When Sohum Banerjea started his PhD in computer science at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) in 2016, he paid $800 a month to sleep in a bare-bones living room. It was the best he could afford with the stipend offered to him by the university.
“There were five of us in a two bedroom apartment,” he said. “Each of us paid $800. I didn’t have a door or curtain.” That summer, he traded the living room for a rat-infested bedroom.
Banerjea is one of many UC Santa Cruz graduate student workers who withheld fall quarter grades from the university on Friday as part of an ongoing graduate student strike at the university over the cost of housing. Santa Cruz, which experienced a housing crisis spillover from Silicon Valley over the past decade, is the third most expensive county in California and the least affordable in the state when adjusted for wages. Graduate students at UC Santa Cruz report paying up to 60 and 70 percent of their incomes in rent.
On February 6, hundreds of UCSC grad student workers began a ‘wildcat,’ or unauthorized strike, at the beachside campus, refusing to teach or provide grades for students and demanding one thing: a cost of living adjustment (COLA) of $1,412 a month in addition to teaching pay.
As the strike moves into its third week, the movement has gained momentum, in particular among STEM students, who initially pushed back. Science and engineering students are notoriously difficult to engage in labor organizing on university campuses in comparison with their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences, in part because they typically receive better funding.
But in recent weeks, STEM students have joined the moment en masse, leading three rallies since February 13, where students protested in lab coats, hard hats, and goggles, waved signs reading “No STEM, No COLA.” Meanwhile, following threats from the UC system’s president to fire all striking graduate students, at least eight science departments, including computer science, biomedical engineering, and chemistry, have written pledges saying they will refuse to fill the teaching roles of anyone in their department if striking workers are fired.
“The support in STEM is now amazing, even though it’s taken longer for STEM departments to galvanize support. STEM students have really gotten on board,” said Melissa Cronin, a PhD candidate in the ecology and evolutionary biology department and a lead organizer of her department in the COLA strike. “STEM departments have better funding, so we have a little more money but that doesn’t mean we’re not rent burdened. In ecology, for example, we’re 50 percent rent burdened.”
_[Disclosure: Cronin has_ written extensively for Motherboard in the past.]
Banerjea, an Australian citizen, says he is risking deportation by withholding students’ grades. “I am risking de-facto expulsion, and having to leave the country,” he said. “Any strike activity is grounds to not applying to university positions at any point in the future. They’re trying to intimidate the most vulnerable parts of our campus community, which are international students who cannot afford $36,000 a year in rent.”
As an international student on an F1 Visa, Banerjea is only allowed to work 9 months out of the year for UCSC and no other employers. Even with the help of his parents, he spends 48 percent of his income on rent.
Since the recession, housing prices have steadily increased each year as many tech workers have been pushed out of Silicon Valley—over the mountains, to Santa Cruz. Since 2012, Apple, Google, Netflix, and Yahoo have each begun running luxury shuttle buses between Santa Cruz and their corporate campuses in Silicon Valley. In 2015, Amazon opened an office in Santa Cruz for employees working on its Alexa/Echo platform, and earlier this year, Google purchased the Santa Cruz data analytics firm data Looker for $2.6 billion. With a stream of new tech companies and Silicon Valley commuters arriving in Santa Cruz, housing prices have soared. According to a 2018 UCSC study, “No Place Like Home,” a quarter of Santa Cruz residents spend more than 70 percent of their income on housing.
On Monday in an email to graduate student workers, UC administrators formally offered to provide all PhD and MFA students at UC Santa Cruz with a $2,500 annual stipend, in what strikers consider to be a victory—but not nearly enough to cover the cost of living.
“I am grateful for the honest conversations I have had with members of our community over the past weeks,” Lori Kletzer, interim UCSC provost said in the letter, noting that the new stipend was “intended to help bring our campus community back to its teaching, learning, and research mission.” The base UCSC graduate student stipend is $21,906 a year—but according to a 2017 study, grad students would need at least $32,000 to cover the costs of living in Santa Cruz.
“Many people see the letter that went out this morning as a victory. The administration is backing off of its claims that they don’t have money and that they can’t do anything to respond to the wildcat strike,” Will Parrish, a first year PhD student in the history of consciousness and one of the lead organizers of the UC Santa Cruz strike, told Motherboard. “Withholding labor like this actually has been effective in backing the administration into a corner, and they’re trying to find a way out of it.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.