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Column: UC’s harsh response to a student strike shows it’s a business more than a university

UC Santa Cruz
Police arrest protesters at UC Santa Cruz last month.
(Dan Coyro / Associated Press)

Like many other public universities that have been systematically bled of financial support by their states, the University of California has been behaving less and less like an educational institution and more like a business.

Nothing illustrates that quite as well as the university’s reaction to graduate teaching assistants at UC Santa Cruz, who have staged a wildcat strike to protest UC’s failure to help them shoulder the crushing cost of housing in the community.

‘This is part of a growing movement to address a crisis.’
Veronica Hamilton, UC Santa Cruz graduate teaching assistant

On Feb. 28, as my colleague Suhauna Hussain reported, the university fired 54 grad students from their teaching assistantships. About 20 more received one-line emails informing them that they would no longer be eligible to be hired as TAs in the coming quarter, which begins March 30. The firings followed the arrest of at least 17 students during a demonstration Feb. 12, after police said they blocked an intersection near campus and ignored repeated orders to disperse.

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For scholars who often live hand to mouth under the best circumstances while completing their education, the financial consequences of the firings are dire.

“Above all, I’ll lose that quarter’s worth of paychecks,” Dylan Davis, 32, a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the politics department who has been told his eligibility for the next quarter has been revoked, told me. “It means I’m no longer eligible to take paternity leave” when his pregnant wife, also a teaching assistant, gives birth.

“I’ll probably need to find another job sooner rather than later, and probably not on campus,” he says. “Basically, I’m dependent on whatever money we raise in the strike fund.”

At the heart of the dispute is the soaring cost of living for graduate students throughout the 10-campus UC system. The key driver is rent. By at least one measure, Santa Cruz is the second-costliest county in the U.S. (next to rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, N.Y.), based on the mismatch between median earnings and home prices.

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Graduate teaching assistants at UC receive a waiver of tuition and some fees, along with a monthly stipend of about $2,435 (for nine months). In Santa Cruz, monthly rent and utilities averages about $1,339, meaning that TAs at that campus on average spend about 55% of their compensation on housing. Spending more than 50% places them in the category the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as “severely rent-burdened.” Some TAs take on second or third jobs off campus, generally surreptitiously because it’s frowned upon and in some cases formally forbidden.

The housing crisis at Santa Cruz arises from several factors, including soaring demand from nearby Silicon Valley and a surfeit of single-family housing rather than rental stock. A countywide ballot initiative to enact rent control was overwhelmingly defeated in 2018, and a university plan to build 3,000 student housing units on campus has been tied up by challenges from conservation groups.

But the university has priced its existing campus housing for graduate students at close to market rates — $1,211 a month for the 82 available one-room apartments, and $1,767, plus utilities, for family housing. The university has increased those rents by nearly 7% in the last two years.

The strikers are seeking a cost-of-living increase of $1,412 a month; the university has offered $2,500 a year. At just over $200 a month, “that doesn’t really change the rent burden, even for on-campus housing, says Veronica Hamilton, head of the Santa Cruz unit of the UAW.

The burden of housing costs afflicts grad students throughout the UC system, according to United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents the graduate teaching assistants among 19,000 UC academic employees. The reason is that some UC campuses are nestled in the most expensive housing markets in the nation, including the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego metro areas.

To fully relieve the grad students of the housing cost burden, the union calculates, UC should increase the monthly teaching assistant stipend by as much as $2,229 (at UCLA) and at least $770 (at UC Merced). At Santa Cruz, the increase would come to about $2,285. That would effectively double the compensation of TAs at Berkeley, UCLA and Santa Cruz.

The broader issue underlying the strike is the increasing reliance of universities like UC on low-paid teaching staff. Universities like UC tend to regard their graduate teaching assistants essentially as students being helped along by stipends and benefits such as tuition waivers, rather than workers entitled to a living wage. But they are employees who often shoulder workloads on a scale that, when all the hours are counted, may bring their pay within the category of minimum wage.

More often, universities also are resorting to part-time adjuncts instead of tenure-track faculty to teach academic courses, subjecting these teachers to all the economic uncertainties of workers for gig companies such as Uber and Lyft: no benefits, no employment guarantees, minimal pay.

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These economic conflicts are outgrowths of the withdrawal of public support from public universities. That may be a nationwide phenomenon, but it’s acutely felt in California. State appropriations contributed $3.5 billion to UC’s $38.4 billion in revenues in fiscal 2019, a mere 9.1%. As recently as 2012, they came to 11%.

The constraint on resources has turned graduate teaching assistants into the foot soldiers of the academic army. Although the UC contract sets their workweek at 20 hours — and therefore they’re considered half-time workers — it’s not unusual for them to spend much more than that on the job.

“We lead discussion sessions, hold office hours, do grading, sometimes we give class lectures,” says Hamilton, a doctoral candidate in psychology. They’re also expected to take on unpaid duties as members of the campus communities, such as serving on committees — and all this while doing their own research.

“This is part of a growing movement to address a crisis,” Hamilton says. “Graduate education has been effectively defunded over the years, and we see a lot of people fighting against that.”

The Santa Cruz job action began in December, when many teaching assistants withheld student grades for the fall quarter. It escalated on Feb. 10, when teaching assistants ceased leading discussion sessions or holding office hours.

The university takes pride in its image as a bulwark of progressive thinking — UC is “committed to free speech on its campuses and supports the rights of the UC community to make their views known,” a spokeswoman for the university told me by email. But its administration’s rhetoric about the strike resembles what you might hear from a corporate management locked in a labor dispute.

“There is a significant difference between public demonstrations of self-expression and actions that directly violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement,” the administration says, “including disrupting educational activities.”

The administration accuses the teaching assistants of “holding undergraduate grades hostage,” as UC President Janet Napolitano wrote in a Feb. 14 statement threatening the striking students with termination. “To accede to the demands of a group of employees engaged in an unauthorized wildcat strike would undercut the very foundation of an agreement negotiated in good faith by the UAW,” she added.

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But withholding grades is one of the few tools the strikers have for placing pressure on the university.

“If the university really cared about its undergraduates, it wouldn’t have fired 75 graduate teaching assistants instead of meeting with us,” Hamilton says. Some departments are facing the loss of their entire teaching assistant corps, meaning courses may be closed to undergrads.

The grad student rebellion is spreading throughout the giant UC system. Teaching assistants at UC Santa Barbara launched a strike on Feb. 28, and grad students at UC Davis began to withhold student grades for the winter quarter. Strike threats have been heard elsewhere, including the Department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley.

Using a visa loophole to fire well-paid U.S. information technology workers and replace them with low-paid immigrants from India is despicable enough when it’s done by profit-making companies such as Southern California Edison and Walt Disney Co.

Throughout the conflict at Santa Cruz, the university has refused to reopen the union contract, which runs to mid-2022, or to negotiate separately over housing costs. The union says the university has violated the contract by unilaterally offering some relief — though not enough, the union says — and by otherwise circumventing the union.

On Feb. 21, for example, Napolitano invited the university’s Graduate and Professional Council to discuss issues for graduate students including “cost of living [and] housing.” The council, however, is an advisory body, not one with any authority to bargain with the administration for the grad students.

The offer was among several actions by the university that prompted the union to file an unfair labor practices complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Board on Feb. 27. The union says that the notices of firing and ineligibility sent to the teaching assistants also violated the contract, which sets forth specific procedures for discipline and terminations.

The union hasn’t endorsed the graduate students’ walkout, because its UC contract bars most strikes. The union, however, is contemplating holding a vote to strike based on unfair labor practices, which is permitted under the contract. The vote of the full union membership would be held in early April, Local President Kavitha Iyengar told me.

The bitter battle between the University of California, a leading source of published research papers, and Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of research papers, just got more bitter.

It’s proper to observe that UC’s labor relations leave much to be desired. Back in 2017, the university joined corporations such as Southern California Edison and Walt Disney Co. in replacing its U.S. information technology staff with low-paid immigrants from India. UC was the first public university known to do so by abusing the government’s H-1B program, which was designed to set aside visas for professional workers with unique skills. It’s still doing so.

In January, an arbitrator ordered UC to fork over what the union estimates is $5 million in back pay to about 1,000 current and former undergraduate teaching assistants whose work hours were deliberately kept below 10 hours a week, the threshold above which they would have been entitled to partial tuition reimbursements and other benefits.

Universities’ treatment of athletes in the big-dollar sports football and basketball is similarly scandalous. An Obama-era holdover official of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in February 2017 that players for Division I Football private colleges and universities are employees under federal law, but the current Trump-dominated NLRB, which could overturn the ruling, hasn’t yet weighed in. The board, however, has proposed a rule forbidding the unionization of graduate students at private universities. The proposal is still pending. The board doesn’t have jurisdiction over public universities.

Increases of the magnitude needed to relieve grad students of all the pressure of housing costs may be unlikely to happen in the near term, if at all. But while UC can’t be blamed for the extent of the housing crisis in its campus communities, it can and should be held responsible for taking a hard line against anything but incremental improvement in its graduate students’ lives.

Summary firings and a refusal to sit down with union representatives — those are the badges worn by the coldest of big corporations, and not something UC should be proud to wear.


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