Exactly one week after striking UCSC graduate students were given the ultimatum to turn in the remaining withheld fall quarter grades, they received a letter from University of California Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer that those who did not would be fired from their teaching posts.
In a Feb. 28 letter, Kletzer stated that, “despite our best efforts to find an amenable resolution,” 54 students were still withholding grades—as part of their strike to demand a $1,412-per-month raise. “Students who fail to meet their contractual obligations by withholding fall grade information will not receive spring quarter appointments,” she wrote.
A UC statement said that the school system values its teaching assistants. “While most teaching assistants have turned in grades and 96 percent of grades are in, it is unfortunate UC Santa Cruz has to take the drastic step of not retaining graduate students as employees who do not fulfill their responsibilities,” the statement explained.
After the firing, strike organizers responded in an email that they were still confirming the number of grad students who were let go and said the total number could be higher than 80. At last count, organizers knew of 87 people still withholding grades, says History of Consciousness doctoral student Jane Komori, though it’s possible some have given in to UC demands and submitted them.
Strike organizers also say that more than 550 workers throughout 22 departments have pledged not to fill the teaching appointments from the fired workers. The current situation spells an unknown future for the strikers, particularly international students whose termination could mean the expiration of their student visas and possible deportation.
The strike has attracted nationwide coverage from outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post. Last month, presidential candidate and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) tweeted his support of the strike. So did rapper and Hollywood director Boots Riley.
It’s been more than three weeks since grad students, lecturers and teaching assistants started picketing at the base of the UCSC campus, and the protest has been spreading. Students at UC Santa Barbara joined the strike last month. Solidarity marches, sit-ins, and rallies have been popping up throughout the university system.
Graduate students typically make $2,400 a month before taxes. Striking grad students say they arrived at the the $1,412 monthly increase they’re demanding by looking at the average cost of rent in the area on Zillow.com for a three-bedroom house and splitting it three ways equally.
Grad students’ current contract was negotiated in 2018, but at the time, 83% of UCSC grad students voted to reject it, as it only gave a 3% cost-of-living increase. The students’ statewide union still voted overall to ratify the new agreement. One year prior, UC Regents had agreed to give pay raises to eight of the ten UC chancellors, all of whom currently make six figure incomes and receive a $6,500 monthly rent stipend.
The grad student union has not fully sanctioned individual campus strikes, hence why the action’s been branded a “wildcat” strike.
Tensions between the students and administration about the cost of living first began last November as the quarter came to an end. By early December, things had escalated, and on Dec. 8, teachers withheld roughly 12,000 undergraduate grades. This month, as the university administration continued to apply pressure, the strikers held fast, leading to an all-out picket at the base of campus that has lasted since Feb. 10.
Over the course of two days, police in riot gear arrested 18 students, who were charged and released.
Politics doctoral candidate Dylan Davis, who lives with his wife in a studio apartment, has a child on the way. He says that, without increased compensation, he may have to leave the area and his doctorate aspirations behind.
“The University of California is the largest landlord in the state, and in a very direct way it sets the terms for rental prices in communities like Santa Cruz,” Davis says. “The cost of living is skyrocketing for most people in this country if you live in an urban or suburban area, and I perceive that as an attack on working people.”
Before the firing notice, university officials gave two separate deadlines for the strikers to quit, first at 11:59pm on Feb. 21 via a public letter from UC President Janet Napolitano, then at the same time on Feb. 24 through an email from Kletzer.
Undeterred by the action taken against their colleagues, some grad students say they do not plan to submit winter quarter grades, which are due later this month. In demanding their raise, organizers say that it must not be paid for by increasing undergraduate tuition, which currently averages $14,000 for California residents and $30,000 for non-state residents.
They also want the UC to take a non-retaliatory approach to the remaining strikers, especially because many of them are international students in a vulnerable position. Because of their work visa status, these students can only work part-time; for the first year, they are not allowed to work off campus. After that, international students with a specific kind of visa can work off campus, but only in certain fields.
Associate literature professor Vilashini Cooppan, who taught a class last quarter with 300 students and six teaching assistants, has supported the strike from the beginning. She’s picketed at the base of campus with her students, often adorned in her red and black academic regalia.
“We need our TAs to deliver a high quality education to our undergraduate students and we cannot teach without them,” she says. “We are looking at an entire generation of graduate students who may very well have their careers ended and as faculty we are outraged.”