Classes were cancelled, while the base of campus was flooded with strikers, supporters, and alumni. This was all in the effort of teaching assistants (T.A.s) obtaining a cost of living adjustment (COLA). For a moment in time, the entire campus was consumed by the excitement of the COLA movement. While the ongoing protest may have been placed on the back-burner as COVID-19 shifted to the forefront of concerns, the feeling of rent burden and need for a cost of living adjustment is still very much on the minds of organizers.
“It was a moment where a lot of people understood that there was something possible to be gained,” said COLA organizer Dylan Davies. “Something that was decidedly different than the kind of normal moment where you organize a demonstration and things go nowhere.”
The strike officially began Dec. 9, 2019 as T.A.’s withheld undergraduate grades that quarter, leading to the administration sending written warnings to protestors. This prompted a heightening of the strike in February 2020, from the withholding of grades to a full wildcat teaching strike at the base of campus.
A wildcat strike is a smaller strike that isn’t sanctioned by the worker’s larger union representation.
Days later, riot police arrested over 15 student protestors. Strikers and administration remained locked in a standoff that was coming close to a Feb. 21 deadline for grades to be released without risking dismissal. By the deadline, UC Santa Cruz administration was facing a coalition of undergraduates, striking graduates, adjunct teachers, and faculty that had amassed hundreds at the intersection of Bay and High Street. The week after the deadline, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, and UC Irvine joined in solidarity with the UCSC strike. By this time the strike had gained national attention, being mentioned by presidential candidates and media outlets such as the New York Times, along with inspiring movements and discourse within universities throughout the state.
On the final day of February, graduate workers who withheld grades were fired. With tensions rising, some instructors cancelled or adjusted their classes early in March. UC Berkeley joined the other striking campuses as 97 percent of graduate students in the UC system voted to reopen contract negotiations with the UC in a union vote overseen by the statewide T.A.’s union.
For COLA organizer Jane Komori, the movement’s energy ebbed and flowed throughout the winter quarter.
“By the end of February, everyone I saw was very worn out. And the number of people who were able or willing to spend all day on the picket line were dwindling,” said Komori. “But at the same time, graduate students at other UC campuses were getting really organized and were preparing to go on their own strike. So while energy was understandably flagging at Santa Cruz, momentum was really picking up across the state.”
In March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sending UCSC online and halting in-person gathering while also pushing striking and other labor actions to online platforms, eventually leading to the reinstatement of all fired T.A.’s.
Despite winning a small yearly housing stipend and getting the fired TAs reinstated, graduate students remain without a COLA, and the message this September will remain the same as it was two years ago: Pay us more. This coming January, all T.A. contracts will be up for renegotiation with the university.
A TIMELINE OF EVENTS
Nov 7, 2019: Opening March
On Nov. 7, 2019 200 protesting graduate students reiterated that their pay couldn’t meet the cost of basic needs in Santa Cruz, with many struggling to pay rent or keep food on the table.
December 8, 2019: Strike Assembly
Graduate Students meet and vote to begin striking by withholding fall quarter final grades. Graduates would continue to withhold grades through the deadline 10 days later.
January 20-30, 2020: Strikes Continue to escalate
After a series of meetings and forums, graduate students voted to continue withholding grades for the winter quarter, and to go into a full strike 10 days later.
February 10, 2020: Full Strike Starts
Graduate students, faculty, and undergraduates turned out to the base of campus for a picket line that shut the campus down, resulting in some class cancellations.
February 12, 2020: Students arrested
More than 15 students are arrested at the base of campus by riot police while peacefully protesting.
February 14, 2020: Janet Napolitano Addresses the Strikers
“Participation in the wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University.” said Napolitano via open email to all staff, faculty, and students.
February 21, 2020: Responding to Napolitano
Hundreds of people coalesce at the base of campus for a huge demonstration in response to Janet Napolitano’s threats of termination. Strikers vote to continue withholding grades.
February 28, 2020: Firings
82 T.A.’s are fired for withholding grades.
March 10, 2020: COVID-19
Coronavrius forces all campus activity online including strike activities, effectively stopping the movement’s momentum in its tracks.