University of California Academic Student Employees Demand COLA 4 All!



As the world began to reel from the coronavirus disaster, teaching assistants (TAs), graders and tutors at the University of California (UC) — represented by UAW Local 2865 — were fully engaged in a bitter fight for a living wage. Joining the massive wave of strikes and labor actions occurring throughout the world, the student workers ramped up the struggle to win a cost of living adjustment (COLA).

This fight, which began with a wildcat strike on December 9, 2019, at the UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus, made national news, gaining not only student and faculty support, but the backing of other unions at the UC. Even then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted in defense of the strikers. Most importantly, the wildcat strikes and the UC’s response pushed the UAW 2865 leadership to demand that the university bargain over COLA and file unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against the UC administration.

This joining of rank-and-file activism with broad union support had the potential to result in a full, UC-wide, sanctioned ULP strike.

But just as the COLA movement at UC was escalating and the wildcat strikes were spreading to other UC campuses, the crisis of the global pandemic hit the world and changed everything. After a stay-at-home order was issued on March 19, 2020, for the entire state of California, picket lines became impossible, and even solidarity among stressed-out students and faculty waned as they were faced with the impossible task of completing their entire course load online.

On August 11. one year and eight months after the wildcat strike first began on the UCSC campus, the UAW and the UC reached a settlement agreement that registered some gains and victories, but also some difficult compromises.

Below is an account of the “COLA 4 All!” battle in the UC system. A more complete update on the struggle, with lessons for the struggles ahead, is included at the conclusion of the article. — C.W.

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Wildcat strike of academic student employees at UC Santa Cruz

Academic Student Employees Are Severely Rent Burdened

The cost of living in California is notoriously bad, and ranks third highest in the nation behind only Hawaii and the District of Columbia. Student housing, when even available to graduate students (who represent the largest group in UAW 2865), can cost the same or even more than other units in the area, and often costs more than 30% of their salary. This condition, defined as “rent burden,” is the unifying grievance against the administration that drove the wildcat strikers.

Furthermore, the UC has raised grad housing rent so fast that many students are forced to pay even 50% to 60% of their salary in rent, which placed many students in extreme hardship even before the global pandemic began.

UAW 2865 made COLA one of its bargaining demands many times during contract negotiations in the past, but usually only in the early contract bargaining phase with the UC, who treated it as a nonstarter every time. Each contract campaign, the bargaining teams traded the demand away for fixed yearly pay increases or increases that were tied to faculty pay raises.

One of the first academic student worker unions in the country and the largest to date, UAW 2865 has made appreciable gains in pay since its recognition in 2000, raising average pay over 60% total since the first contract, and winning other major victories such as full coverage of in-state tuition, healthcare premiums paid in full, workload and sexual harassment protections, and even a modest childcare subsidy for most academic workers.

However, while pay has increased over 3% on average every year since 2000, the cost of living in California has risen nearly as much or more in some places, leading to less of an increase or even a decrease in purchasing power for academic student employees.

Being a part of the UAW as well as the higher education system, Local 2865 has long been caught between the natural militancy of student workers and the bureaucratic apparatus of top union officials. This has manifested over the last decade primarily as a struggle between two main factions, each with their own internal contradictions.

The first, which held power until 2011, harbors a decidedly bureaucratic wing and pushes its organizers to actively support the Democratic Party. However, they also emphasize supermajority membership, one-on-one organizing, and working towards a union that represents all members, regardless of their academic department.

The second faction, which took power in the union’s 2011 statewide election, claims the mantle of rank-and-file unionism and, although it has refocused Local 2865 on social justice unionism and direct member participation, they also largely ignored organizing in the hard science departments (believing them to be less radical), and replaced one-on-one conversations with emails and small symbolic actions. Hiring many more staff without the resulting increase in member-to-member organizing, they spent down the Local’s financial reserves in just a few years while membership numbers plummeted.

Neither of these factions was able to win a COLA in any of the contract negotiations they ran, speaking both to their internal contradictions, as well as to the difficulty in winning this issue.

This is why the fight for COLA 4 ALL! is so crucial. For the first time, the more radical wing of the union was able to organize a mass action with enough participation and support to have gained the backing of the union leadership, which was taken over again by the more traditional faction in 2018.

A Brief Timeline

On November 7, 2019, 200 UCSC grad students marched to deliver the COLA demand to the Chancellor. The demand was for an additional $1,412 to be paid to every UCSC grad student, regardless of residence, visa status, documentation, or funding status. The amount is enough to bring UCSC students out of rent burden, but is also framed as necessary to bring UCSC students into wage parity with UC Riverside students, who the marchers claim have more purchasing power than UCSC grads at the same salary.

Then, on December 5, 2019, the UCSC Chancellor made a critical mistake by hitting reply-all to an email from a graduate student asking for immediate action on the COLA demand. The reply, which was received by all UCSC grad students, was seen by many as dismissive and intimidating, prompting many angry emails from students and the first calls for a strike.

An emergency meeting of 250 grads was held on December 8, and a large majority voted to initiate a grading strike immediately.

The grading strike officially began on December 9, 2019, two days after a support petition circulating among the UCSC faculty had garnered 150 signatures in just two days. Several rallies with hundreds of UCSC students and a press conference were held in the following weeks, with one nearing 400 students and attended by AFSCME workers as well. Grades for many classes were withheld for the Fall semester.

On January 22, 2020, following the statewide union’s first demand to bargain on January 15 and the UC’s refusal, UCSC graduate students participated in a sick-out, and instead protested at the UC’s Regents Day activities in San Francisco. This also marked the first participation of another UC campus, with a solidarity sick-out at UC Santa Barbara.

Just over a week later, 270 UCSC grads attended a general assembly and made the decision to organize for a full strike beginning February 10.

After several instances of the University engaging in more intimidation against the strikers, including making the false claim that students would lose financial aid if grades were not submitted, the full strike began on February 10. Although the strikers pledged that any student who personally emailed their TA could have their grades submitted, many undergrads stood in solidarity with the strikers and refused to request their grades.

To launch the full strike, hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students, as well as faculty and lecturers and staff, picketed the UCSC main entrance, and solidarity actions were held at five different UCs. After most of the faculty left the picket, the strikers were met by campus police, who arrested one student and beat several with batons. One student was admitted to the campus health center suffering a concussion.

The wave of police brutality, which went on for several days, resulted in an additional 16 arrests and cost the University $300,000/day. This got widely reported in the news, and strongly condemned, garnering additional support from academic workers, including students, postdocs and faculty from a variety of institutions through a petition calling for a halt to the campus police’s brutality.

On February 14, UC President Janet Napolitano threatened discipline and dismissal of strikers if grades were not submitted by February 21. Then, on February 19, the full UC faculty senate voted to support the strikers by refusing to fill out the surveillance document distributed by the administration, supporting higher wages for graduate students, and calling for an end to intimidation and violence against striking workers.

In the following two weeks before Napolitano’s deadline, the strike spread to three additional UC campuses (UCSB, UC Davis and UC San Diego), with UC Berkeley gaining rapid support for a strike. UC Irvine held a mass solidarity rally that also was met with police violence and the arrest of a Black student who was only trying to get a copy of their transcript.

Then, on February 28, 82 UCSC grad students were either fired or told they would not be considered for positions in the Spring quarter. This was just days after UAW Local 2865 filed the first unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the UC. More followed, and they charged the UC with refusing to bargain with the union over COLA, as well as for attempting to subvert the contract by meeting with the UC Graduate and Professional Council (UCGPC) behind the union’s back, and for firing striking workers without due process. This marked a crucial moment, as the union now had the power to call a ULP strike, an action that would come with the full protection of the law behind the strikers.

The Effect of the COVID19 Pandemic

In a tragedy of timing, just as the COLA movement at UC was escalating and the wildcat strikes were spreading, the crisis of the global pandemic hit the world and changed everything.

The first day of Berkeley’s full teaching strike coincided with the first day of online instruction. Students, TAs and faculty were forced to move everything online within a matter of days, and a stay-at-home order was issued on March 19 for the entire state of California. Picket lines became impossible, and even solidarity among stressed-out students and faculty waned as they were faced with the impossible task of completing their entire course load online.

After the University decided to convert all unreported grades to a P (pass) grades if not reported by May 1, and the UC promised to reinstate workers who submitted all withheld grades, the wildcat strike was called off by the strikers at UC Davis and UCSB on April 12, then at UCSC on April 27. According to the newsletter, “repression and pandemic have both been truly significant dampers on the wildcat strike reaching and maintaining a critical mass of workers.”

While the decision to call off the strike can be understood (if not fully supported) in light of these drastic changes to the situation on the ground, particularly since student workers’ health coverage is tied to their employment, it is crucial that mobilization continue. Therefore it was initially heartening that COLA supporters at some UC campuses were still engaging in some form of strike behavior into April and, most important, that every UC campus at some point was involved in organizing for a full ULP strike, with a strike pledge having been circulated among academic student employees.

Former wildcat strikers pushed the official union leadership towards a ULP strike authorization vote by phone-banking to sign the pledge and urging members to prepare for a ULP strike. However, while the union leadership had initially stated that they would hold a strike vote in early April, they limited their action to building support through the strike pledge and focusing on the demand to bargain.

One possible reason for the delay was that the leaders of UAW 2865 believed they would not get the votes or turnout needed to build a credible strike threat. While it is indeed crucial that any strike action be a mass action as opposed to a small symbolic one, the hold-up in calling the vote highlights the importance of independent organizing from the rank-and-file to effectively build support for a successful strike vote and strike.

After the last global financial crisis in 2008, the UC forced waves of lay-offs, furloughs, pay freezes and benefit-reduction onto many of its workers. There is every indication that this will occur again. And so, while traditional one-on-one organizing from the current leadership may be sufficient to hold off any direct cuts, as it was a decade ago, it is likely that only a massive, statewide strike will have the power to win the demand for COLA for academic student employees, particularly during the upcoming period of austerity.

When that time comes, the strikers must not give in to intimidation, nor buy into the lie that these actions are harmful to their students. The UCSC strikers’ official statement ending the strike claimed that in threatening to change the grades to Pass, “the administration has shifted the burden of missing grades from themselves and onto the undergraduates it purports to care for and educate.”

But this is always the employer’s tactic in any strike action. If strikers insist on shielding students from the effects of a strike, the strike will not be disruptive and therefore will fail. Strikers must make the case that it is the UC’s actions that harm both its students and its workers. The slogan of teachers’ unions throughout the country, “our working conditions are students’ learning conditions” rings true more now than ever.

Academic student employees living in poverty cannot provide the quality education that students deserve. Only with persistent member mobilization, combined with long-term organizing for a future strike action, will UAW 2865 be able to win a wage that allows them to survive during these difficult times and to educate their students effectively.

COLA 4 ALL! Update

On August 11, the UAW and the UC reached a settlement agreement, with the UC reinstating the 53 fired academic student employees at UC Santa Cruz in an apparent exchange for the union dropping the unfair labor practice charges. The UCSC campus administration also promised an annual $2,500 housing stipend to graduate students, retroactive to the 2019-2020 academic year, and initiated a program to guarantee five years of funding PhD and MFA students.

The reinstatement of the fired striking workers is definitely a victory for the union, as the strikes were not protected by the union’s collective bargaining agreement. And while the housing stipend barely covers a month’s rent, and exists only at one campus, it is a precedent that could potentially be expanded in the future. However, because it was not enshrined in the contract, it is highly at risk of being taken away away in the upcoming period of austerity. The five years of guaranteed funding is a program that has recently been enacted at other UC campuses and was likely something that was already in the works at UCSC, but it is possible that the settlement brought this important improvement sooner.

Since April, the UAW has not mentioned the strike vote on their website and, with the unfair labor practice charges dropped in the settlement, it seems likely the strike threat has waned for now. It remains to be seen if the wave of wildcat strikes that rocked UCSC and several other campuses will result in a permanent improvements to academic student employee working conditions. It has increased awareness of the COLA issue and led to at least a temporary increase in participation in the union statewide — both of which are needed to eventually win this and other issues.

Ultimately, a fully sanctioned statewide strike may be necessary to win COLA. But even if the leadership can be pushed to call such a strike, the student workers themselves must be ready en masse to carry it out. Only a true majority action — supported by overwhelming numbers of student workers — will be able to fight off the impending cuts, as well as make these much-needed gains in such difficult times.

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