In the periphery of a global pandemic and wildfires affecting much of western U.S., the COLA4ALL movement founded at UC Santa Cruz, which gained traction across the UC system, continues to fight for a cost of living adjustment (COLA) and the rehiring of teaching assistants.

The latter weeks of winter 2020 saw hundreds of students at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus linked in arms, chanting, and blocking university entrances while staring down a swarm of police in riot gear—many losing class time and forgoing letter grades. 

With UCSC’s move to an almost fully online course curriculum, the wildcat COLA strike, which aims to raise the earnings of graduate student-instructors by an additional $1,412 per month are planning new ways to protest.

“[COLA strikers] have been through a long and difficult process in which the university continues to be unreasonable. They continue to not address the economic issues on our campus, or take them seriously, or with any kind of humility. They act like an administrative cold brick wall,” said Veronica Hamilton, UCSC Unit Chair of UAW 2865, GSA internal co-vice president of shared governance, and graduate student in social psychology. “That’s not gonna work. We’ll just tear down the wall.”

Up To Speed On COLA 

As part of the UC administration’s punishment for withholding grades for their Wildcat strike, 54 UC Santa Cruz graduate students were fired on Feb. 28. 

Another 28 UCSC graduate students were told by administrators they would no longer be considered for teaching appointments in spring quarter. 

Forty-one of these graduate students were eventually reinstated. However, at least one was dismissed from their program. History doctoral student and COLA organizer Carlos Cruz was suspended on four instances of student misconduct violations, effective until June 2022, or June 2021 conditional on good behavior, according to the paymoreucsc website. 

Hamilton said UCSC was the only campus that pursued any disciplinary action against students, even though the demonstrations were UC systemwide. 

Cruz said in a statement on the paymoreucsc website, “the Student Conduct office is operating like an extension of the school to prison pipeline, as it targets politically active students of color who are engaging in organizing efforts to call out issues like food insecurity, rent burden, and wage disparities at UCSC.” 

Cruz was unable to be reached for comment at time of press.

Graduate students will go into fall quarter with two new funding support programs, announced by administration on Jan. 27. UCSC will offer an annual housing supplement of $2,500 for graduate students in good academic standing and will guarantee five years of funding during the academic term for doctoral students. Previously, guarantees of this kind were not universal.

Hamilton said that this still does not meet the demands of COLA.

“We graduate students, undergrads, and staff are struggling to live in Santa Cruz,” Hamilton said. “Cynthia Larive lives right off of West Cliff in a mansion. Lori Kletzer lives on campus in some very nice faculty housing. Quentin Williams lives in a nice little mansion on Empire Grade. We’re in a really different situation, and the strike was a result of a crisis. This wasn’t some targeted campaign to hurt their feelings. This was people really struggling with the economic conditions and being ignored for a long time.”

The Digital Picket Line

On the paymoreucsc website, the current instructions for digital picketers are: “Don’t submit, keep grades off Canvas, don’t hold classes online, and undergraduates: submit assignments directly to TA’s.”

Since winter quarter, there have also been interactions between UCSC administration and COLA organizers over campuswide emails. 

The Aug. 11 email from Chancellor Cynthia Larive and Campus Provost/Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer announcing terminated graduate students’ reinstated eligibility stated the protestors were in violation of their contract by withholding grades, providing grounds for their termination.

“This is an important step toward rebuilding community trust and moving beyond the discord created by the wildcat strike,” stated the Aug. 11 email from the chancellor and CP/EVC.

“[…] We remain resolute in our commitment to find new ways to support the success of our graduate students while they study at UC Santa Cruz.”

Tony Boardman, a UCSC graduate student in literature and COLA organizer, was one of the first to take to the digital picket line. Since January 2020, Boardman has been answering the  university’s mass emails by responding to aspects of their messages he and other COLA organizers disagreed with. These responses are sent to an all-undergraduate email chain.

“While this is one victory, and a testament to our militancy and considerable solidarity from the community, we cannot afford to stop fighting,” Boardman wrote in an email on Aug. 11, responding to the email from Chancellor Larive and CP/EVC Kletzer. “A number of undergraduates and graduates are still disciplined through the student conduct processes; we still don’t get paid enough to live in the place we work; and cops remain on our campus. We might agree that ‘our graduate students must thrive if our campus is to succeed’; we, however, have a differing idea of how we will win.”

Boardman thinks his email blasts are just a small aspect of how the COLA movement aims to digitally protest the UC system.

“I think ridiculing university emails and drawing out the inconsistencies is important to an extent, but I think actively withholding labor and preventing operations from continuing as normally is the most effective thing to do,” Boardman said. “In a perfect world, when everything goes digital, basically all you need to do to strike is just close your laptop.”

This story has been updated to clarify the expected timeline of the UAW 2865 claims trials.