University of California Graduate Students Strike Against Unsustainable Housing Costs Spreads

Damian Algabre,
Seamus Connolly

Summary: Graduate students at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) have gone on a wildcat teaching strike in protest at unsustainable living conditions, joining their colleagues at UC Santa Cruz, who have been on strike since December of last year – Editors

After weeks of mobilization, around 190 graduate students at UC Santa Barbara – a sizeable portion of the graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) – voted to go on a wildcat teaching strike, effective February 27. The decision to go on strike – which involves the refusal to teach and to submit grades indefinitely – is aimed at the failure of UC systemwide cost-of-living (COLA) negotiations, and follows weeks of protest demanding a cost of living adjustment, including a mass sick-out, rallies, and occupations of administrative buildings by hundreds of students.

In the face of being unable to provide for themselves and their families, and often forced to sleep in their cars or offices, the striking students are demanding that the university pay every student worker an additional $1,807 a month for living expenses—regardless of their individual salary.

The fact that UC is a large part of what has been driving living costs up in their respective areas, makes failing to meet COLA for students doubly infuriating.

Andrew Johnson, striking graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, told us the following:

“I am striking because I am in solidarity with my colleagues in Santa Cruz who have been subjected to police brutality and termination. I am striking because I have seen too many of my grad student friends sleeping in their offices or on the streets…. I am striking because the University of California used to have free tuition and be a public good for all Californians, but now it is a profit-monster which subsists on the backs of undergraduate tuition and debt bondage. I am striking because the University of California has made intentional decisions to prioritize bloated budgets for Administrations but budget cuts for humanities programs…. I am striking because there are always funds for more prisons and police, but never for education. I am striking because the University of California is subservient to the interests of billionaires who created the housing crisis and not the students who they ought to serve. I am striking because the University of California is the largest, most profitable public education system in the world, and a strike here and now, one that succeeds or fails, has the potential to radically transform the neoliberal higher education model throughout the entire United States.“

The strike at UC Santa Barbara, brings graduate students into alignment with their counterparts at Santa Cruz, who went on strike back in December and who have been met with heavy handed police action. The administration at UC Santa Cruz has offered students an additional stipend of $2,500 per year, much less than $1,000+ per month that the students have asked for. The average monthly stipend for graduate students is between 2k-2.5k (before taxes), and the majority are rent burdened (30% of income going towards rent) or severely rent burdened (50% of income going towards rent). UCSC strikers dismissed the offer out of hand due to its total inadequacy to lift them out of rent-burdened living conditions. Given high tuition rates for non-TAs, this amounts to dismissal from the university.

Approximately 85 UC Santa Cruz students who are still withholding grades and have been threatened with dismissal, and on 2/28 UC Santa Cruz administration followed through on this, firing 54 grad student workers (a number which does not include others who did not disclose). Furthermore, more graduate students (30 confirmed so far) were informed that they would not be considered for employment in any capacity into the next quarter.

Importantly, the UC Santa Barbara strike coincides with a grading strike by graduate students at UC Davis, who began organizing late last year, and who recently marched and delivered a letter to their chancellor demanding a monthly housing stipend to alleviate their rent burden. Added to this, UC Riverside and UC Irvine have seen small and burgeoning mobilization, with UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles slowly organizing also. In fact, with the exception of UC San Francisco, COLA movements are being organized at every UC campus. This shows the spread of the original strike at UC Santa Cruz, and is thus part of a wider wave of labor unrest.

There is strong solidarity toward the UC Santa Barbara graduate students from faculty, alumni, and Teamsters Local 2010, etc., with faculty representatives marching in solidarity to the offices of the Exec Vice Chancellor (Provost). Despite this, the UC graduate students are acting separately from the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the union which represents more than 19,000 workers across the UC system. Undergraduates, in their own right, organized and showed support in different capacities. Many came with their own signs ready, and even Associated Students (AS), UCSB’s funded representative student government, gave material and other support to the strike, along with AS affiliated groups such as Queer Commission.

Professors from Chicanx Studies and Asian-American Studies gave speeches on the first day of the strike, while undergraduates reflected their optimism that COLA could be achieved with some signs referencing the Delano Grape Strike. Both professors and undergrads understand the COLA movement as a continuation of a legacy of struggle against exploitative (often racialized) labor practices in California.

The wildcat strikes at California’s public universities have appeared at a time of tension between graduate students and administrations at numerous private universities, such as Columbia University and the University of Chicago, where there has been a refusal to recognize graduate students as workers. Under the Trump administration, the National Labor Relations Board has moved to strip graduate students at private universities of their status as “employees” and eliminate their right to unionize. The UC strike shows a breaking point in such tensions.

When looking at the developments relating to the COLA strikes, the Los Angeles teachers’ strike, which began 2019 and whose actions resounded with many other teachers across the U.S., looms large in the imagination. These education strikes, taken together, seem to be indicative of a larger ferment, indicated by the UC student strikers explicitly citing the abject failures of the neoliberal “debt-machine” university model, one which parallels the criticisms against the profit-fueled charter schools during the teachers’ strike.

It is also notable, as we pivot toward the future, that Senator Bernie Sanders, currently the leading candidate in the Democratic primary, has offered strong support for the striking UC students.


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