A symphony of passing car horns beeped to Honk 4 Cola signs while making U-turns away from the main entrance of UC Santa Cruz.
In the background, different speakers with megaphones demanded of the crowd,
“What do we want?”
“COLA!” exclaimed the group.
“When do we want it?”
“If we don’t get it?”
“Shut it down!” replied the crowd.
Supporters and strikers of UC-wide United Auto Workers (UAW) closed off the entrance to the base of UC Santa Cruz’s campus this past Friday Nov. 18.
Barring the movement of traffic through the intersection of Bay and High Street, undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty took to the streets protesting, dancing, and chanting for the right to a cost of living adjustment (COLA).
Starting at 8 a.m. each day this past week, graduate students, student researchers, and postdoctoral students have made their way to the base of campus and the West entrance to withhold their labor in an effort to get UC administration to the bargaining table to answer their following demands.
UAW Academic Workers have made the following demands of the UC:
- A minimum salary of $54,000 for all graduate student workers
- A minimum salary of $70,000 for post doctoral fellows
- A 14 percent salary increase for academic researchers
- Annual cost of living adjustments and experience-based increases
That day’s strike took a bit of a different turn.
Around 100 STEM graduate and undergraduate students gathered at 10 a.m. in the middle of the Red Plaza on Science Hill in opposition to emails sent by Matthew Guthaus, associate dean of graduate studies at the Baskin School of Engineering, and Paul Koch, dean of physical and biological sciences (PBSci), threatening that student researchers with failing grades for their independent study if they kept withholding their labor.
With coffee and picket signs in the hands of students gathered, the crowd fueled up through the chants led by UCSC student researcher and Student Researchers United (SRU) bargaining representative Becker Sharif.
Sharif began by addressing the emails sent by Guthaus and Koch, calling their efforts a form of union busting.
After his opening remarks, he chanted to the crowd,
“Union busting is disgusting.”
The crowd repeated back, “Union busting is disgusting!”
Student researchers were recently recognized as their own union within the UAW as Student Researchers United (SRU-UAW) in December 2021.
Amidst the crowd was Francisco Mendez Diaz, another student researcher with the Kellogg Lab under the molecular cell and developmental biology department at UC Santa Cruz.
For Mendez Diaz and his wife, a union victory would mean a full child care subsidy and dependent health care to cover child care and health care costs for his three-year-old daughter at home. As a resident of family student housing, Mendez Diaz talks about how the quarterly $1100 reimbursement that graduate students receive is barely even enough to cover a month of child care costs, depending on where the care is from, with off campus being significantly more expensive.
“We’ve lived through the pressure of financial stress in terms of dealing with how we are going to pay for daycare for our daughter, how we are going to pay for rent, and everything else we need to do as parents for our wellbeing,” said Mendez Diaz. “We are here to strike, but we shouldn’t be here doing this. The UC should have already come to a fair agreement, and we are going to be here until we reach a fair agreement.”
Right now, average care on campus for a toddler costs $992 a month. With high demand for on-site child care, some parents have to apply for a waitlist for on-campus care.
This particular Friday morning, children of some of the graduate students walked hand in hand with their parents to strike at their place of work. Kids pulled their parents’ arms to see the colorful chalk words “Stem for Cola” on the floor, as their parents tried to juggle holding their picket signs with one hand and holding on to their children with the other. For those like Mendez Diaz, this fight is about finding a way to balance their work and support their kids.
Before the crowd begins to march to Quarry Plaza, Sharif takes the megaphone.
“Who’s got the power?” Sharif asked.
“We got the power?” they replied.
“What type of power?”
“Union power!” everyone exclaimed.
Photo by Rachel Raiyani.
At the Quarry Plaza, the group was met by around 100 additional strikers made up of undergraduate tutors and students in solidarity with the graduate students.
Cheers and chants began to merge as Sharif and student organizer for the Santa Cruz chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) Joseph Thompson took the megaphone to speak with the crowd in preparation for walking down to the base.
As the crowd prepared, strike volunteers helped to block off the intersection of Hagar Dr next to Quarry Plaza, to prevent traffic flow and allow for crowd movement.
When the students reached the bottom of Hagar, they were met with faculty in solidarity, who joined the rest of the way down to the base.
All cars came to a standstill as protesters walked past on their final stretch to the base of campus.
As the group reached the base they were met with the whoops and hoots from the picketers stationed. With a rally planned for noon, half the strikers made their way to the lawn, while the rest stayed on the crosswalk.
The main entrance into UCSC—blocked.
The exit off campus at Bay and High S remained open initially, with strikers redirecting entering traffic to an open west entrance.
Meanwhile, the rally on the lawn saw graduate students and speakers take the microphone to discuss their experiences with rent burden.
Jack Davies, UAW 2865 chair for UCSC, came up to update participants on the bargaining front, notifying everyone on the progress SRUs gained on talks about their union dues. He continued on to talk about the living budget section of their requests, mentioning that the UC had not budged on that front.
Davies also mentioned how some union members in the bargaining room planned to remove a clause in their contract that would ensure baseline salary adjustments in line with future rent prices after the first year of the 54 thousand dollar minimum they are calling for in the current economy.
The crowd booed.
“When I was on a bargaining caucus yesterday morning, hundreds of workers across the state suddenly flooded into a meeting that was not advertised, not spread anywhere, and they told the bargaining team in one voice what they thought of this,” continued Davies. “What that tells me is that the COLA demand has gone statewide. People get it. People are into it. And this is what they are fighting for.”
Back at the picket itself, students began cutting off the entire intersection, congregating into a large circle of supporters soon after.
Cars weaved out of the way of students and found themselves making U-turns to avoid the main entrance of UCSC.
Police cars blocked off Bay Street and High Street, redirecting traffic, while the crowd continued to chant. Undergraduates and organizers took turns leading the activities at the picket.
Until about 4:30 p.m., students maintained control of the street. By this time, festivities began dwindling, and strikers began packing up to head home.
Thompson, one of the organizers of the undergraduate rally at Quarry Plaza, talked about how the blockage was not planned. Rather, he emphasized how it ended up demonstrating what undergraduate solidarity can achieve.
“Undergrads showed up, and showed the university that this struggle is our struggle,” said Thompson. “Workers can’t afford to live here. Undergrads can’t afford to live here. We need the cost of living adjustment and affordable housing. We need to show the university that we are united, and that this struggle is absolutely our struggle and our fight.”