The Fight for COLA: From UCSC to UCSB

Photo by Graeme Jackson

Kyle Dent
Assistant News Editor

Since September 2019, UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) graduate students have been fighting for a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) in order to be able to remove the burden of high rent on their low wages. Beginning in January of this year, UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) has joined the movement to demand a COLA. 

As Adam Parison, a UCSB graduate student and COLA organizer, summarized in comments to The Bottom Line, “For me, COLA4ALL is a way … [so that] all people who want to be graduate students can afford a graduate education.” According to a website for supporters,, they are demanding an increase of at least $1,412. 

This figure was calculated using the pay rate for teaching assistants and graduate student instructors (about $2,400), compared to one-third of the average three-bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz (or on campus), at about $1,211 per month.

Members of the COLA coalition argue that this increase in wages will help offset the large chunk of wages that paying rent takes up. Many students have recounted sacrifices they’ve had to make due to limited money, such as having to sleep in an office and shower at the gym, or “juggling four part-time jobs.”

Diane Fujino, interim chair of the Asian American studies department at UCSB and faculty advocate for COLA, cited a UCSC newsletter that found that 31 percent of graduate students experience food insecurity. 

In September, UCSC graduate students, along with the UC Student-Workers Union UAW 2865, called for an increase in wages, and on Nov. 7, 2,000 Santa Cruz graduate students marched to their Kerr Hall and provided notice of their demands to Chancellor Cynthia Larive and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer. Almost 80 students camped out at the center of campus to make themselves visible to the administration and the visiting regents.

On Dec. 5, tensions hit a breaking point. While a protest that day was cancelled, UCSC’s executive vice chancellor responded to a graduate’s email of demands with a copy of the student conduct handbook with “intimidation” — with the entire graduate student body copied in the email chain. 

Students soon began calling (and later voting) for a strike against the school’s intimidation practice, and by the Dec. 9, a majority of UCSC graduate students voted to strike and withhold grades, if necessary. 

Many demonstrated outside UCSC’s McHenry Library, but no members of the administration agreed to an open discussion with the organizers, as stated in their demands. As promised, 85 teaching assistants and graduate student instructors withheld grades for the fall quarter, and as of print have not released them. 

A full strike at UCSC began on Feb. 10, and graduate student workers were joined by a number of undergraduates, faculty, and staff in solidarity. Despite meetings between graduate student workers and administration, striking continued, and tensions between the UC and students escalated as the presence of police grew, with upwards of 100 officers at one time. Several student protesters were arrested or cited while demonstrating.

This is not the first instance of teaching assistants at UCSC working to earn a higher wage. In 2014, graduate teaching assistants threatened to strike in an effort to raise their pay and relax the constraints on the amount of time teaching assistants were supposed to spend in the classroom, versus opposed to grading papers, holding office hours, or creating lesson plans, and how pay cut off if too much time was spent in class. 

The website also has a list of demonstrations as far back as 2009 before COLA.

During February, the COLA movement gained support from other UCs. On Feb. 20, UC Irvine held a rally in support of a COLA, with over 200 students participating. The administrative building was put on 24-hour lockdown, and multiple students were arrested by police. The next day, UCSB4COLA organizers orchestrated an occupation of the chancellor’s office at UCSB. 

In an interview with KCSB-FM, Pratik Raghu, an organizer with Bonfire Media and the SB Student Activist Network and graduate student described why he is fighting for a COLA. 

“The university has given me … a relatively generous funding package, but despite that fact, I have skipped meals — I’ve missed the bus and debated, thought and re-thought, whether I should splurge for a Lyft. It affects learning.” 

On Feb. 24, the UCSB chapter of COLA4ALL voted in favor of a full strike, which began on Feb. 27 with a rally beneath Storke Tower and a march to the Mosher Alumni House. Hundreds of community members, including faculty, staff, undergraduates, and graduate students alike came together in support of those striking. 

The strike will continue indefinitely until demands are met. UCSB4COLA also voted in favor of withholding winter quarter grades, which shortly preceded UCSC’s firing of at least 54 graduate student workers for withholding fall grades. 54 teaching assistants received an email telling them they were no longer employed at the university, and another 26 were noticed they would not be “considered for spring 2020 appointments.” 

This stopped neither the organizers at UCSC or UCSB — demonstrations at both campuses are continuing with full force. Furthermore, almost 400 graduate students “are now committed to declining spring appointments in one form or another.” 

In fact, students UC-wide have stood up with those fired workers, with students at UC Davis rallying on March 2, and a sick-out held the same day at UC Irvine.