A University Reimagined: UC Santa Cruz and the Fight for COLA

“So, basically what we had to do was come out here and [we] literally drove overnight,” says James. “We tried to stay on the side of the road and got woken up by cops because it’s illegal everywhere in this county to camp unless you’re in a pay site that costs 35 bucks.”

His story sounds ripped from a Steinbeck novel, but it is reality for many current students at University of California, Santa Cruz, one of 10 in the public University of California system, where the pursuit of advanced degrees pushes people into increasingly precarious financial situations.

Nestled on the northern edge of the Monterrey Bay, Santa Cruz feels at once a haven from and a microcosm of California’s biggest socioeconomic trends. Both the university and downtown have long prohibited chain restaurants. The local anarchist info shop and pirate radio station are integral parts of the town’s social fabric. Much of the plot of Jordan Peele’s latest psychological horror Us, hinges on the singular, seedy underbelly of the Santa Cruz Pier.

The campus, perched on a redwood dotted hilltop overlooking the Pacific, has also carried the flickering torch of radicalism which engulfed the University of California in the 1960s. Activist Angela Davis is professor emeritus, and Berkeley Free Speech Movement leader Bettina Aptheker is a professor and mentor in the Feminist Studies department. This progressive spirit, however, has not always filtered into the local community. Carrissa Villalobos, 28, an undergraduate transfer student, says that during her work as a volunteer at a local after-school program, she noted that there were no resources connecting her low-income students to the university, just three miles away. According to one urban myth passed through generations of students, the campus, founded in 1965 and separated into decentralized residential colleges, was designed with an eye towards containing dissent.

And yet Santa Cruz has not been immune to the skyrocketing rents associated with the rise of Silicon Valley. Located just an hour away from the headquarters of tech giants such as Google and Facebook, and still retaining its surf town mystique, it is an attractive site for luxury developers. This, paired with the will of community members to preserve the town’s character and Victorian architecture, has created a patchwork system of building codes and tenant law in which housing stock is both subpar and costs well above the state average. Students who live off-campus typically rent rooms in houses in disrepair, in many cases with their landlord co-habitating on the property. Black mold is endemic.

“We met with all these landlords who all seemed to be kind of psychopaths, just like,” James inflects with a surfer accent for effect, “super chill people but actually they’re just your landlord. They want to be your friend but also ask you for 1500 bucks a room.”

In order to stay with their dogs, the couple settled on a $2000 per month master bedroom in a house they share with five other students. One housemate lost their rental deposit when their car was broken into, and was forced to move back home with their parents in Southern California.

According to a 2017 study conducted by the UCSC Sociology Department, roughly 70 percent of renters in Santa Cruz County experience rent burden, meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. The same study found that one in four renters were spending 70 percent of their income on rent and utilities. The researchers coined a name for this new category — “obscene rent burden.” Asked how much they spend on food, one respondent to the study said, “the rent eats first.”

A typical graduate student stipend is $2,400 a month before taxes, for nine months of the year, forcing many to take second jobs in addition to their TA duties, all while pursuing their Masters and PhD studies. Student activists estimate median Santa Cruz rent for a room in a 3-bedroom unit to be $1,154 before utilities. Many students rely on campus-based food pantries, while some have reported sleeping in campus offices while in-between housing.

Riley Collins, 29, left a lucrative position as an administrator with the San Francisco Unified School District, in order to pursue an Education PhD at UC Santa Cruz. Her professional decisions affected 55,000 students city-wide but she wasn’t sure she was using data in the right ways. Continuing her studies would help her better serve her students, but not without sacrifice.

“I’m going to be making about $24,000 a year for the next 6 years. And I currently do not have children, I’m only supporting myself, and I think that when the pay is so low for such an extended program –it just creates this inherent class divide where people self-select into a path who can afford it […] there are people who are currently at UC Santa Cruz who are truly considering, after 3 or 4 years in the program, dropping out because they just cannot continue, and feeling like their time has been wasted.”

The Call For a Cost of Living Adjustment

Part of the unique problem Santa Cruz students are facing is a unilateral four-year contract for graduate student workers across the University of California system. Santa Cruz graduate student teaching assistants are represented by United Auto Workers Local 2865. The local covers 19,000 tutors and other graduate and undergraduate instructors across the UC system as a whole. This means when the current terms were ratified in 2018, they were approved by a majority including members from UC Riverside and Merced, where the cost of living is much less than in coastal Santa Cruz. Most UCSC students rejected those terms.

After months of requesting to sit down with administrators, UCSC graduate students went on a wildcat strike, meaning the strike was not endorsed by the union. The goal of the strike was to call for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), renegotiating terms of the contract to keep up with the expenses of living in Santa Cruz. Wildcat strikes put workers at greater risk because they do not have access to union strike funds, and their employer has legal recourse to dismiss them.

In December 2019, graduate student TAs refused to post grades on Canvas. When school reconvened in January, participants voted to escalate and continue withholding grades throughout Winter Quarter. As the administration responded with stern warnings and a continued refusal to negotiate for a COLA beyond the terms of the union contract, students voted to begin a full strike on Feb. 10. Their demands included a $1,412 salary increase to meet the expenses of living in Santa Cruz, not to be taken from a tuition increase, as well as a non-retaliation clause to protect striking students.

Though administration requested that undergraduate students report any disruptions to their class schedule, undergraduate students have been generally supportive of the strike. Graduate students have attributed their ability to shut down the campus directly to undergraduate participation.

Villalobos was aware that the police presence could become aggressive. She recalls that at a campus worker strike last year, a police officer on a motorcycle drove into a picket line of workers and students crossing the street.

Picketing convened as scheduled at the grassy base of campus. On Feb. 11, day two of the strike, a Food Not Bombs volunteer was arrested for attempting to bring water to strikers. The following day, police presence escalated. Video shows upwards of 30 officers in riot gear pointing batons at students who were sitting in the campus entrance crosswalk at Bay and High St.

Villalobos states that organizers instructed participants on how to stay safe in any potential interactions with law enforcement. “I remember hearing the people with the megaphones saying, ‘bodies of privilege, you need to be out here on the frontline, or on the outer edges of the students that were going to stay on the street. So, they were calling for white male bodies.’”

One witness said, “it looked like all the students in the street kind of sat down and they were holding arms together. They were linked in small circles. And the police were like, going in to the small circles and kind of like pulling people out, ripping them out of these little links.”

In the end, 16 students were arrested. Video evidence shows officers placing student protesters in stress positions during the arrests. The University has spent $300,000 daily on police presence at the strike.

A Feb. 8 email to international students from UCSC International Student and Scholar Services

University of California President Janet Napolitano, who served as Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, issued a letter Feb. 14, requesting the halting of the strike.

“The wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University.”

In other communications from UC Santa Cruz, international students were further warned that participation in a wildcat strike would be in violation of their visa terms, and could lead to deportation. A Feb. 8 email to international students from UCSC International Student & Scholar Services, posted on the UCSC students Facebook page reads, “Participation in a wildcat strike is not, in itself, a violation of your immigration status. However, any actions that result in student discipline or arrest may have immigration consequences, both on your current status and on possible future immigration applications you may make in the United States.”

International students are particularly impacted as their visas prohibit them from taking any off-campus work.

A Movement Takes Form

The harsh response from school administration has emboldened, rather than deterred organizing on the other UC campuses. Graduate students at UC Davis begun a grading strike, while those at UC Santa Barbara have elected to go on full strike. Solidarity actions have taken place throughout the UC system.

The scene at Santa Barbara has been peaceful, comparatively. Following an occupation of the chancellor’s office and delivery of a list of demands, organizers have found surprising support among staff, with a commitment to avoid the type of police presence that has marked the events in Santa Cruz.

The UCSB strike officially commenced Feb. 27, with students gathering throughout the day near Storke Tower at the center of campus. Speakers blared a gamut-running playlist that included “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child and the labor movement anthem “Solidarity Forever.” Some strikers passed out water and sunscreen to help fellow students beat the early spring heat, while others taught workshops and drew slogans in chalk.

Global Studies PhD student Eugene Riordan, Jr., 31, was inspired to help organize after witnessing the administration response in Santa Cruz from afar.

UC Santa Barbara campus. Source: UCSB

“UC president Janet Napolitano has been threatening students. [She] has been using War on Terror language to implicate grad students as enemies in this university, and that is unacceptable. We are workers, we are also students. We are the lifeblood of the university. And I think what has really driven a lot of student organizers and activists on this campus has been the response of sending cops to the picket lines. Of them charging the strike lines. Of them arresting students […] These escalations from UCOP and the regents has just seemed that they don’t respect us as graduate students, and don’t respect our work.”

Among the excessive responses was the Feb. 20 arrest of an African-American alumna at UC Irvine in what appears to be an incident of racial profiling. According to New University, an official campus newspaper, Shikera Chamdany was attempting to collect her official transcript from Aldritch Hall when COLA protesters occupied the building, which was subsequently put on lockdown by UCI police. Chamdany was accused of attempted assault on a police officer, which she denied, and was arrested, though she was unaffiliated with the COLA protests.

Incidents such as this have galvanized students to fight what they see as an increasingly militarized and hostile UC environment. Riordan insists that the strike is about much more than a salary increase.

“It’s a chance for us to reimagine what university education is and to really rethink how the UC system should be run, rather than letting our students and our workers go hungry, go without housing, be burdened mentally and physically by debt and by these systemic injustices, and trying to see what education would look like if everyone had access to basic needs, so that we could learn and teach in a wholesome and equitable environment”

On the same day that the Santa Barbara strike began, letters of dismissal were sent to 54 UCSC TAs, including James. At least 30 more were not given expected work assignments for the quarter. Despite increasing media attention and crowdfunding, many will likely have to leave their programs. As the COLA movement spreads beyond UCSC — results of a UCLA graduate student motion to go on a full strike are expected Mar. 9, the fates of individual TAs are yet to be seen.

*name has been changed

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