Interview: Grad workers take on the University of California, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz
UC Berkeley Students rally in solidarity with the UCSC strike


On Dec. 9, graduate workers at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) went on strike and refused to turn in grades, demanding a monthly cost of living adjustment (COLA) of $1412 monthly. Since then the grade strike has turned into a teaching strike, in which more than 80 strikers have been fired by the university. The strike, a wildcat strike because it was not authorized by the union, is now drawing attention from students, media outlets, and union members around the world.

There has been a serious increase in graduate worker militancy in recent years. This includes University of Connecticut, Harvard, University of Chicago, and the UCU in Scotland. University organizing drives and graduate worker militancy expose the corporate nature of the university system, which increasingly relies on underpaid adjuncts and student workers to run the campus. Meanwhile, administrators like the president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, make hundreds of thousands of dollars off the backs of student workers who can’t afford to pay their rent. The result of this corporate model was driven home on Feb. 12 when 17 grad workers were arrested during a strike action. Below is an interview with Dorothy Santos, a striker, union member of the United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, and a Film and Digital Media PhD student at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Ernie Gotta (EG): The UCSC graduate worker strike is important for a number of reasons but especially because it highlights the issue of affordable quality housing. Can you describe for us the reasons why graduate workers have been determined to continue the strike and now risk their jobs?

Dorothy Santos(DS): The primary reason for our continued strike is to affect significant change within an already broken academic system. Many concerned grads from across the disciplines have been seeking a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) since the existing union contract was downvoted / rejected by an overwhelming 83% of the UAW 2865 members in the past few years. Even before the Fall 2019 COLA actions, in 2010, hundreds of UC Santa Cruz graduate students raged against the austerity and deep, hidden pockets of the University of California.

Resistance to the lack of transparency and financial burden on students has been a long deep-seated issue. In 2017, $175 million put into reserves under Janet Napolitano’s administration as UCOP president were discovered during an audit. Even combing through the book-length UC’s Budget of Current Operations report for 2020-2021, teaching assistants are noted within the document as “helping to meet UC’s overall instructional needs, though their primary importance lies in the ways they complement faculty roles: leading small discussion groups and laboratory sections, offering a wider range of perspectives and teaching delivery modes, and serving as near-peer mentors for undergraduates.”

COLA is necessary, considering the situation many graduate students find themselves in. On top of their own studies and research, they are expected to TA for large lecture courses and have upwards of 75-80 students as a part of their workload. Yet graduate students take on additional work outside of the institution as well as freelance to help make ends meet. Many are still left deeply rent-burdened by the lack of funding. The firing of graduate students shows the complacency of both the administration and UCOP to be in conversation with graduate students for viable, short-term and long-term solutions to address the housing crisis in Santa Cruz.

EG: Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California and former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has said that the UC was bargaining in good faith. Can you explain why her two proposed solutions: “a $2500 need-based housing fellowship; and a five-year funding program at the minimum support level of a 50 percent teaching assistantship for doctoral students” will not resolve the demands of grad workers? What do grad workers need to bring a resolution to the strike?

DS: Information and more detailed calculations can be found on the site. It is important to understand that the $1412 amount is an underestimate. This initial calculation was based on several assumptions, which if anything, are biased towards conservative estimates. These assumptions are the following:

  • Teaching assistants only have the income to pay rent for nine months of each year, rather than all 12 months.
  • The cost of living in Santa Cruz can be approximated by the cost of living in Santa Cruz county.
  • A representative graduate student does not live alone, but rather and oftentimes, splits the cost of a housing unit with at least three bedrooms.
  • The 30% rent burden threshold applies to pre-tax income, rather than take-home income.

If we relax any of these assumptions, our estimate for a COLA would increase.

Now, the $2500 housing fellowship is for one year is calculated to $207 per month, and this is a need-based fellowship. It has become apparent, to all TAs, under the existing conditions as need-based, which is why we continue to strike. As for the promise of a five-year funding package of teaching assistantship at a minimal of 50% of a standard (normative, 5-6 years) doctoral program at UC Santa Cruz, this is a rhetorical substitute for a COLA. This package, again, applies to students that qualify as need-based. But how would this work for students working multiple jobs who may not qualify due to the funding they are receiving outside of the university?

This “package” also doesn’t address a minimum of 50% since TAs already work a minimum of this percentage, which is roughly two academic years. Essentially, this package doesn’t resolve the existing issue of students’ being rent-burdened up to spending 80% of their TA income on rent alone, with little to no money for medical needs, childcare, utilities, and food—the necessities.

EG: Do grad workers at UCSC see themselves as connected to the broader strike wave in the U.S. that has included the GM Stop and Shop and teacher strikes? How has the UAW responded to your wildcat strike? Has organized labor in Santa Cruz mobilized support?

DS: Absolutely! Our stories and struggles are intertwined into systems that people might find disparate. These strikes are not mutually exclusive. If anything, they speak to the crisis in education, broadly. Yet specific to higher education, the need for graduate students to be able to work solely on their studies and research is no longer the norm. The new normal, which is spiraling into the corporatization of universities and colleges across the U.S., is the lack of support and expectation that graduate students will find and fend for themselves with very little to no support by administration.

The public university seems to be diminishing, and the strike is a serious unraveling of all the things that have brought us to this tense moment where graduate students must gain the attention beyond the administration to show the world that change must be done through the means of withholding the labor needed to run the university.

While the UAW was not initially supportive of the wildcat strike back in December 2019, there has been a motion made by UAW leadership to seek a vote for early April that would enable UAW 2865 members to vote for a full strike. But the overall support received by the community and great general public has been positive, with an outpouring of support from other UC campuses such as Berkeley and Davis leading their own full teaching strikes as a sign of support and in solidarity with fired UC grad students. With presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders recently expressing support for the UC grads, the strike is spreading far and beyond what we imagined.

EG: The strike is spreading to other campuses. What next for the UCSC grad workers in building the strike? What steps are being taken to win back the jobs of the 54 who were fired? Are others facing termination?

DS: There is a call for extending the strike and withholding grades for the winter 2020 quarter. Also, to clarify, over 80+ TAs were fired from their spring appointments. As mentioned, other UC campuses have joined, in solidarity, to support the fired grads as well as forming their own desire to obtain a much-needed COLA for their own respective situations. While we don’t know the situation of termination or disciplinary actions for other campuses, there are strength and solidarity in numbers. But graduate, undergraduate, and faculty continue to picket and conduct teach-ins at the picket line.

The hope is that we rally together to continue to fight and have the jobs of the fired TAs reinstated. The administration made a grave mistake, considering the unnecessary chaos that deeply affected course curriculums. The lack of foresight and exorbitant spending on militarizing the campus (over $5 million spent on police and law enforcement) on the administration and UCOP’s office further showcase the unwillingness to acknowledge the crisis of housing security across Santa Cruz, the Bay Area, and California at large.

EG: A major part of the strike action has been withholding grades. How have undergrad students responded? Are they supporting the strike?

DS: The majority of undergraduate students have been supportive and have expressed sentiments of solidarity by stating that they are willing to forego grades until their TAs receive a COLA. While every movement has its difficulties, the discussions and conversations that have been happening between undergrads, grad students, and faculty have enabled a conscious dialogue around how a COLA is related to everyone’s roles within the university. We’re grateful for the immense outpouring of support by the undergraduate students that have shown up to the picket line and joining the strike alongside their TAs. But also becoming politically and culturally engaged in how this fight is a greater fight and call to action for saving the public university school system.

EG: What can our readers do to help support the strike?

DS: Share. Share. Share. Learn more by visiting: Donate to our GoFundMe strike fund:

EG: Any final comments you’d like to share?

DS: Paulo Freire said it best in his foundation text on education, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.” Our hope, as striking grads and all that are in solidarity, is to transform the system that has brought us to the place where we find ourselves now, which doesn’t happen quietly.

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