The University of California has agreed to reinstate 41 UC Santa Cruz graduate student workers who were fired in March after waging a months-long ‘wildcat’ strike. The strike for a cost of living adjustment galvanized students at nearly every single campus in the UC’s 285,000-student system.
Last week, following months of protests, campus negotiations, and outcry from elected officials, the University of California agreed to reinstate the 41 teaching assistants.
The university also agreed to offer the 41 students, who had lost their teaching appointments, an additional quarter of funding and an employment guarantee for the upcoming academic year.
“This is a testament to the power of collective action. We were on the picket line for five weeks. We withheld grades for five months. We had a national boycott going, email campaigns, and received letters from around the world, and now we have our jobs back,” Veronica Hamilton, a PhD student in psychology at UC Santa Cruz, who was fired from her teaching position, told Motherboard.
The historic labor victory for UC Santa Cruz graduate student workers signals to other graduate student workers struggling to make ends meet across one of the country’s largest public university systems and beyond that collective strike actions can push large universities to make concessions. In February, UC Santa Cruz agreed to provide all of its graduate students with a $2,500 housing supplement.
“I am a Phd student from a low income background,” Hamilton continued. “Reinstatement means I can finish, and that’s invaluable to me.”
In a press statement, UC Santa Cruz said, “Last week, representatives from University of California Office of the President, UC Santa Cruz, and UAW 2865 worked with a mediator to negotiate an agreement to allow for eligibility for re-employment of academic student employees who were dismissed for their failure to submit grades during the 2019-20 academic year.”
“This is an important step toward rebuilding community trust and moving beyond the discord created by the wildcat strike,” the statement continued. “It also reflects the limitations we operate under when confronted with violations of a closed contract between UCOP and a union. We take seriously the campus's role in meeting the promises created through collective bargaining.”
In December, 233 graduate students instructors and teaching assistants refused to submit nearly 12,000 fall grades, demanding a $1,412-a-month cost-of-living adjustment, which they said they said they needed to cover the cost of rent amid California’s affordable housing crisis. Graduate students at UC Santa Cruz reported paying up to 50 to 80 percent of their incomes in rent. Santa Cruz County is the third most expensive in the state when adjusted for wages.
In February, the unauthorized "wildcat" strike (meaning the strike took place despite a "no strike" clause in their contract) expanded, as teaching assistants refused to hold classes and office hours, and research assistants declined to take on additional projects. The strike then spread to the UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, and UC Davis campuses.
In a devastating blow to the strikers, the university dismissed 54 graduate students from their teaching appointments on February 24, writing in letters sent out to students, “Your abandonment and sustained willful dereliction of your job responsibilities as a teaching fellow constitutes serious misconduct.” The fired graduate students faced losing their tuition remission, which would have forced many to leave their PhD programs.
The university’s decision to reinstate 41 fired graduate students is the outcome of a settlement between the United Auto Workers Local 2865 and the university administrators, following two unfair labor practice charges filed in February and March by the union.
“What this signals is that when we fight we win,” Tom Hintze, UAW 2865 Northern Vice President, told Motherboard. “We have spent months signing petitions to get coworkers reinstated. We’ve held actions, talked to legislators, and continued to put pressure on university to do that right thing and reinstate workers. When we act in solidarity to defend our coworkers, we can win.”
In May, Motherboard published documents obtained through a public records request showing that the California National Guard had supplied military surveillance equipment to the UC Santa Cruz’s police department, including “friendly force trackers,” during the strike, which have been used to track U.S. troops in military company. Police officers also had access to LEEP, a federal surveillance portal operated by the FBI, and monitored social media groups, according to the same documents.
During the pandemic, the university continued to hold disciplinary hearings over Zoom for students charged with misconduct during the strike. Many suspended students lost access to student health and emergency services as the pandemic broke out. At least one graduate student worker, an organizer named Carlos Cruz, who led many of the strike actions, continues to face a two-year suspension, effectively forcing him out of his PhD program, according to UAW Local 2865.
While the strike did trigger a mass movement for a cost-of-living adjustment, referred to as COLA, across the UC system, and a housing supplement for all UC Santa Cruz graduate students, the university still has not come close to providing the $1,412 a month cost-of-living-adjustment that strikers originally demanded.
“The fact that we came away from this with a housing stipend and a guaranteed five years of fundings, which many didn’t have before, plants the seeds for a larger sustained movement,” LuLing Osofsky, a reinstated graduate student in the history of art and visual culture, told Motherboard.
“I went through the strike while pregnant and had a baby during all the uncertainty,” she continued. “It was important to live up my values while bringing new life. To me, our reinstatement is a major part of our advancement toward getting a COLA. It seems like it’s been a really inspiring struggle for grad workers across the country.”