On May 1, graduate students participating in the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) strike submitted grades for the quarter and ended their grade strike.
This decision came as a response to the announcement that the COLA organizers at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) made on April 27. Within the post, the organizers explain how “the administration has shifted the burden of missing grades from themselves and onto the undergraduates.” This notion prompted them to collectively submit grades from fall and winter.
They intend to stay on the picket line but are now looking into organizing a strike in solidarity with the Unfair Labor Practices (ULP) charges filed by their labor union, UAW 2865.
On May 1, the UCSB COLA chapter released an official letter on ucsb4cola.org stating that it would also end its grade strike.
“Looking forward, we realize our best tactics to win a cost-of-living adjustment has evolved,” said the chapter in its letter. “As we close one path by ending the winter grading strike, our way forward is multilayered and builds on the valuable lessons we have learned thus far.”
In their statement, the UCSB chapter cites the responses it — along with chapters at other UC campuses — has encountered during the strike. At UCSC, protestors have dealt with police violence and 54 out of 80 teaching assistants even lost their jobs. At UCSB, the Dean of the Graduate Division Carol Genetti recommended that protestors find help through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in a response to a previous letter aiming to reach a compromise on the grade strike.
The COLA movement began as a result of teaching assistants dealing with rent burden. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, it defines it as, “moderately cost-burdened households pay more than 30 percent of income for housing, including utilities; severely cost-burdened households pay more than 50 percent.”
Although teaching assistants contribute a majority of their time and effort into helping the UC system operate, their payments scarcely compensate for what they do. Every month, the UCs grant a stipend of about $2,400 to each graduate student to pay for housing, food, and other necessities. But, housing costs — especially in the state of California — consume more than half of students’ monthly stipends; the average monthly rent for a single bedroom apartment in Isla Vista is around $1,433, which is about 59 percent of their income.
These expenses, compounded with the workload of teaching assistants in the UC system, have forced graduate students to sacrifice meals, pay utility bills late, and generally give up the quality of life they deserve. The strike was not simply a fight for employee rights; it was a fight for the very livelihood of its forerunners.
The COLA strike began at UCSC in December, where graduate students asked for a minimum of $3,800 per month; UCSB was the second UC to join the COLA cause. While UCSC teaching assistants initially began by withholding grades from their undergraduate courses, the movement escalated to a general strike across multiple UC campuses by the end of February.
On Feb. 27, UCSB witnessed an integration amongst the graduate students, undergraduate students, and other faculty alike in solidarity during their march from Storke Tower to Mosher Alumni House. Over a thousand posts with the #cola4all circulated on Instagram and Twitter and hundreds of users posted photos or streamed videos of the protest. Even people that couldn’t go voiced their support for the strike; some professors even educated their students about the COLA strike and encouraged them to attend.
What inspired even more anger than the actual cause for COLA were the responses from administration. UC President Janet Napolitano sent a letter to UCSC’s COLA chapter detailing her decision to not change the stipend amounts for graduate students.
“The university will not re-open the agreement or negotiate a separate side-letter,” said Napolitano in her address to the UCSC coalition. “We are sympathetic to the high cost of housing in Santa Cruz and the pressure this puts on teaching assistants, but a wildcat strike is not the way to get relief.”
As for UCSB, Chancellor Henry T. Yang issued a statement on the day of the march acknowledging the concerns of the COLA strike.
“We are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions that address the concerns of all of our graduate and undergraduate students,” said Yang in his address. As of right now, no efforts have been made on the administration’s part to actually present negotiable solutions to the living adjustment problem.
The grade strike specifically has ended, yet the UCSB chapter is currently looking for new platforms where it can affect change. Recently, the chapter has educated its supporters on a broader range of labor issues, from food insecurity to unsafe working conditions.
On May 1, the chapter led a car/bike strike to bail out the working class, and right now it is conducting food drives to support families during the pandemic. The chapter is currently working on its Social Welfare Campaign (SWC), which officially launched on April 1.
“While the campaign seeks to mitigate the immediate vulnerabilities within our communities, the SWC is also an effort to grow and solidify our base for further radical action,” explained the chapter in a letter. “When the pandemic passes and our campus reopens (and both these events will occur), we do not intend to return to business as usual.”
For more information on the UCSB COLA chapter’s new initiatives, follow @ucsb4cola on Instagram and visit ucsb4cola.org.