Graduate Student Strikes Are Spreading in California

Inspired by UC Santa Cruz, grad students at UC Santa Barbara are the latest to go on a 'wildcat' strike, in a wave of labor unrest sweeping California's public universities.
Max Abrams/Daily Nexus. 

A graduate student strike at UC Santa Cruz, where hundreds of teaching assistants have refused to teach and withheld grades, has spread 250 miles down the California coast to UC Santa Barbara.

On Thursday, roughly 190 UCSB graduate students plan strike, saying they would refuse to teach and demanding that the university pay every student worker $1,807 a month for living expenses—regardless of their individual salary. The latest strike is part of a movement demanding higher cost-of-living stipends that has galvanized students on nearly every University of California campus.


“People are starving. Grad students are homeless and doing extra jobs and sex work and having to apply for food stamps. I see people sleeping and showering in their offices,” Sheila Kulkarni, a PhD student in Chemistry and a lead organizer of the UCSB strike, told Motherboard. “Santa Barbara is an expensive place to live, as is the case everywhere there’s a UC campus. Cost of living issues are enormous.”

Graduate student salaries at UC Santa Barbara range between $22,000 a year in humanities PhD programs to $43,000 for certain engineering students, according to Kulkarni.

A coastal resort town, Santa Barbara and its surroundings make up the 8th most expensive metro area in California. The median home value is more than $1 million.

In recent weeks, protests demanding a cost of living adjustment, or “COLA,” which began at UC Santa Cruz, have spread to eight other UC campuses. UC Santa Barbara graduate students are the second to vote to go on a full strike. Like the UC Santa Cruz strike, the UC Santa Barbara work stoppage is a “wildcat” strike, meaning that graduate students are acting separately from the United Auto Worker (UAW) 2865, the union which represents more than 19,000 workers across the UC system.

A main cause of alarm among students across the UC system has been threats from UC Santa Cruz to fire roughly 85 graduate students who are still withholding grades. The decision to strike at UCSB follows several weeks of protests in support of UC Santa Cruz grad students—including a mass sick-out, rallies, and occupations of administrative buildings involving hundreds of students. Last Friday, roughly 500 graduate students marched and occupied the outside of the university administration’s offices in solidarity with UC Santa Cruz workers.


“We were admittedly inspired by watching UCSC, and the fact that they have swelling rather than fizzling of support is extremely encouraging,” said Robert McLaughlin, a PhD student in computer science at UCSB, who has offered to teach his undergraduates from the picket line on Thursday but will not be attending class. “By striking, we can protect UC Santa Cruz grad students, but also hope to win a better life for all of us in the UC system.”

"The administration has been meeting with our students regarding the concerns and demands," a UCSB spokesperson told Motherboard. "Our campus has long had a culture of working collaboratively with our students to address concerns and provide support. We recognize the challenges and pressures that our graduate students face, especially those related to housing and we hope to work collaboratively to address these challenges."

On February 10, the day the UC Santa Cruz strike began, UC Santa Barbara students delivered a list of demands to university administrators—which included a $1,807 monthly cost of living adjustment, noting that the average UC Santa Barbara teaching assistant spends more than half of their income on rent. (The federal government classifies those who spend more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent as “severely rent burdened.”)

“As graduate students, our labor produces immense value for the University of California and the general public,” the student workers wrote. “Despite this, at UC Santa Barbara we suffer from severe rent burden—51 percent for a typical teaching assistant at average rates.”

McLaughlin and Kulkarni say it has been harder to engage STEM graduate students in the strike at the university, which is renowned for its ten prestigious science research centers, but that is quickly changing, in part through agitation.

“My vision is to organize STEM students. In the sciences, we get paid much better than our colleagues in the social sciences and humanities,” said Kulkarni, who works in a chemistry research lab and receives a $30,000 annual stipend. “But there’s a lot of fucked up stuff that happens in STEM. A lot of us work 60 hours a week and only get paid for 20 hours of teaching work. Those other 40 hours creates profit for the university. I think I deserve to get paid for that work that profits my employer.”

“There are vastly different experiences within STEM departments. Our funding tends to be spontaneous and comes from national institutions like the Department of Defense, so you’re never quite sure what your funding will be,” said McLaughlin. “It’s been hard to get STEM students involved but I think that’s been changing. People are surprisingly sympathetic.”

The wildcat strikes at California’s public universities arrive during a period of tension between graduate students and administrations at numerous private universities like Columbia University and the University of Chicago that refuse to recognize graduate students as workers. Under the Trump administration, the National Labor Review Board is also moving to strip graduate students at private universities of their status as “employees” and eliminate their right to unionize.