Dylan Davis’s work toward earning his doctorate in politics at UC Santa Cruz was temporarily derailed by the university when he was fired in Feb. 2020, alongside 81 other graduate students, for participating in last year’s COLA4All movement. The movement, founded at UCSC, saw graduate students withholding undergraduate grades and picket lines blocking entrance to campus, which led to physical confrontations between demonstrators and riot police.
As the strikes gained traction across the UC system, and garnered support from undergraduates and faculty, UC administration routinely threatened the jobs of Davis and his colleagues through mass emails. Davis said he expected there would be consequences for their participation in the strikes.
“After we began the picket lines, I sensed that a number of people would be fired for undertaking this action. I didn’t think it would be that many people. I was pissed off, but I was confident that we could get our jobs back and get rehired,” Davis said. “But come the time of the pandemic, there was a lapse in momentum. At that point, I wasn’t so sure what would happen.”
Davis and most of the fired graduate student instructors were rehired in July 2020 after constant pressure from the union representing the wildcat strike, UAW 2865, and digital campaigns from the COLA4All movement. In the face of unemployment, Davis said some of his colleagues wrote letters to the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) toward the end of winter quarter 2020, renouncing their involvement in the COLA movement so they would be rehired. Subsequently, the movement shifted its focus to fight for graduate student reinstatement, losing its leverage in obtaining a COLA.
After losing their jobs and being sent home in the face of COVID-19, graduate students took their efforts online. A GoFundMe page created by graduate students in winter 2020 raised over $300,000 and supported the basic needs of all 82 students including Davis, according to a post on the page from the Santa Cruz Office of Education.
Davis called the GoFundMe a major victory for graduate wildcat strikers, and the COLA4All movement hasn’t slowed its digital campaigns. In the last year, COLA4All pledged its solidarity to individuals like Sabrina Shirazi and Carlos Cruz. Shirazi is in the midst of a legal battle with the UC over injuries caused by UC Police in the protests. Doctoral candidate Carlos Cruz was suspended for two years for his involvement in the COLA strikes, but has since had his punishment reduced to a conduct probation because of pressure from demonstrators.
Similarly, UAW 2865, the union representing COLA4ALL movement, is spearheading new campaigns for a $100 stipend to help pay utility expenses for GSIs working from home. The union has proposed a strike pledge in response to multiple unfair practice charges over a reluctance to negotiate for a COLA, said the union chair, GSA internal co-vice president of shared governance, and graduate student in social psychology Veronica Hamilton.
Sabrina Shirazi, Carlos Cruz, and the Individual Legal Battles Against the UC
Ecology and evolutionary biology graduate student Sabrina Shirazi is suing UC police, alleging that officers clubbed her head and body during last year’s strikes, causing a concussion and other injuries. Shirazi wrote in a letter to the university in March 2020 that UC Police rushed into a crowd of strikers and clubbed her multiple times on Feb. 10, 2020. She claims her assault is a consequence of racial targeting by UC Police.
UC Director of Media Relations Scott Hernandez-Jason says UCSC administration denies Shirazi’s claims.
“UC Santa Cruz expects all its employees to foster and maintain a supportive educational environment for our students. We take seriously any allegations of harm to those in our campus community,” Hernandez-Jason wrote in a statement. “Our initial review indicates that the account presented by the plaintiff is not an accurate description of the incident. However, we will address these allegations in the course of the litigation.”
UAW 2865 President Kavitha Iyengar said the union is in full support of the Shirazi case, which is currently being contested in court. A court hearing on UCPD’s motion to dismiss Shirazi’s case is set for June 3.
Shirazi’s case comes after Carlos Cruz, a doctoral student in the UCSC history department was suspended alongside the other 81 strikers last year. All other strikers that were fired had their charges lifted in late March 2020, while Cruz received notice on Feb. 19, 2021, nearly a year after he was fired, that the chancellor had overturned his two-year suspension, replacing it with a two-year conduct probation. Cruz was the only GSI who had their punishment delayed. He claims he was racially targeted by the UC for his involvement in the wildcat strike and other direct actions on campus.
Cruz announced this update in a letter to the COLA mailing list on Feb. 19.
“This small victory should stand as an example of how our collective power and solidarity is crucially important in standing against the university,” Cruz wrote. “Because we know our struggle against the university will not end until [the UC system] is abolished, it is important that we continue to build community, to stand up for and with each other, and let the admin know we won’t forget, we won’t be complicit, and we won’t submit.”
Cruz’s updated punishment came after a group of 45 COLA supporters rallied in front of Chancellor Larive’s house on Dec. 2, 2020, calling on the chancellor to overturn the original two-year suspension.
New Demands to Support Student Workers Through Virtual Instruction
Davis said a group of statewide graduate student organized a series of virtual meetings to discuss concerns in the aftermath of the COLA4All campaign and in the midst of the pandemic. He said the issue of utility costs, as students had to work from their homes, was felt across the state.
In a bargaining meeting on Jan. 28 between UAW 2865 and the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), the union proposed a $100 stipend per month to be paid to graduate students, retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic. Iyengar said the UC argued GSIs do not need this stipend because graduate students are “saving” money on other expenses like transportation.
A survey created by a collection of Academic Student Employees (ASE’s) gathered data from over 600 UC workers. Between Nov. 2019 to Nov. 2020, their survey found on average ASE’s were paying $80 per month on utilities. With the mass exodus to a digital academic landscape in the last year, and the financial implications of webcams, monitors, desks, and other supplies, Davis said utilities expenses have increased for many.
The ASE’s claim in a preface before the survey that the UC subverts the momentum gained by the COLA movement when they withhold their financial support for basic necessities.
“UC has a responsibility to provide the workspace facilities ASEs reasonably need to carry out our tasks and duties. Before COVID-19, these facilities included ones we took for granted, like electricity, WiFi, and heating. Now, the UC saves money on these utilities, while we are stuck with the bills,” the survey’s preface reads. “Our employer is shirking its responsibility to provide workers with functional workspaces by passing its own operating expenses onto us.”
Unfair Labor Practice Strike Pledge and the Future of COLA
UAW 2865 President Iyengar has pleaded with UCOP for a chance to bargain for a COLA since last year, but UCOP has declined every offer to set a time to discuss these demands.
“The university refused to bargain with us over housing. They said housing is a student issue, not a worker issue, and they’re inseparable for us. Housing is a condition that the university has huge influence over, both in terms of how much they pay us more than the private market and in a lot of the campuses as the biggest landlord for academic students,” Iyengar said. “To say university housing is a student issue when its workers live in university housing, it just rings hollow.”
The union filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges in March 2020 against the university claiming they unjustly fired striking workers without the due process entitled to them under the UAW 2865 contract and attempted to bargain with organizations not empowered to negotiate student-worker compensation. Members of the union will participate in a ULP strike vote in April to determine their next plan of action.
Iyengar said if the union votes to sanction a strike it could compel UCOP to negotiate as their current contract with UAW 2865 will expire in 2022.
With UCSC’s COLA4All Twitter page boasting over 10,500 followers, Iyengar thinks COLA can find the numbers to physically protest for a COLA again when it is safe. Davis is apprehensive to jump into another strike so soon after fighting for his career just a year ago, but he also thinks it might be necessary.
“There are a lot of people who would be hesitant to embark on another one at the moment, given how isolated and atomized so many of us are. But we can’t discount this element of long accumulated grievances bursting out into organized expressions of discontent and political antagonism,” Davis said. “I wouldn’t have imagined in Dec. 2019 that we would be doing a wildcat strike the very next month. Nobody can necessarily foresee these things, but when they do happen, everybody, more or less comes to the conclusion, ‘Why did it take so long?’”