Threats against striking UC Santa Cruz students backfire as Sen. Sanders steps in

Meanwhile, administration has been forced to answer for police brutality incidents against nonviolent protestors

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published February 24, 2020 8:04PM (EST)

UC Santa Cruz sign (University of California Santa Cruz website /
UC Santa Cruz sign (University of California Santa Cruz website /

This story was updated on Feb. 25 to include statements from the UCSC chancellor's office.

Graduate student workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), who live and study in one of the most expensive and overburdened housing markets in the country, didn't think they were demanding too much when they went on a wildcat strike last month to try to win a modest cost of living adjustment (COLA) pay increase.

Then came the riot cops. 

Rather then engage with the student workers' sensible demands for having their basic survival needs met, administrators at UCSC opted to send in police in riot gear to greet the nonviolent protesters at the picket line at the base of campus. The police, which consisted of a combination of University of California police along with cops bussed in from other campuses and counties, beat students with batons and paper-arrested at least 17 nonviolent protesters. The university has since issued a statement on the arrests of February 12, calling the strikes "unsanctioned." 

"Administration told us that sending in this extra policing cost $300,000 a day," Yulia Gilichinskaya, a fourth-year PhD student in Film & Digital Media who has insider knowledge of meetings with administrators, told Salon. The expensive supplemental police presence on campus, which lasted a week, seems to call into question the administration's narrative that a cost of living increase would be unaffordable, Gilichinskaya notes. 

Last week, Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system and the former governor of Arizona, sent a warning letter to faculty and students who were participating in the wildcat strike by withholding grades and teaching assistant duties. "Holding undergraduate grades hostage and refusing to carry out contracted teaching responsibilities is the wrong way to go," Napolitano wrote in the Feb. 14th letter. She continued: "Therefore, participation in the wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University. . . . We urge the striking TAs [teaching assistants] to turn in their grades and return to the classroom."

As graduate workers note, such a threat of termination is not only alarming, but it also belies the only functional labor model for academia, in which graduate students are paid to teach and grade within their own departments. This work-study model is standard pedagogical practice at all American graduate institutions. [Editor's note: the author was a graduate student at UCSC from 2015-16, but has no relationship with any of the sources or institutions in this story.]

"Napolitano never addressed who would replace grad workers," James Sirigotis, a fifth-year PhD student in sociology, told Salon.  

Sirigotis, who was one of the protesters physically injured by police, noted that faculty members understand this contradiction innate to Napolitano's threat. 

"The faculty are really well-organized and voted to endorse our [cost of living adjustment] demands . . . They asked the Executive Vice Chancellor [Lori Kletzer] and Chancellor [Cynthia Larive], 'What was the plan if they were willing to fire these TAs? How do you expect us to be able to teach? How do you expect the university to operate?'"

"The response was, 'We don't know, we'll cross that bridge when we get there,'" Sirigotis continued. "That probably contributed to the growth of faculty support — when [faculty] realized they did not have a plan and would fire [graduate student workers] without a plan as to how teaching would continue." 

Indeed, faculty members have been supportive of the strike, and generally haven't crossed the picket line. Gilichinskaya notes that many faculty have opted to hold their classes off-campus, away from the base of campus where the picket line is.

While Napolitano's threat seems to have scared a few graduate student workers, it also seems to have ignited a solidarity movement — both among students on campus, students at other University of California campuses, and with national political stars. 

According to a press release from Pay Us More UCSC, the name of the organized wildcat strikers, "At least 85 UCSC grad students" out of around 500 graduate student workers have continued to withhold grades despite administration's Feb. 21 deadline and firing threat. Likewise, multiple UC campuses have threatened work stoppages and strikes if Napolitano follows through on her threat to fire said students.

"The entire graduate student body of a dozen campus departments have also signed pledges refusing to accept Spring quarter appointments if UCSC terminates a single one of their colleagues," the Pay Us More UCSC press release noted. 

Meanwhile, many UC campuses held rallies supporting UCSC graduate workers' demands and insisting the administration back down on its threats. University of California at Santa Barbara held a rally on their campus in support of a cost-of-living increase; video from the rally, which depicts hundreds of student protesters, can be viewed on Instagram. University of California, San Diego held a similar rally, as did Irvine and UC Berkeley. Likewise, undergraduates at UC Santa Cruz have come out en masse in support of their graduate coevals

Shockingly, police brutality against student protestors is not confined to UC Santa Cruz. On Thursday, Feb. 20, at a solidarity rally for graduate cost-of-living-adjustments at the University of California, Irvine, a black undergraduate alumna, who was passing by the rally to order a transcript, was tackled by UC Irvine's (UCI) on-campus police. She was booked in the Orange County Jail and arrested with assaulting an officer, as the UCI Police Department noted. The UCI Black Student Union, in concert with other on-campus activist groups, have started a petition to the UC Irvine chancellor demanding accountability. 

If UCSC and Napolitano follow through on threats, a grading and teaching strike at other campuses is likely to ensue. 

Likewise, students do have another huge ally on their side: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the leading Democratic candidate for president and the most popular politician in the United States according to polls. 

"UCSC grad students are fighting to have their labor rights acknowledged," Sen. Sanders wrote on Twitter on Feb. 19. "I strongly urge the president of the UC system to stop threatening them, especially immigrant students, for organizing."

Notably, many striking UCSC graduate workers are international students, meaning that their U.S. visas are dependent on their campus employment. Firing them, as President Napolitano promised, is tantamount to deportation — a cruel repercussion that the students strikers were quick to point out.

"The threat is real," Gilichinskaya, who is herself an international student, added. "I see a lot of support from the strikers — we're very well organized, so we might find a way to support each other so that no one has to leave the country, and I also see faculty organized in such ways so that they can support the striking students."

"So I'm not freaked out just yet, but I realize the consequences," she concluded.

Because this is a wildcat strike, the graduate student workers' formal union, United Auto Workers 2865, is not directly involved in labor negotiations at the moment. Doing so would possibly violate the contract they negotiated with UC-wide administration previously. Still, the UAW Local 2865 has been working to ensure that any COLA adjustment won by strikers becomes a permanent legal feature of their contract.

Indeed, UAW 2865 hopes to bring the cost of living adjustment to all students with a "statewide COLA" movement that they are pushing, according to an anonymous joint council member who was not authorized to speak publicly for the union.

To that end, UC administration offered a retroactive, $2,500 stipend to all MFA and PhD students at UCSC. Curiously, the offer excluded other masters degree students, and was offered as a housing contingency to graduate students, not graduate student workers — meaning such an offer is technically outside of the scope of a union contract. (Not all graduate students are also instructors or graders; many are on fellowship, or not working while in school.)

The university specifically calls it a "housing stipend," as one can see in their statement on the subject, in which the chancellor writes that they are "instituting an annual housing supplement of $2,500 for doctoral and MFA students offered through the Graduate Division." 

UAW Local 2865 President Kavitha Iyengar issued a statement regarding the stipend: 

While we are glad to hear this news [of the $2500 stipend offer], it is not enough, for three reasons: first, because it is not under the framework of a union contract and thus not legally enforceable, it is not guaranteed. Second, it is limited to workers at Santa Cruz. As our framework for a COLA demonstrates, workers at every single campus are rent burdened and need this relief. And third, even with these funds, student workers are still rent burdened. 

Gilichinskaya also noted the peculiarity of the school's meager offer. "[The offer] makes a distinction between us as students and us as workers," Gilichinskaya told Salon. "This housing supplement [offered by the administration] is for us as students. We won't involve the union, because this isn't about workers."

In a meeting, Gilichinskaya had a chance to ask UC Santa Cruz Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer about this loophole directly. 

"[I asked her] if you support us as students, why does our performance as workers qualify or not qualify us for this [stipend]? Why would my work as a worker affect this? 

"The [executive vice chancellor] responded that they 'needed the strike to end,'" Gilichinskaya noted. "She openly admitted that this measure is a strike-breaking tactic."

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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