How the University of California is using the pandemic to exploit workers and lecturers

Amid a crisis, the University of California is doubling down on neoliberal restructuring and anti-labor actions

Published April 8, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

UC Santa Cruz grad student strike (Instagram/@payusmoreucsc)
UC Santa Cruz grad student strike (Instagram/@payusmoreucsc)

The novel coronavirus is provoking an unprecedented social crisis; we are witnessing corporate profiteering, renewed calls for neoliberal austerity, and small but powerful examples of collective action. As educators and students scramble to rearrange life to study and teach from home, graduate students in the University of California (UC) system — the #1 public university system in the world, and the largest employer in the fifth-largest economy in the world — are pressed to the brink. Already rent burdened and food insecure, as of this week, almost a thousand are striking to demand cost of living adjustments as they struggle to keep colleges functioning.

On December 9, 2019, more than 200 graduate students — classified as academic student employees (ASEs) — from the University of California, Santa Cruz began striking to demand a cost of living adjustment (COLA) of $1400 per month to meet basic needs. In February, UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) fired 54 striking ASEs, forcing single parents, international students, and students living with chronic illnesses and disabilities to lose health coverage in the midst of a global pandemic. ASEs do the bulk of teaching and grading across the UCs and receive, on average, only $21,900 annually, despite living in some of the most expensive zip codes in the US. Half of all ASEs spend between 40 to 60% of their salaries on rent and 40% of all UC students experience food insecurity. Economic precarity has devastating social and psychological effects. According to the California Budget and Policy Center, the proportion of UC students seeking mental health services rose 78% in the past decade. These are the everyday realities of a university system that repeatedly touts itself as "student-centered."

The COVID-19 epidemic has further accentuated these existing vulnerabilities and inequities. Administrators swiftly moved all education online without consulting students; most faculty remained completely unaware of the shift as well. Until now, most prestigious universities have not been able to sell online education to faculty or the public, given numerous studies indicating its inefficacy compared to in-person classroom teaching. Yet, periods of large-scale shock can be used to enact highly deleterious ideas and transform them into common practice. The COVID-19 crisis allows policy-makers and administrators to experiment with what they see as the future of higher education: online education taught by underpaid (but talented) lecturers instead of tenured faculty and developing course content in marketable and modular microcertifications owned by the university that can be recycled, reused, and adopted.

Past experience of the Great Recession also tells us that the impending economic recession likely means that lecturer employment will be further reduced while faculty are furloughed—leading to larger course sizes. In the process, they turn a deeply flawed, unequal and baleful plan into an efficient stroke of administrative genius in the name of "educational continuity." Meanwhile, faculty must learn to teach remotely, and many will normalize these conditions. The novel coronavirus may not mark the end of classroom education, but it may be a critical turning point.

To be clear, we are not arguing against the need for accommodations during a pandemic. Was an educational change necessary? Absolutely. However, more humane alternatives were possible. Given that education must be classified as essential work, the UC administration could have suspended classes to allow students to attend to family, health and employment matters without laying off or furloughing workers. Remote learning also raises unresolved questions about intellectual property rights and privacy, given the need to run online sessions and upload course content, including lectures, onto private platforms, such as Zoom, a company which was just sued for sharing data with third parties such as Facebook. Nor has the university considered tuition and fees rebates for students, many of whom are now displaced from campus and will receive a lower standard of learning given the unpreparedness of many faculty unfamiliar with remote teaching.

COVID-19 make COLA demands more important than ever, even as the pandemic and an impending economic downturn threaten to drown out calls for dignified working and living conditions. Yet, in lieu of responding to the needs of student workers in this time of increased precarity, the UC budget reveals an institution which rewards high-level administration and pursues a growth-at-any-cost model. The number of administrators earning salaries in excess of $174,000 per year has nearly doubled since 2012 — from 5,931 to over 10,000. State defunding has led the UC to invest in commercializable endeavors like the Los Angeles campus "hotel empire." These trends violate the system's public trust to support the research necessary to address the pressing challenges of our times: pandemics, ethno-nationalism, surveillance capitalism, economic inequality and climate emergency.

Amidst widespread calls throughout the UC system to reinstate 82 fired ASEs, UC President Napolitano and the UC Santa Cruz administration offered to rehire them on the condition that they submit their withheld grades within 24 hours and waive their rights to file grievances over their firings. With little time to respond, COLA organizers asked for clarification of the offer as well as other assurances, including of non-retaliation and full reinstatement effective in the current Spring quarter. Without acknowledging these concerns, the UC administration withdrew the offer. A counteroffer submitted by strikers to the UC administration on March 31 has not yet received a response. The COLA movement's immediate goal is to reinstate the 82 fired UCSC graduate students, demand an immediate halt to ongoing disciplinary procedures, and remove disciplinary letters from terminated students' employment files so that they are not penalized in future hiring. Despite its inadequacy, the UC offer demonstrates that graduate student labor is an essential function of the university.

The COLA movement is more important than ever before. It is growing by combining collective striking with mutual aid to support fired and precarious students. While important, these cannot substitute a genuinely public and democratic educational system that pays all its workers enough to live with dignity. A COLA for graduate student workers is an important first step towards this goal. While this is a long-term struggle, it is winnable.

Follow the COLA strike through the hashtags #cola4all, #spreadthestrike, and #payusmoreucsc.

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Commentary Graduate Students Labor Pandemic Student Workers University Of California