It’s nearly 1pm outside UCSC’s Kerr Hall on Thursday, Jan. 9, and the hour-long rally of at least a couple hundred protesters is louder than ever.
Grad students organized this rally in the quad in front of UCSC’s main administrative building, as part of their strike calling for a “cost of living adjustment,” one that would amount to an extra $1,412 per month to help cover the cost of housing. Many teacher’s assistants and graduate student instructors went on strike over those demands, and they refused to turn in fall quarter grades, which were due nearly a month ago.
As a loudspeaker is passed around at the rally, speeches cover a range of topics. They include calls for increased protection for undocumented immigrants and support for students who don’t have the money to cover basic needs.
As the rally wraps up, students explain that they often can’t afford to eat. The organizers announce a plan to occupy the Porter Dining Hall when. Then they start marching.
History of Consciousness grad student Will Parrish lags a couple hundred yards behind the marching coalition while he talks to me about the strike and housing affordability. I ask him why grad students are focusing so much on UCSC when leaders at the city, county, and state levels have done so little to reverse the crippling housing crisis that makes rent so expensive in the first place. He says students wouldn’t be able to get their demands met by going to other government officials, at least not in a timely fashion.
“In short, we don’t have much leverage there,” Parrish says. “Our power’s really here at the university. Hopefully, legislators will respond to what we’re doing, and I could see a point where we focus more energy there.”
Parish isn’t teaching this year, so he didn’t have any grades this past quarter. But if he did, he says that he definitely would have participated in the grading strike.
As they took control of the dining hall for the afternoon, marchers said it was important for the grad students to get a square meal at a time when the university was failing to provide for their basic needs and leaving them no choice but to take from the university what they felt was rightfully theirs.
UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason says, however, that the student dining budget is separate from the rest of the school. The operations, he says, aren’t funded by state money, but rather by students who have meal plans and from anyone who comes in to pay for meals throughout the year. That means that any losses come directly out of the services meant to serve paying students, not university coffers, he says.
The UCSC administrators’ message for the past month is that they are sympathetic, but they won’t sit down with the coalition of striking students until they turn in their grades.
“There’s a subset of grad students withholding grades, which students worked hard for and deserve to know,” he says. “We told grad students on numerous occasions that we’re ready to support them, and we want them to succeed and afford to live in Santa Cruz. But until grades are turned in, we won’t be able to sit down and talk through what ideas we have in mind for providing them with additional support.”
Hernandez-Jason says that, because the grad students called the action, they should end it, so that everyone can move forward with a productive dialogue. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported last week that 12,000 grades from last quarter are missing.
Film and digital media grad student Yulia Gilichinskaya, who’s participating in the strike by withholding grades from class she taught this past fall, says the coalition of students will wait for the university to say what its offer is before calling off a strike. “Once the university gives an offer, we will take a vote,” she says.
The stand-off began before the deadline for grades. Going back to November, the tension was palpable in an email chain between the grad student coalition and Interim Campus Provost Lori Kletzer about getting together to negotiate. In their emails, some students signed off using phrases like “with hostility” and “with hatred.”
Now at the start of a brand new winter quarter, education grad student Kylie Kenner told her students that she will be grading all of their work. She added, however, that she won’t submit grades at the end of the quarter if the strike is still ongoing. “I would so hope that this would be resolved before then,” she says.
The grad students generally view themselves in solidarity with other on-campus groups, including skilled craft AFSCME workers, who started picketing at the base of campus this month.
Up on campus after taking over the Porter Dining Hall, the protest keeps moving. What’s left of the group keeps marching to go occupy another dining hall. In a Porter College plaza nearby, Parrish says he believes the university has the latitude to make decisions to improve the welfare of the student body. He often sees news stories that make him question the university’s priorities. There was the coverage two years ago of a University of California audit, which found that the school system was hiding cash, Parrish says. That same year, then-UC president Janet Napolitano even put pressure on UCSC and other campuses to change their responses to questions from the auditor.
UCSC, Parish stresses, is a political institution. And in general, the strikers don’t imagine school administrators as a bunch of passive decision makers given money by state, he explains, with certain dollar amounts locked in for every item. “We see them as having a lot more latitude than they let on with everything that they do,” he adds, before catching up with the protest march en route to its next stop at Rachel Carson Dining Hall. “The responsibility really lies with them. If they’re going to run a university, they need to do the basic things that it takes to have a health university environment for people.”