Illustration by Yitong Lei

UC Santa Cruz anthropology graduate student Brenda Arjona spends 78 percent of her monthly paycheck on rent in Family Student Housing. 

Unable to find an affordable housing alternative, another graduate student, at the mercy of a negligent landlord, experienced mold poisoning for five years.  

Another graduate student avoided medical care due to the cost, resulting in hospitalizations.

Graduate student teaching assistants across the UC make $2,434 per month before taxes for nine months each year. Most graduate students at UCSC pay 50 percent or more of their income on housing, falling into the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s category of “extreme rent burden.”

As winter quarter kicks off, graduate students remain on a grading strike for a cost of living adjustment (COLA), and it’s about time they receive one.

About 50 UCSC carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other skilled craft workers who are members of the K7 unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 are also on strike indefinitely as of Jan. 6. 

Other AFSCME Local 3299 workers and lecturers affiliated with the UC American Federation of Teachers throughout the UC system continue to demand better contracts as well. These groups have coalesced in support of a universal COLA across the UC. 

Since September 2019, UCSC graduate students have demanded a COLA of $1,412 per month to bring them out of rent burden and to parity with UC Riverside graduate students, who make the same wages but pay far less in housing. For example, a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Family Student Housing at UCSC costs $1,767 per month. At UC Riverside, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in family student housing costs $970 per month.

In December 2019, graduate students announced they were embarking on a wildcat strike — unsanctioned by the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, which represents UC graduate students — and wouldn’t release fall quarter grades until the campus administration granted a COLA.

In a Jan. 6 email to the campus community, Interim Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer said 80 percent of fall quarter grades have been submitted. However, 8,938 undergraduates — or about 52 percent of the undergraduate population — received emails from academic advising on Jan. 3 stating one or more of their fall quarter grades had not been submitted. The university’s exaggerated framing of the statistics serves to delegitimize graduate students’ efforts. 

The UCSC administration has refused to meet with graduate students to discuss their demands for a COLA until all grades are submitted. But graduate students have no intention of tapping the brakes. Instead, they’re planning to escalate.

Administrators know that undergraduates, graduate students, staff and faculty standing in solidarity with each other to fight for better universal living and working conditions is far more dangerous to the administration than if each fight is relegated to its own bubble. 

In a Dec. 13, 2019 campuswide email, Kletzer referred to the wildcat strike as an “illegal work stoppage.” Administrators have consistently used divisive rhetoric to frame the strike as a threat to undergraduates and have relied on arguments of technicality to defend their position of non-engagement with strikers. 

A common administrative argument has been that the university can’t engage in discussions with graduate students while the strike continues because the terms of graduate students’ employment lie outside the purview of the UCSC administration. 

Instead of addressing the severity of graduate students’ living conditions, administrators have decided to use contract law to reject their own responsibility.

Graduate students produce valuable research for the university and give undergraduates opportunities to learn in small discussion sections. If UCSC wants to maintain graduate programs and continue calling itself a research university, it must stop its hypocrisy and grant graduate students a COLA. Denying them their right to livable conditions is nothing short of an abuse of power.

AFSCME Local 3299 workers and lecturers deserve what they demand of UCSC and the UC as well. Their living and working conditions are dire and deserve to be treated as such. Short-term, case-by-case solutions are insufficient responses, and the university knows this.

“We have no illusions about our collective power to disrupt the daily operations of the university,” said a Jan. 6 post to the Official Group of UCSC Students Facebook group, signed by the graduate student association, “and we will continue to use it, to expand it, and to escalate our action until our demand for a COLA is met.”

Graduate students, AFSCME Local 3299 workers and lecturers have no intention of backing down from their demands. The administration ignoring them is self-defeating and pernicious for all parties. Trapping its graduate students, workers and lecturers in impoverished living and unstable working conditions degrades the quality of the university’s education, and there’s no doubt that those asking for a COLA deserve it entirely. City on a Hill Press fully supports them.