Written by La Voz comrades in UC Berkeley and UCLA
On Thursday March 5th, thousands of graduate students and faculty at several University of California (UC) campuses walked out of class and marched to rallies as part of a day of action across the UC system. This day of action, approved by votes at graduate student assemblies on various campuses, was part of the campaign for cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for graduate student instructors. The mobilizations were organized in solidarity with the 82 graduate students fired by UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) administration in retaliation for their strike action, and in opposition to the Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULP) that the UC management had filed against the TA’s union, the United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865. Some campuses like Berkeley included additional demands for the demilitarization of campus police and divestment from police organizations, as well as demanding an end to semester-only appointments for teaching staff.
Preparations towards a statewide strike have been advancing since then, with UC Berkeley beginning a strike on Monday 16th and a possible statewide ULP strike being organized for April. The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding cancellations of normal in-person classes have compounded the difficulties faced by student workers at universities. Student instructors are now expected to restructure their course-materials into an online-friendly format with minimal technological support and a marked disregard for working health conditions from university administrations. This health crisis has forced strike organizers to move the picket lines off of the campuses and onto the internet. The health crisis also underscores the urgency of the COLA movement’s demands: graduate student employees need a living wage, and the 82 fired workers need to be reinstated now!
UCSC’s Spark and UC’s Growing Retaliation
The grading strike began in the Fall 2019 quarter at UC Santa Cruz, where several hundreds of rank and file graduate students voted to withhold grades because they could not afford to live in the area anymore. Most of them are spending 50 to 70% of their wages to rent rooms in shared housing, many have to get second jobs or commute from far away.
UC President Janet Napolitano threatened to terminate all graduate students on strike if they did not return to work at the end of February. This intimidation campaign forced many to go back to work, especially international students whose visas depend on their student status. Yet a solid group of 82 were fired for withholding grades. In response 500 graduate students in Santa Cruz across 22 departments have pledged to refuse to take the TAships vacated by the 82 terminated graduate students, and hundreds of graduate students held emergency assemblies at UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles (UCLA), and other campuses. They are committed to building this movement beyond Santa Cruz and have demonstrated solidarity in action. Last March 5th was just the first day of coordinated actions. The COLA grassroots assemblies are now moving towards building a state-wide wildcat strike, and they are asking faculty members to join them! At UC Berkeley they are initiating a full teaching strike starting March 19th with more than 15 academic departments participating.
The Grassroots Wildcat Strike and the UAW 2865 Leadership
The wildcat strike was neither organized nor supported by the majority of the UAW 2865 leadership. The UAW leadership has done the opposite, with its leadership signing an unpopular contract in the summer of 2018 that locked all teaching assistants into a 4-year agreement that included insufficient wage increases. Many rank and file workers expressed frustration with the fact that the contract was signed over the summer, when fewer graduate students were around, as well as being angry at the union’s failure to keep its promise that it would get ready for a strike the next fall to win larger wage increases among other demands. UAW leadership held no forums for debate on the Tentative Agreement, and directed paid staff to persuade members to vote “yes”. Nevertheless, a majority of UCSC academic employees voted against this inadequate agreement.
There are many ways to organize a strike, and graduate students at Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and UCLA have chosen to organize it collectively and democratically from below. In the cases of Berkeley and UCLA, they have been organizing at the departmental level. Department by department, student workers are bringing faculty members into the organizing process as well.
The differences between COLA organizers and UAW leadership as Tara P. and Shannon I. have argued, “boil down to a fundamental question: are we “assessing” and “mapping” workers’ engagement for the sake of assessment and data-gathering, or are we assessing what kinds of doable actions workers are willing to take, and giving them a clear path to action? A democratic movement not only consults and maps, it also inspires, gives confidence, and proposes a plan of action. This is what real democracy looks like. It’s messy, and imperfect, but its power cannot be beaten.”
As COLA organizers pointed out, the kind of democracy workers need in their unions and organizing spaces is not a procedural one, or one of quantitative assessment, but a democracy that has a social content and goal, namely, to improve workers’ lives: “the key questions are: how do we implement democracy, and critically, in the service of what? We do not believe that [sic] union or workers’ democracy is the art of polling opinions, or creating the best statistical predictions. Our democracy is a democracy that engages in collective action to fight for our collective needs. We organize democratically in order to transform our living conditions, increase our power as workers in society, and reshape our consciousness as academic workers in public education. Our union democracy is a political practice of solidarity, a practice that starts from the analysis of this world in order to bring about a new world. Our democracy is not neutral or indifferent to our exploitation, acts of injustice, repression, and oppression. It is our best tool to overcome it.”
Legal or Illegal, the Strike Must Continue
Since the strike for COLA began in Santa Cruz, and then spread to other campuses in January with the formation of COLA rank and file committees, the UAW 2865 officials began to change their position. From discouraging and “containing” the strike action at UCSC at the outset, they shifted to begin to show support for the COLA demands they had originally opposed. Now they are finally attempting to give a legal framework to the strike by mobilizing for an Unfair Labor Practice strike, based on the valid charges the union filed against UC administration for their illegal conduct towards the union: an attempt to bargain with the UCGPC (an inter-campus Graduate student government body which is unelected and does not represent graduates as workers) and retaliation against striking graduate students, by punishing them as students and not as employees. The union leadership says that it plans to hold a strike authorization vote early April, but no actual strike date has been set.
The ULP strike should not be considered in opposition to the actual wildcat, because the ULP can and should be used to extend the strike, and involve more graduate students and also faculty in strike action. It is clear that most of UAW 2865’s leadership is promoting the possibility of a future ULP strike in order to stop and dilute the ongoing wildcat strike. Moreover, they do not want nor know how to organize the strike. We believe that it is necessary to merge the strikes. The ULP strike would not be on the table if UCSC graduate students had not started their strike action, which has then been followed by a growing number of individuals and departments at other campuses. Spreading the grassroots wildcat strike from department to department, with the rank and file workforce leading the charge is the best way to ensure that the ULP strike happens and that it is a powerful and successful one. This is why all campuses are accelerating their meetings with departments to get them strike-ready in time for a proposed state-wide teaching strike on April 1st.
COLA Strikers Must Have a Seat at the Negotiating Table
COLA strikers have not yet agreed on how to best conduct the negotiations to secure a COLA increase not only for all graduate students (including both those teaching and those on fellowship), but also to set a milestone beneficial to other unions and university workers. Many of them are wary that if the same UAW 2865 union officials are left in charge of the negotiations, the rank and file will once again be sold out. They want a seat at the bargaining table, and they are right to demand one!
Most COLA organizers, however, believe that the union framework will be the best way to secure COLA increases for all teaching assistants. COLA assemblies are going to be discussing concrete proposals to bargain with UC management on this matter and convene at a state-wide level to discuss their bargaining strategy with elected delegates. It is important to agree on the composition of a new kind of bargaining team that includes representatives of the campus COLA organizing committees elected at the COLA assemblies.
In Order to Win, Graduate Students Need Active Solidarity
The strike is unfolding under very hostile conditions: it is an unsanctioned strike, which was met at first with opposition from the union leadership; it has endured severe repression and now faces the coronavirus crisis situation. The health crisis is being used by UC management to discourage workers from participating in the strike, and guilt trip graduate student workers into working more and making more sacrifices. Despite all of this, graduate students are increasing their militancy and are mobilizing for mass wildcat action. They need all the solidarity we can offer them from other UC constituents (faculty, staff) and from other education unions. COLA organizers are pushing back against the UC administration’s narrative, and they are explicitly linking their struggle for basic needs to the health crisis. Now more than ever graduate students need living wages, to be able to afford food, housing, and medicine. And more importantly, the 82 fired grad workers must be reinstated now! It is unconscionable for UC management to not to hire back these workers in the middle of this pandemic!
It is vital for all other public education unions to support the COLA strike and to protect the UAW 2865 union from retaliation. Solidarity also needs to materialize in the form of financial contributions to their strike and organizing fund, given that graduate students cannot use their own union’s resources and the threat of retaliation they face.
All Support for the UC COLA Strike!
UC Graduate Students Need a COLA NOW!
Reinstate all Fired Workers and Drop the Charges Against the UAW 2865!
UC Must Come to the Bargaining Table!