As winter comes to a close and the final quarter of the academic year approaches, wildcat strikers throughout the state are bracing for further repression from the University of California. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, teaching has moved online for the remainder of the academic year.
This has made organizing more difficult. Rather than having examination booklets and final papers in our own hands, we must plead with our students and our faculty supervisors to respect what is now a digital picket line, and to give us the final materials we are meant to grade so that we can still withhold our labor. We are facing renewed pressure to work even longer hours, as in-person classes are being transformed overnight into curricula that can be delivered exclusively on Zoom and Canvas. This comes on the heels of the university administration’s pressuring departments and faculty to submit “pass” or “no pass” grades based on limited grading information for students whose final assignments and grades are still being withheld by strikers, undermining any lingering hope of academic integrity.
As with the Covid-19 pandemic, times of crisis reveal the true priorities of public institutions, and our labor action was launched with that in mind. Through our actions, we have revealed an institution—presided over, fittingly, by a former director of Homeland Security—that is ready to break a labor action at any cost, including the deportation of international students and the targeting of the most vulnerable members of its community.
Last December, several hundred graduate students at UC Santa Cruz initiated a grading strike for the fall term, following years of failed attempts to open substantive conversations with campus administration over increasingly unlivable conditions in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country. We collectively withheld more than 12,000 final grades from the fall term as leverage in a wildcat strike action for a cost of living adjustment (COLA). In the months since, our strike has proliferated into a broader movement opposing the University of California’s austerity policies, involving undergraduates, tenured and contingent faculty, along with workers and staff, while also provoking parallel COLA movements on all 10 UC campuses.
The scope of strike activities expanded along with their scale: Just before the winter break, a coalition of graduate and undergrad students initiated dining hall takeovers and sit-ins, which continued into the first weeks of the winter quarter. On February 10, graduate students escalated to a full teaching strike and established a month-long physical picket that spilled into the streets on most afternoons; scores of students showed up to eat lunch, talk, dance, and roller-skate.
Despite nationwide media coverage of the strike, and its broad support from across academia and the public at large, the UC administration has refused to deal directly with striking workers, and has met them instead with riot police and violent arrests.
Most recently, this has resulted in the mass termination of 82 student workers, all of whom were set to lose their health care in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The university only recently agreed to continue their health care as part of a negotiation wherein the graduate student workers’ union agreed to hold parts of the disciplinary process in a 30-day abeyance, giving university labor relations an opportunity to catch up with the mountain of paperwork that a mass firing like this produces.
As the strike enters a fourth month, the administration’s response has shifted in ways that demand closer scrutiny. They range from systemic and targeted harassment to repression of political and labor dissent through the Student Conduct process, to misinformation campaigns, to the implementation of many levels of campus surveillance, to undermining principles of academic integrity.
Long before the displays of police violence against peaceful protestors, there were sustained calls within the COLA movement to defund the campus police because of the active role it plays in the institution’s disciplinary regime. Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer repeatedly told graduate students that the administration was spending $300,000 per day on police during the strike. But this is only the most quotable misuse of force and public funds.
Less public, but no less corrupt, have been those forms of policing that do not require batons and riot gear. These include trumped-up charges and a spate of tickets issued to picketers, frequently our most precarious and vulnerable supporters. In the first week of the picket, police singled out and cited a Latinx undergraduate supporter for jaywalking in a group of picketers. The police also ticketed at least two drivers for honking in support of the picket, without moving once against countless aggressive and speeding drivers who have endangered the lives of peaceful picketers.
On March 5, while actions were staged across the UC system demanding the reinstatement of fired workers, strikers, and their supporters at Santa Cruz’s closed campus, the police, rather than engaging in direct confrontation, harassed and issued tickets to undergraduate students who had volunteered to drive strike taxis during the closure as an informal alternative to the campus bus services. It should not be overlooked that these students belong to a UCSC organization called the Snail Movement, a group of houseless students advocating for the right to sleep in their cars on campus without police harassment.
Consistent with these low-profile police tactics, the UC administration has rolled out successive waves of student conduct summons to punish those affiliated with the wildcat strike. This amounts to weaponizing an academic process—that is, the student conduct review process—against a labor movement, targeting the student status of graduate workers. These tactics have sinister effects beyond the labor and pay dispute and the violation of our rights as workers—recording our legitimate labor actions as violating student conduct codes will affect our future standing as scholars and researchers. Even with the onset of the global pandemic, the student code of conduct proceedings have not skipped a beat. Summons hearings are still being carried out over Zoom, and students are still expected to attend, even if they’ve been forced to flee campus housing or even the country.
The process also denies us due process. The student conduct review process is essentially a kangaroo court, in which an investigative officer appointed by the chancellor acts simultaneously as prosecutor, judge, and jury. Under this process, the UCSC administration is moving to discipline and potentially even expel a number of wildcat grading strike participants—including those who were already fired from spring appointments.
More concretely, and absurdly, the UC has begun issuing student conduct summonses for quasi-criminal charges, bypassing legal proceedings altogether. A visible leader of the strike, Carlos Cruz, is presently summoned to a student conduct hearing for false charges that read like resisting arrest. The accusation runs:
It was also reported [by police that] you grabbed at the police officer’s uniform and baton, using your body and weight, and bending at the knees and jerking back and forth repeatedly in an attempt to disarm the officer of his baton.
The UC purports to value first-generation students, particularly those of color. Our chancellor notes that diversity “makes good economic sense.” But when these students make demands of their own, they are the first to be punished. We see this summons as targeting Carlos, son of an immigrant single mother and the first person from his community to study for an advanced degree, for his role in the COLA movement.
This spring break, we worked around the clock to support one another through grievance hearings, student conduct hearings, and the approaching deadline for spring quarter tuition: another day of uncertainty for students whose housing, food security, and education hang in the balance. In the coming weeks, which will be some of the most critical for our movement, rank-and-file organizers across the state will be holding meetings via Zoom to respond to the numerous threats that face us.
We will also be hosting “Strike University,” which will be replete with workshops, teach-ins, and other free educational activities bringing us together with undergrads and other community members throughout the UC system in a time of deep isolation and pessimism about the neoliberal university. At the same time, we’re thinking creatively about new tactics and we’re looking to the long game in a time when nationwide rumblings of rent strikes and demands for Medicare for All bolster, rather than diminish, our demand to be paid enough to live where we work.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the shape of our organizing—massive Zoom assemblies have replaced our daily communion on the picket line—it has also brought the prescience of our demand for a COLA into sharper focus. Like striking Instacart, Amazon warehouse, and Whole Foods workers across the country, we recognize that now more than ever our demands as workers have a force and legitimacy that our bosses will never have. For graduate student workers, our living conditions are now our working conditions, and more than ever we need them to be safe. More than ever we need connection, community, and the right to live where we work with dignity. More than ever, we need a COLA.
Want to support UCSC strikers? Consider contributing to our strike fund here.