University of Contradictions: Campus Workers’ Strike at UCSC

Marcelo Mendez

Summary: A student writes on the university’s inextricable links to capitalism in relation to the mass strike at University of California, Santa Cruz by campus workers; includes some workers’ voices. Photo credit: Erika Mahoney — Editors

The notion of the university as an ‘ivory tower’ posits a separation of its space from society – paradoxically, such is both the case and not. From the workers’ separation from the process and means of production under capitalism arises a division between mental and manual labor. The specialized role that universities occupy in the production, distribution, and legitimation of knowledge as commodity catalyzes this mental rift further, facilitated through the reorganization, reproduction, and management of labor power for the needs of the market, and marked by gendered, racial/ethnic, and class lines; in this sense, the separation is real. Any notion of a separation of universities from the prevailing relations of capitalist society, however, is false, and to rend the contradictions occurring therein to the point of rupture, it is worth delineating how different elements of universities in their overlapping dimensions relate to the broader, ‘unifying’ circuit of capital. Our task is not only the critique of this status quo, but also the realization of a different type of ‘unity in difference,’ a solidarity linking the multiplicity of struggles towards a collective self-organization of the space.

Production under capital, whether of the hand or the head, serves only to accumulate value, or profit, and not to fulfill human needs. At universities, mental labor mediates relations to capital and the state in the forms of education and research.[1] In education, universities, via increasingly precarious and overworked labor struggling for collective power,[2] develop and provide capital with a capable labor force for sustaining the accumulation of profit, and act as mediators in labor markets.[3] In research or knowledge production, the process and products of mental laborers at the university serve the interests of capital by driving new rounds of accumulation [or maintaining power in the state] through the unlocking of new possibilities. The scientific research of Oppenheimer and the crew at Los Alamos serve as a painful reminder of how knowledge and its products serve the interests of the ruling class, in that dreadful case (as in many) bent towards a capitalist imperialism, with the early pioneers of the internet witnessing the similar fate of a militaristic takeover of knowledge for the interests of capital. Knowledge, predicated on the triumphs and failures of humanity, is necessarily social, belonging to none but all, and is a site of struggle.

From the vantagepoint of students, the idea of the ‘university bubble’ attempts to abstract our conditions of exploitation as something separate from society. We suffer increasing costs of living despite decreasing quality, crippling debt and a crumbling public educational infrastructure, an academic ecology both on campus and off maintaining white supremacy while generally barring the poor and racial/ethnic minorities, as well as a pervasive patriarchal structure, increasing numbers of students taking on jobs in addition to hypercompetitive workloads to maintain enrollment, and what may amount to the greatest insult, a false meritocracy. These aspects of student life are inherently bound to capitalism. Current demands for affordable, if not free, universities for all, alongside the multiplicity of struggles from students’ interests (ending racial and gender discrimination, demilitarization of campuses, among other demands), present a move away from the neoliberal assault on public universities especially, and a concrete movement towards a socialist education.[4]

The 52,000 service workers who recently struck at the University of California for livable wages and a decent living made it clear that they are very well part of the university, and that there is no university without those who provide for the infrastructure, maintenance, and service of the space. Even a seemingly ‘immaterial labor’ like knowledge production has a material basis. The following are a series of reports in the spirit of solidarity with the strikes of those who cook, clean, drive and work difficult jobs daily for hundreds of thousands of students, researchers, and faculty in one of the richest states in the world.

University of California, Santa Cruz

On May 7th, 52,000 workers from three unions protested in a statewide strike against a low-wage, union-busting, labor-outsourcing contract that the University of California administration forced on AFSCME workers, the latter among the lowest paid workers in the state university system, while the highest paid UC administrators have enjoyed a 64% increase in wages between 2005 and 2015.[5]

At UCSC, workers and students gathered at the base of campus, in that bleary-eyed borderline between late night and early morning of 3 a.m. Throughout, green banners, shirts, hats, pins, and signs swirled at the entrances of campus, making rounds at the main campus entrance intersection in formation, with chants, cheers, and cries for justicia, contra los capitalistas, and for a pueblo never defeated. Signs included “On Strike,” “Fighting for Equality, Fairness, and Respect,” “A Secure Future for All,” and “Students (heart) Workers.” Throughout the morning, a collective of some 150 workers and 250 students amassed in solidarity, blocking campus entrances and resulting in classes cancelled up until noon then. This collective energy was seen previously in the demonstrations and strikes of 2014.

By noon, several citations were handed out to demonstrators by police, and a graduate student was arrested. Demonstrators reported increasingly aggressive behavior from an out-of-town police force brought to campus by the university, who numbered 40 in the face of the 120 or so students at the west entrance of campus, where the first arrest was made, followed by another. One of the organizers decided to call off the picket at this entrance for the safety of the students, and soon after, the administration hailed the continuation of campus operations – the campus shut down had been broken. Soon after, a trickle of cars made their way towards campus, students imploring them to turn back and honor the strike, though seldom a turn. Meanwhile, through the email sent out by the chancellor, students seized the opportunity to message the campus en masse, piercing what amounted to a call to maintain the status quo, and calling for an increased mobilization for the second day of the strike. Marching round the intersection at the base of campus continued as demonstrators amassed, with visible organizations including the unions, but also a Worker-Student Solidarity Coalition.[6] A mariachi band wished the strike well, and students and workers danced to latin music and baile folklorico.

Come Tuesday, students participated in the strike to a lesser degree, and the trickle of cars now turned to a brook. The energy at the base of campus, however, was just as ardent as on the previous day. We lent an ear to workers who described their everyday work.

Three Latinx women working in dining services reported understaffing in their work, especially that of cooks, leading to an increase in workload and pace, taking on tasks to which they were not certified for. They expressed deep sympathy with student workers, noting how students are used as cooks and replacements for other workers, how students are exhausted and after clocking in from a day of class and study (”Hasta se ven dormidos”), disciplined by management and without break periods for most students, all of which being for a low wage (“Los estudiantes necessitan un sube de salario”). These workers spoke of how they engaged in acts of solidarity with student-workers against possible punishment by management, giving student workers breaks “bajito a la mano” (informal breaks), and handmade lemonade, pan dulce, and chocolatito. Their own work was described as difficult at times to the point of tears. Of the strike, one worker said “Nos sentimos bien contentos de los estudiantes que vinieron hoy; los vemos como nuestros ninos” (“We are so happy that students came here today – we see them like our own children”), while another said that the event “los hace sentir como familia” (“makes us feel like family”).

Another two dining service employees, Omar and Maria, discussed similar themes. Having worked at the university for 16 years, they described how “ahora, hay mas trabajo, pero es lo mismo de pago” (“now, there is more work distributed, but the pay is the same”). They spoke of instances of student abuse by management, such as when some managers made a student cry, threw down a student’s plate of snacks, and denied water to students.  Omar described managers as being angry and ill-tempered, and Maria said “A mi, como mama, me enojan los manager en como tratan los estudiantes” (“As a mother, I get angry seeing how management treats the students”). When asked about their experiences with discrimination at work, they mentioned bullying, and “un ambiente toxico” (“a toxic environment”) caused by management. In one instance, one worker was called a “perra” (“female dog”) about to be leashed. Omar said that “Es bien pesado pa trabajar asi” (“It’s heavy working like this”). Speaking of his experience working with students, he said: “somos como segunda familia” (“we’re like a second family”). As for moving forward with the strike, Omar wished that the university would recognize the workers’ demands for a wage that would support a decent standard of living, as the current housing situation in Santa Cruz[7] is forcing him to take a second job; should the university not meet these demands, Omar spoke of another strike after summer break.

As these inquiries were conducted, dancing and marching by students and workers continued.

On the third day of the strike, while some 300 demonstrators participated, with dancing and marching continuing, a stream of cars flowing into campus. Via megaphone call-and-response, students and workers chant: “UC UC you’re no good, treat your workers like you should” and “A-Anti Anti-Capitalista!” Some 15 police watch from across the street under a shady tree, zip ties at the waist. At noon, a worker sings a ranchera, and all are called in to form a picket en masse to demonstrate our numbers.

In a workers’ inquiry, three transportation workers expressed minor dissatisfaction with their jobs; however, they expressed anger and frustration regarding the conditions of their fellow workers in more difficult working situations. One worker, who had previously engaged in a 6-week long strike, stated: “I hope [the UC administration] understands that we as workers deserve benefits and have families to support, and to not take things away from people. I hope they understand that we’re human beings and that we deserve respect.” A worker with UPTE joining the strike in solidarity stated: “The match in commitment the university has in comparison to the commitment I’ve provided over 15 years pisses me off.” Another worker with AFSCME stated: “What we’re doing here is very important, it determines the future of students – it makes a strong point to the Regents of the university on how to manage the university. Your kids [referring to inquirers] will not have anything. With this salary right now, you need 2 jobs. I have 2 jobs.”

In each inquiry conducted throughout these three days of strike, workers noted their feelings of affection for students. Though the UC remains in negotiation on whether it can continue to maintain a labor force in precarity, we students will always stand by our comrades at our university.


[1] These thoughts on knowledge, universities, and capital to be developed further in an upcoming piece.

[2] Starzmann, Maresi. Academic alienation (2018). Available here:

[3] This line of thought is indebted to Ankit Sharma.

[4] On these points in relation to the University of California, see

[5] AFSCME Local 3299, Pioneering Inequality (2018). Available here:

[6] A series of video interviews conducted by Worker-Student Solidarity Coalition can be viewed here:

[7] Santa Cruz is one of the top-five least affordable cities for renters in the US. See:


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