From Occupy Everything to COLA for All

Dan Nemser and Brian Whitener

Strike against absent future.

In recent weeks, the graduate student wildcat strike for a cost-of-living adjustment at the University of California, Santa Cruz has entered a new phase. On Friday, February 28, the UCSC administration sent termination letters to about eighty graduate students, dismissing them from their teaching positions for the spring quarter. But strikers remain strong and have made it clear their strike will continue in the face of riot police and termination. Hundreds of graduate students at UCSC, including many in difficult-to-organize STEM departments, have refused to accept spring appointments in solidarity with the fired strikers, and grad students at UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC San Diego, and UC Berkeley have begun or announced strikes in solidarity with Santa Cruz. The struggle has already captured the attention of students, faculty, organizers, activists, and journalists across the country—Bernie Sanders even tweeted his support twice. With so much at stake, the outcome of the COLA movement could well resonate for years, shaping the University of California, academic labor, and the labor movement more broadly.

The UCSC strike came together around the demand for a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, of $1,412 per month for graduate students who have found themselves squeezed in Santa Cruz’s outrageously expensive housing market. These students are paid about $19,000 a year after taxes, but the university’s own estimates indicate that room and board in Santa Cruz come to nearly $21,500. Even leaving out all other expenses, these numbers don’t add up. It’s no wonder that the majority of UCSC graduate students end up spending more than half of their paycheck on rent, and sometimes as much as 70 or 80 percent. Notably, graduate students share this extreme rent burden with many undergraduates, workers, and even faculty who live in Santa Cruz and the surrounding area.

The COLA campaign targets not only the UC administration but also the complacent leadership of the UAW, the union to which graduate student workers in the UC system belong. The immediate roots of the wildcat can be found in the struggle over the current contract. In 2019, the union used a series of sketchy techniques to push through a weak contract they had negotiated with the UC administration, a contract that included a 3 percent wage increase but no housing subsidy or COLA. Rent in Santa Cruz jumped 15 percent the same year, and consequently 83 percent of members at UCSC rejected the contract. Since the membership includes workers across the UC system, however, the contract was narrowly approved. Ignored by both the university administration and the union leadership, UCSC grad students opted to move toward a strike without the support of the union, and in so doing have demonstrated the capacity to shut down the campus and bring the university to a grinding halt.

This is not the first time that UCSC has kicked off a militant struggle, and reflecting on the longer history of campus struggle, as some have begun to do, can help us understand the possibilities of the COLA campaign and wildcat strikes more generally. A decade ago, on September 24, 2009, with the 2008 financial crisis still churning, thousands of students, workers, and faculty across the University of California system walked out to protest the university administration’s plans for major tuition hikes, layoffs, and budget cuts. Later that evening, students at UCSC took over the Graduate Student Commons, setting in motion a weeklong occupation and effectively inspiring a wave of building occupations at campuses across California in the months that followed. Under banners reading “RAISE HELL, NOT COSTS” and “WE ARE THE CRISIS,” occupiers organized marches, walkouts, and pickets, held assemblies, and hosted massive electro dance parties.

With maximalist slogans such as “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing!” the 2009-10 student movement popularized the tactic of occupation and generated a new sensibility about the politics of demands, an attitude generalized during the Occupy movement, which kicked off two years later. Far from some idealist attachment to purity, this politics was grounded in a careful response to the political and economic moment, in particular the 2008 financial crisis, to which the UC administration responded by declaring a “state of financial emergency” and giving itself “emergency powers” to impose austerity (with the assistance of riot cops). But it also responded to the general trend of stagnant economic growth which had held since the 1970s, and whose bills were finally coming due. In this context, it was harder and harder for workers to make gains on the job, and more and more people were finding themselves unemployedc and underemployed. Likewise, with a shrinking tax base, the state was less able to fund the kinds of welfare programs and public goods, such as universities, that had been won during earlier struggles. As a result, demands were unlikely to yield results. Struggles against tuition and debt called not for the impossible but for the necessary: forms of life, study, and struggle unconstrained by debt and onerous tuition. 

The “Communiqué from an Absent Future,” published on the same day as the UC walkout and UCSC occupation and widely circulated over the course of the occupation sequence, effectively captures this sensibility. It is framed as a devastating critique of conventional calls for a return to the “Golden Age” of public higher education during the postwar boom, when state funding for universities reached its high point, tuition was free, and tenured positions for faculty abundant. For the authors, this call is naïve. The economic stagnation of the long downturn that had taken hold since the 1970s meant less tax revenue to go around and less demand for the kinds of workers that the universities of the postwar boom were designed to produce. The social function of the university had changed, and there was no going back. “The university is subject to the real crisis of capitalism, and capital does not require liberal education programs,” they wrote. “The function of the university has always been to reproduce the working class by training future workers according to the changing needs of capital. The crisis of the university today is the crisis of the reproduction of the working class, the crisis of a period in which capital no longer needs us as workers. We cannot free the university from the exigencies of the market by calling for the return of the public education system. We live out the terminus of the very market logic upon which that system was founded.” In this context, the only way forward was to stop the university from functioning, to bring it to a halt—and the occupation, which would allow students to “act on [their] own behalf directly,” without the mediation of the usual cast of campus representatives, would be a “critical tactic” in this struggle.

A lot has changed over the last decade, but two shifts seem especially relevant for understanding the emergence of the COLA movement and its implications. The first has to do with housing. Speculative pressures in the real estate market have returned in the wake of the financial crisis, and have been compounded by the increased number of renters. The rent and housing movements in California and elsewhere reflect the severity of these pressures, and Santa Cruz County is now the country’s least affordable metro area for renters and, as the authors of “Black COLA” point out, “people of color (POC) and Black folks, in particular, are much more likely to be renters; exposing them to significant housing discrimination and increased precarity.”

“For many, the future no longer appears so absent.”

UCSC has played a significant role in this process by knowingly boosting undergraduate enrollments despite not having sufficient housing on offer. As colleges and universities have come up against a tuition limit, they have found themselves constrained in their capacity to squeeze more revenue out of students by continually raising tuition. Instead, many have raised enrollment, maxing out the capacity of their campuses, and at UCSC the growing undergrad population has driven up rent prices in the area. Moreover, as strikers point out, with so many students the university “is able to set a price that then affects the entire rental market, and their prices are not cheap.” The university charges undergrads close to $1500 per month for rent and a required meal plan, and those who cannot afford this are driven into the private rental market. In spite of growing enrollments, the university has not built any new student housing since 2002, and instead has packed additional students into existing rooms like sardines, converting doubles into triples and lounges into dorm rooms. Instead of insulating students and communities from the predation of the real estate market, universities have joined the game themselves, becoming exemplary rent predators draped in scholarly gowns. This is why the COLA campaign emerged in large part from the strikers’ recognition that “the UC is our landlord.” When the university is literally asking faculty and staff to take students into their homes, as UCSC recently did, there should be little question as to why Jordan Peele chose Santa Cruz as the setting for his inequality horror film Us.

The second shift has to do with the political context. While the general sense remains that the financial crisis has laid bare the great lie of global capitalism, the politics of the present have given a new prominence to a series of theoretical solutions and political fixes—democratic socialism and modern monetary theory, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. In the university, too, there is a new sense of political possibility encapsulated by Democratic Primary promises to cancel student debt and make college tuition-free. And in the sphere of public education, the wave of teachers’ strikes and wildcats has raised hopes for a reinvigorated labor movement. As strikers and supporters returned to the picket lines at UCSC last week, they wore “Red for Ed” clothing, in an explicit nod to those struggles. For many, the future no longer appears so absent. 

The COLA campaign draws key insights and tactics from the 2009–10 occupation movement, but it also reflects this new political horizon. On the one hand, the core of the struggle continues to be directed at the university’s embeddedness in the circuits of capital, and the intimacy between UC’s management and its police forces. Yet on the other hand, there is a new openness to working in and through university institutions like student government—not because these institutions are seen as meaningful but because they have access to resources that can be “Robin-Hooded,” to use one phrase in circulation, for the struggle. And while the university as an institution continues to appear “bankrupt,” as it did in 2009, there is a new sense that it can be taken over, transformed, and reimagined. As strikers put it in a recent statement: “Fighting austerity on this level means saving the University of California as a public institution, as well as the very notion of an education from the bottom up more broadly. Let’s dethrone these crooks and return the university to the public that it pretends to serve.”

It would be a mistake to read this as the sort of call for a return to the postwar boom conditions that the 2009 occupiers sought to demonstrate had vanished for good. The COLA campaign’s core principles, which have already demonstrated the capacity to mobilize across sectoral, professional, and spatial divides, gestures toward a very different sort of university. “This institution’s best and most special features were originally products of student demand and design,” write the strikers. “While they have been steadily overturned by the administration’s austerity policies, we should not look back nostalgically but ask how we might make a university that works for us now, in the present. We are an integral community of diverse students and workers, and we have the capacity to change our relationship to this campus through the collective refusal of our current conditions.” Participants in the movement take a parallel stance toward the union. The wildcat constitutes a break with the corporatist integration of labor under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, in which unions sacrificed militancy for stability, and a step toward a combative labor movement.

Embedded in the 2009–10 sequence of student struggles were lessons about social reproduction, about the care work and food and lines of solidarity necessary to sustain a political struggle that refused the present world, argued that negotiation was a dead end, and that wanted to bring into being not a possible world in the future but a new world now. These lessons were amplified and deepened in the Occupy sequence, when the range and reach of experimentation with world building outside of capital and state rose to new heights but also revealed stark limits in the Occupy camps’ capacity to sustain themselves. In many ways, the COLA campaign draws directly on this repertoire of tactics, as for example when students liberated UCSC dining halls to let everyone eat for free. But beyond these resonances, COLA generalizes in potentially profound ways into broader social reproduction struggles, with echoes of the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s project of social unionism. 

By highlighting the general poverty of life under capital, the demand for a COLA opens beyond traditional union organizing and, unlike demands around tuition, has the potential to expand beyond the student population to faculty, staff, and other campus workers, and beyond the university to the rest of the community. Undergrads, faculty, and campus workers have supported striking grad students in large numbers, and even STEM students, who have traditionally been more reluctant to organize, have shown up in force. “While as graduate students we are familiar with the severity of this experience,” write the strikers, “the same dynamic holds for so many seeking work within this institution’s orbit. The extent of this broad-based organizational effort, buoyed by the actions we’ve taken on and off campus, has accomplished more in the last ten weeks than in the last ten years of political activity.” There are echoes of Carbondale Spring here, a social movement that argued for a radical transformation of a declining university town in the Midwest. Carbondale and COLA share a focus not on the national role or capitalist integration of the university but on its deleterious effects on local life and on possibilities for life and love in community.

If we take seriously a politics of social reproduction, then a communist, non-capitalist society will need a means of feeding, housing, and caring for itself, just as it will need some means for transmitting knowledge. The actually existing university is not that means. In a way, the question COLA poses is: What will we put in its place? As comrades with the Abolition University project have recently argued, we need to move on from “the conflation of universities with education, study, and the production of knowledge and, instead, see universities as complex terrains with many conflicting and intersecting modes of world-making.” We can make college free, but how can we afford housing or food? If my housing is free, what about the situation of my neighbor, my loved ones, those with the least? COLA knits together these questions and opens toward the kinds of expansive struggle around social reproduction that can provide real answers. There is no future other than the one we make for ourselves.

Further Reading

The Plan is to Win: An Interview with UCSC Strikers

Communique from an Absent Future

Black Cola

Building Times: How Lines of Care Occupied Wheeler Hall

The Tuition Limit and the Coming Crisis of Higher Education

Carbondale Spring

Abolition University