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These UC Santa Cruz Graduate Students Are Striking For Better Working Conditions

And their movement is spreading: 'We're fighting these larger issues, but just at the university level'

By Jessica Suriano

Brenda Arjona is a doctoral anthropology student, a teaching assistant, a single parent, and a resident of the University of California Santa Cruz’s family-student housing, where she pays 78 percent of her monthly income to her rent. In December she went on strike for better working conditions; two months later, she was fired.

When Arjona and over 250 UCSC graduate students first joined forces on the picket line late last year, it was to demand that the university provide graduate-student workers a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, to their teaching assistant pay in light of Santa Cruz’s surging housing costs — where over half of renters spend more than 30 percent of their household income, making them rent-burdened. (A recent analysis found that Santa Cruz is the least affordable city in the country for educators to live.) Aside from their constant battle to avoid eviction, people who are rent-burdened often find themselves choosing between paying for housing or buying nutritious foods, medicines, and access to transportation.

“That’s definitely not the position you want to be in as a parent,” Arjona told MTV News. “There's been times where we're doing so bad financially that I've been telling my son, you know what, I can't buy you milk this week.”

And that stress can take a toll on every aspect of a person’s life, including their job. Student workers are often integral links between professors and their students, as they are involved in designing curriculum, grading assignments, meeting with students one-on-one for extra help, and teaching class sections of their own. In lectures with hundreds of students, teaching assistants can foster personal connections that make the higher education system feel less isolating. Several studies have found that undergraduate students, especially freshmen, are less likely to quit school and more likely to have positive learning experiences when working with graduate teaching assistants.

The student workers at UCSC first decided to withhold from submitting undergraduates’ grades by the fall quarter deadline of December 18, an action the university told them was an “abandonment of your job responsibilities,” but the movement soon escalated to a labor strike. By early February 2020, 82 student workers refused to submit grades, and over 300 refused to teach classes, hold office hours, or conduct research. In response, the university sent dismissal letters to 54 student workers regarding their teaching assistant positions in the upcoming spring term on February 28, and 28 other student workers were told they would “no longer be considered” for teaching positions.

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Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) voiced support for the striking students the same day they were fired and criticized the university’s actions as “disgraceful,” stating that “all workers deserve the right to bargain and strike for better wages and benefits” He also issued a demand to the University of California system president, Janet Napolitano, and to the school specifically to “stop this outrageous union-busting and negotiate in good faith.”

But better wages are only the tip of the iceberg for many student workers at UCSC, who are joining a broader movement in which students call attention to other issues they face, including immigration reform and access to health care within labor rights of the education sector. In 2019, thousands of students performed walkouts from their campuses in support of undocumented students and to denounce President Donald Trump’s attempts to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. At Brigham Young University-Idaho, students protested their university’s health insurance policy until it was amended, and graduate student-workers at Harvard University went on strike for affordable health care that included mental health treatment.

“I think that's why a lot of us feel so compelled to continue to fight,” Arjona said. “Because we see what we're really fighting, and it's not just the UC, it's not just the rent burden — we're fighting these larger issues, but just at the university level.”

Arjona’s frustrations with UCSC were validated by dozens of peers, each facing unique challenges that were not being resolved by university administration. Yulia Gilich, who studies in the Film and Digital Media department and serves as copresident of the Graduate Student Association, is facing deportation after their participation in the UCSC strike. Their visa for international students is contingent on being employed in an on-campus job. Without a new on-campus job to replace their teaching assistant position, which was terminated as a result of the strike, Gilich could have to leave the country.

“It's notable that a lot of international and undocumented students have been at the forefront of this movement, organizing for the strike and during the strike,” they told MTV News. “Our conditions here are particularly unlivable. So for me, it was either I try my best and I try my hardest… and I try to make it better, or I have to leave anyway.”

Gilich has had to move four times over the span of three years since they first relocated to Santa Cruz because their housing became unsafe for one reason or another. Some of their friends couldn’t afford to move as often, and at times resigned to living in unsanitary conditions.:  After first sharing a two-bedroom home with four other students and sleeping in the living room for nine months, Sohum Banerjea, an international student in a PhD program for computer science at UCSC, secured a new home. He was excited to finally have his own bedroom — until he walked in one day to see a rat.

While these student workers later realized they shared a common goal, they had different paths that led them to the movement. Arjona was receiving fellowship funds during the first two years of her PhD program, but she soon realized the teaching assistant pay would not be enough to sustain her family. She decided to become more involved after attending a COLA rally, while Gilich had a history of organizing around local campaigns in Santa Cruz, such as those for rent control measures and mutual aid programs for homeless encampments. Banerjea said his department is “historically under-organized,” but he started feeling strongly about the strike once the university administration threatened to fire the student workers. Soon, hundreds of people began meeting on the picket line for hours each day and were sometimes met with police presence and the threat of arrest.

“This university is supposed to care about access to education for all,” Banerjea, who like Gilich uses an F1 visa to attend UCSC, told MTV News. “It's supposed to be able to provide an environment in which anyone can come and contribute their ideas, and their thoughts, and their skills to welcoming research, education and learning community,” he added. “It's made it clear that it's not that. It's made it clear that as far as the university's concerned, the only thing that they're willing to care about is their bottom line.”

The students’ movement, Pay Us More UCSC, called the threat of termination of employment “de facto deportation” for international students on strike. But it’s not the only threat they’re facing: The striking students’ health care was also jeopardized after they received their notices of dismissal. The precarious positions they now face have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic — and undocumented students, immunocompromised students, and students with chronic illnesses are at a special risk of receiving inadequate care should they contract COVID-19.

“I recognize that the administration’s position is that TAs who withheld grades should lose their employment,” a pregnant PhD student wrote to the university. “But if we are allowed to remain students, do you not worry for our wellbeing as students, who cannot afford healthcare in a public health crisis?”

The student-workers’ mental health has become strained, too. Arjona experiences anxiety and panic attacks because she isn’t able to afford basic needs. Opening bills in the mail that are already past-due is a weekly nightmare.

“My son has watched me go through depression and have these little meltdowns and that’s another big sacrifice I never thought I’d be making in graduate school that is affecting the quality of life that my son is getting and that I’m getting,” she said.

In a long-awaited victory, the fired students won back their health insurance coverage on March 16. Still, they have no intention of ending the strike until all of their demands, including a cost-of-living adjustment and reinstatement of the terminated jobs, are met. And according to Literature PhD student Nathan Osorio, choosing to continue the strike is worth the risks all of the graduate students face because they don’t want the University of California system to return to its antiquated ways.

“I don't know if I can live with myself thinking when I had the opportunity to make higher education the place I thought it was growing up, that I didn't take that chance, and I left it a place of scarcity, a place where only privileged bodies and voices can be present,” he told MTV News.

The counter-offers university administration made to the striking students includes providing graduate students with an annual $2,500 housing supplement until more campus housing is available, offering five-year support packages for doctorate students, creating a temporary housing assistance program, and forming a working group to “develop a strategic plan” for graduate student support. But as Gilich sees it, those offers aren’t enough.

“A five-year guarantee of poverty wages is not a good enough offer for us to give up our power,” Gilich said. “A housing supplement of $2,500 a year is insufficient to bring us out of rent-burden in Santa Cruz, it's a supplement that is not available to all graduate students, and will sunset when the school builds more unaffordable housing. So it's definitely not something that we were taking seriously.”

In a statement emailed to MTV News, a university official from the office of UC’s president said the striking students “are unfairly harming UC’s undergraduate students.” And Andrew Gordon, associate director of media relations for the UC system, also wrote to MTV News that the strike violated the university’s contract with the United Auto Workers union (UAW 2865), which represents 19,000 student-workers in the UC system; that contract expires in 2022. (The UCSC strike was first considered a “wildcat strike,” because it was not officially recognized by UAW.) As of mid-March, UAW 2865 leadership announced that 97 percent of graduate student respondents across the UC system voted overwhelmingly to ratify union demands to reopen contract negotiations and to fight for a cost-of-living adjustment across the state. And over 1,600 UCSC undergraduate students have signed a letter directly disputing the university’s claim that they have been harmed by the graduate students’ strike.

“Your repeated attempts to pit undergraduate students against graduate students have failed,” the letter said. “As graduate students have mentored, supported, and cared for us, we will, in turn, support and care for them.”

More than 70 faculty members have also offered statements of support to the students while shaming the university for taking punitive measures against them, and approximately 250 faculty members signed a petition urging the university to reinstate the students’ jobs with the cost-of-living adjustment incorporated into the pay. Over 2,000 alumni of UCSC pledged to withhold any donations to the school until the administration agrees to pay for the COLA.

“The precarity of graduate life in Santa Cruz makes it increasingly difficult to recruit prospective grads from diverse backgrounds,” Madeleine Fairbairn, an Environmental Studies professor, wrote. “This is a social justice issue. We can’t become an institution that only grants PhDs to the already-privileged.”

Camilla Hawthorne, a sociology professor, agreed. “Graduate students are the backbone of this institution, and their labor is what allows the university to fulfill its missions of high-quality undergraduate education and cutting-edge research production,” she wrote.

The threat of the coronavirus has also forced the students to focus on their “digital picket” rather than their usual in-person actions. UCSC suspended in-person classes until at least April 3 in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and discouraged gatherings of more than 50 people per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Even with new uncertainties on how and when the students can organize, the impact of their mobilization has spread far beyond their own campus. Graduate students at UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley announced they would begin their own teaching strikes for cost-of-living-adjustment stipends, while counterparts at UC Davis and UC San Diego have also launched grading strikes. And students as far as the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland have voiced support for the strikes in the UC system.

“This campaign has kind of been like an earthquake in the way that earthquakes reveal the fault lines in an entire system,” Osorio said.