronger. In late December, many of us kept strategizing. We dropped banners across campus on the first day of winter quarter. We started laying the groundwork for a complete teaching strike in the weeks to come, as many of the graduate students who were at first hesitant began to reassess. And with every poll, rally, general assembly, our sense of possibility grew.
February 10 marked the beginning of our full teaching strike. What began as a series of discussions among graduate students less than a year before had become a campus-wide movement of thousands, including undergraduates, skilled workers, staff, and faculty. All those conversations made this possible — all the times we listened to each other’s struggles, all the times we ignored those who told us authoritatively what was and wasn’t achievable.
Each day of the strike, hundreds have shown up at the main entrance of campus, either slowing down or shutting down the university. Within the first week, there were seventeen arrests, as the UC paid $300,000 a day to import riot cops from across the state.
Now we are three weeks into this strike. We’ve been intimidated by administrators. We’ve been arrested and assaulted by the police. At each step, the university has tried to isolate us and pit us against each other. We moved forward anyway. There have been solidarity statements; Academic Senate resolutions; faculty who, in support of our movement, returned their UCSC diversity awards; and many other remarkable moments of shared struggle. Together at the base of campus we’ve had picketing, marches, rallies, blockades, concerts. Every day there are conversations, general assemblies, teach-ins, meals, coffee, dancing, friends. Every day we reclaim our education.
We don’t know where this will go. We’re pretty sure many of us will be fired. But there’s no turning back now — and that’s what’s most dangerous about us, and the situation the university created for us.
We will not let business go on as usual.
We refuse to call this exploitation an “education.”
We should not have to debt-finance our lives.
And if our survival is not seen as reasonable — we will become unreasonable.
If the UC had been smarter, they would have settled with us already. But now there’s a COLA campaign on almost every UC campus. UC Davis is striking with us. UC Santa Barbara is striking with us. UC Berkeley is striking with us. And it won’t stop there: Movements are growing at UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego, UC Merced, UC Riverside, and UC Irvine. This is just the beginning.
Something has been awakened. And we know that we need to be accountable to it. We have to keep talking and showing up, caring about each other, and spreading this strike.