Demonstrators reached Kerr Hall and chanted, “Pay us!” to the administrators inside. Photo by Jamie Moddelmog

*A pseudonym is used to protect the source’s identity.

Over 100 graduate students gathered in Quarry Plaza on Nov. 7 and marched to Kerr Hall to present a list of demands to Chancellor Cindy Larive.

In the first march of a monthlong campaign of visibility, graduate students advocating for fair pay made it clear this wouldn’t be the last time the UC Santa Cruz administration would hear from them.

The Union of Academic Student Employees (UAW) Local 2865 is demanding a cost of living adjustment (COLA). They demand an additional $1,412 every month to ensure a “wage-housing price” ratio similar to that of UC Riverside graduate students, who receive the same wages as UCSC graduate students, but pay much less for housing.

“Our quality of life isn’t good because the cost of living is so high, and we’re not paid in a way that reflects the cost of living,” said UAW Local 2865 Santa Cruz Unit Chair Veronica Hamilton. “We want the same standard of living, the same quality of life that is afforded to grad students at UC Riverside.”

In their most recent contract negotiations with the UC in 2018, the union secured a 3 percent raise for graduate student workers, the first raise since 2014. However, housing prices in Santa Cruz increased by 15 percent over the same period. Currently, 68 percent of Santa Cruz renters spend more than a third of their income on rent. 

According to UAW Local 2865 organizers, the typical graduate student wage is about $2,000 a month, only $303 above the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz. An extra $1,412 would mean graduate students wouldn’t be forced to use the majority of their income on rent.

Graduate students held an all-day demonstration at the base of campus on Nov. 12, five days after the march, to draw attention to their cause. They plan to continue demonstrating until their demands are met. 

“I’m a third-year grad student and a single mom and I can barely afford to feed myself and my child,” said anthropology graduate student Brenda Arjona. “What I’m making as a TA, I can barely make a living. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to finish my program.”

James Sirigotis, a graduate student and TA in the sociology department, moved into a professor’s house as a dog sitter so he could sublet his room for some extra cash. He also took a third job as a reader.

“I haven’t really been able to work on my project because I’m too busy working and moving and trying to constantly adapt to a really precarious life,” Sirigotis said. “It obviously interferes with the quality of education we can provide undergrads and the quality of research we can do.” 

Graduate students fighting for a COLA say the administration is not receptive to their concerns, despite their dire situation.

At the Nov. 7 march, when one organizer recounted how administrators often tell struggling graduate students to just go to food pantries to solve their problems, the crowd responded with a chorus of boos.

“Emotionally, not knowing how to pay rent next month is horrendous when I have to produce intense research,” said history of art and visual culture graduate student Alexandra Macheski. “And I think years of that has permanently changed my personality.”

Humanities graduate student Jasmine Smith* said when she went to her advisor with concerns over housing insecurity last year, she was met with general apathy.

Her advisor suggested family student housing, which she was ineligible for, commuting from another city and subsidized housing, which is a Santa Cruz commodity with a two- year waitlist.

“I don’t own a car so commuting from the Bay Area to Santa Cruz by public transport is around three and a half to four hours, and that’s one way,” Smith said. “I have a coworker who doesn’t have a car who lives in Oakland who does the public transit commute to Santa Cruz, pays two nights to stay in an Airbnb, and then commutes back every week. It’s insane.”

Smith hopes to finish her program, but is worried she won’t be able to find housing in Santa Cruz for winter quarter. If she can’t, the grueling commute will be her only option.

Chancellor Larive resisted the idea that a COLA is the answer to graduate students’ financial insecurity. After the graduate students presented their demands to her at last week’s march, Larive said the administration plans on constructing more on-campus housing to address students’ concerns.

“Graduate education is a little bit complicated in that there’s a range of programs, a range of students, a range of support mechanisms,” Larive said. “We agree that we need to do better at supporting our graduate students.”

But, the union is set on a COLA. They are planning more actions like the Kerr Hall march in the next month. UAW Local 2865 Santa Cruz Unit Chair Veronica Hamilton is hopeful about the movement’s success. 

 “The only way real change and radical change like what we’re asking for happens is when people show up and demand it,” Hamilton said during the march. “It’s going to work out because we’re going to make it work out.”