The UC Santa Cruz graduate student wildcat strike had just seen its fifth week of picketing when UCSC decided to adopt remote instruction. 

Rather than viewing the pandemic as a reason to stop the strike, many organizers feel their movement for a cost of living adjustment (COLA) is more relevant than ever.

“We’ve spent a lot of time figuring out a new strategy and what we can still do to win a COLA, but also how the meaning of a COLA changes in this moment,” said former history of consciousness graduate student Jane Komori, who was fired for withholding grades. “Something that the COVID-19 pandemic shows us is just how important undercompensated and hyper-exploited workers are to our day-to-day life.”

Stay-at-home orders mean that individuals’ living conditions are now their working conditions.

“The demand for a cost of living adjustment to be able to afford to rent somewhere that’s safe [and] that has adequate space to do your work is actually a demand about having a safe workplace, which we are entitled to in our contracts,” Komori said.

COVID-19 has prevented organizers from direct action and in-person organizing. To remedy this, graduate students have been hosting UC-wide Zoom meetings to discuss recent developments and plans moving forward. Former history of consciousness graduate student Stephen Engel, who was fired for withholding grades, identified these adjustments as changes to tactics rather than strategy. 

By adapting tactics to work in an online environment, organizers have upheld a key strategy from before the pandemic — transitioning from a wildcat strike to a union-sanctioned strike. 

On Feb 27 and March 2, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the union representing UC graduate student employees, filed Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against the UC for its response to the wildcat strike. Sociology graduate student Sarah Mason said the university’s actions contradicted the agreement made between UCSC and the union.

COLA organizers are now working to get union members to pledge their commitment to a sanctioned strike, so that if the university is found guilty of the ULP charges, graduate students can mobilize swiftly to a legal, union-sanctioned strike, preventing the university from firing them.

The first ULP charge cited the UC’s attempts to bargain with the UC Graduate and Professional Council to reach an agreement for graduate students, rather than the recognized collective bargaining agent, UAW Local 2865. The second charge referenced UCSC’s attempt to use the Student Code of Conduct to discipline strikers, instead of following the agreed upon disciplinary process.

Under normal circumstances, graduate student employees’ contract with the UC prevents students from engaging in strike activities.

“However, the exception to this is when the employer is in some violation that allows us this charge that gives us the legal basis to strike,” said sociology graduate student Sarah Mason. “So we have a couple of charges that are filed against the university and our union has been organizing for a statewide, systemwide ULP strike.”

Mason said while the union and university continue to move through the hearing process, reaching a settlement is still a possibility. Graduate students have made proposals to the UC throughout the strike, which often see no response. The UCSC administration has made several proposals of its own, but so far they have not met strikers’ demands.

After finding out spring quarter instruction would take place over Zoom, some graduate students established Strike University, an online platform where students from different UC campuses offer digital teach-ins, echoing the kind of education that happened at the picket last quarter.

“We imagined keeping some of the wildcat tactics and keeping the wildcat spirit of the COLA movement as the driver behind what will end up being a safer, sanctioned strike that can bring more people who haven’t yet felt like they can be involved, into the movement,” said former history of consciousness graduate student Jane Komori. “With the need for more numbers, more people and more safety with what’s going on in the world, the ULP strike is where we’re starting to reorient toward, while trying to retain the core of what our movement is about.”