48,000 Graduate Students in the UC system are represented by three different unions: United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, which represents over 19,000 academic student employees (ASEs), including graduate student instructors, teaching assistants (TAs), tutors, and readers. UAW 5810, which represents more than 11,000 academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars. And the newly recognized union, Student Researchers United (SRU), which represents graduate student researchers and fellows.

When UC Santa Cruz PhD student and UAW 2865 bargaining representative Jack Davies asked the crowd before him who would be voting yes to authorize a student worker strike, nearly every hand in the crowd went up. 

At UCSC, graduate students from all three unions convened at Quarry Plaza for an Oct. 26 rally on the first day of the weeklong strike vote.

One week later, on Nov. 3, the votes were in. With 36,558 votes submitted across the UC system, 98 percent voted “yes” to authorize a work stoppage beginning on or after Nov. 14.

“In order to avert a multi-unit strike, [the UC] must cease unlawful conduct and negotiate in good faith to create research and teaching environments where all can thrive,” UAW stated in their Instagram post announcing the approved authorization. 

All three graduate student unions have been in separate contract negotiations with the university for months now — the UAW 2865 contract expired on June 30, and bargaining began on March 2. In response to bad faith bargaining by the university, and their static responses to union contract demands, graduate students and ASEs are preparing a work stoppage across all UC campuses. 

Bargaining sessions are held over Zoom. They have been open to all undergraduates and UAW-2865 members to observe and contribute in the chat. The UAW-2865 bargaining team is made up of two union representatives from each UC campus. The UC Santa Cruz UAW-2865 representatives are Stefan Yong and Jack Davies.

Associate Director of Media Relations for the UC Office of the President (UCOP) Ryan King said that the university seeks to determine multi-year contracts that accurately represent the valuable work of ASEs.

“We have listened carefully to UAW priorities with an open mind and a genuine willingness to compromise,” King said in an email. “Negotiations are progressing, and many tentative agreements have been reached on key issues such as a respectful work environment and health and safety matters. We are committed to continuing to negotiate in good faith and reaching full agreements as soon as possible.”

The UCSC Graduate Students Who Voted “Yes”

If she opted to live on campus in UCSC-subsidized campus housing, literature PhD student Katherine Rogers discovered that she would still be 50 percent rent burdened, meaning that half of her total income would go towards paying rent each month. 

She’s not the only one. 

According to UAW-2865, 90 percent of ASEs experience rent burden. 50% or above is classified as “severely rent burdened.”  

“This university chooses to underpay us for our teaching labor and our research labor. So today, I’m going to vote yes to withhold that labor,” said Rodgers, addressing the crowd gathered at the grad student strike authorization rally on Oct. 26. “I believe it takes a special sort of cruelty for a university, with the endowment the size of the UC’s, to knowingly place their student employees in economic precarity, to knowingly deny 48,000 people the right to secure, safe, and stable housing.”

Housing stipends and fair wages are two of the pillars of graduate student demands. They are demands which have been continuously reiterated over the past four years by graduate students, but the university had no contractual obligation to discuss it under UAW 2865’s four-year contract. Recent bargaining has allowed members to confront the university with their demands, which were previously blocked by a contract failing to reflect the rapidly changing economic climate.

In 2020, members of UAW-2865 went on a full teaching strike in demand of a cost of living adjustment (COLA). This was a wildcat strike, meaning that it broke their union contract. The recently authorized strike is a continuation of the same campaign for fair wages and benefits to cover the cost of living. 

Some of the main goals of the new contract include limits on-campus housing rent, healthcare for the dependents of academic student workers (ASEs), living wages that target rent burden, and increased access to childcare. 

Lucia Alvarado Cantero, a fifth-year education PhD candidate at UCSC, spoke at the Oct. 26 rally. As a student and mother, 60 percent of her income goes towards rent, and 30 percent goes to child care. She explained that the current contractual childcare reimbursement of $850 per quarter covers just over a tenth of the actual price. 

When speaking at the rally, Cantero emphasized the demand of $6,000 per quarter for childcare and insurance for dependents.

“​​The absence of affordable childcare for a reimbursement that really reflects the cost of childcare makes it nearly impossible for mothers, particularly mothers of color to advance in our PhD programs, to finish our PhD programs,” said Cantero to the crowd. “There’s only one explanation for why it is more difficult for mothers and mothers of color to complete the PhD program. And that’s institutional gender violence. The same university that exerts that violence is the university under our names when we publish papers.” 

Cantero’s “yes” vote is a step towards substantial child care reimbursements and gender equity in the university. 

While all articles of the contract are intertwined, the demand for child care has been at the forefront of the campaign. Francisco Mendez Diaz, a parent and PhD student in molecular, cell, and developmental biology, noted in his speech that the UC’s counter-proposal for child care only included an additional $250 per quarter. 

Mendez Diaz, spoke to the harm of having to find a way to work and care for their children, on his family, his work, and his students. 

“With all the struggles my wife and I have been through, I’m voting yes to strike,” Mendez Diaz said. “It takes a toll on us emotionally, and affects our productivity and teaching. We are here to work for the university, so we deserve to work in a stress-free and financially stable environment.”

The rally on Oct. 26 brought in support from graduate students across fields, as well as undergraduates, faculty, and staff. The group, which formed a horseshoe shape around the boulders in Quarry Plaza, was a reminder that this issue is not just affecting graduate students, but everyone on the UCSC campus and in the UC system.  

“Our teaching conditions are student learning conditions,” said sociology graduate student Cameron Hughes. “If I’m constantly stressed out about if I’m going to be able to pay my rent or feed myself properly, I’m not going to be as good of a TA. I’m not going to be able to grade as proficiently or give feedback as proficiently as I would, if I felt stable and secure in my position at the university.”

He said that these demands would create a better university experience for both graduate workers and undergraduates. Hughes participated in the 2020 COLA strikes and believes the situation today is just as pertinent.

“We’re building on the collective power that we started with and that we built back three years ago,” Hughes said. “The circumstances are definitely a little bit different because we’re out of contract now. But I think that in both situations, the experience of being together with fellow workers is like the same feeling of solidarity. It’s that expression of collective power.”

Additional Reporting by Ashley Glancy.