Pop-cultural touchstones like Baby Yoda, Willy Wonka, Coca-Cola, Rocky Balboa, and Arrested Development may seem like unlikely symbols to juxtapose with a militant labor action. For graduate student workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, however, pop culture references in meme form have served as the raw material fueling a wildcat strike that ripped through campus as part of a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) campaign, reflecting a mix of in-person, on-the-ground organizing and strategic online communications.
UCSC is on a quarter, as opposed to a semester, system, and fall quarter grades at the university were due December 18th. But a wildcat strike organized by teaching assistants all but ensured the registrar’s office was left unable to issue grades for many students. The work stoppage is being called a “wildcat” because graduate student workers at UC Santa Cruz and across the UC system are still currently under contract. For rent-burdened grads in Santa Cruz, though, the three percent annual wage increase stipulated by the latest collective bargaining agreement between their union, UAW Local 2865, and the university, would not suffice.
Graduate students are calling for a $1,412 cost of living adjustment to achieve rent parity with grad students at UC Riverside, whose salaries, according to the COLA campaign’s calculations, enable them to remain slightly ahead of the severe rent burden in the Inland Empire. The current chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, Cynthia Larive, also previously held the positions of provost and vice chancellor at UC Riverside, so the point of comparison made even more sense, suggested James Sirigotis, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at UCSC.
In addition to the COLA wage increase, they’re also demanding a new clause in the contract prohibiting the university from retaliating against those withholding grades, and they want a contractually binding commitment to ensure that funding for the COLA cannot come from an increase in tuition or fees or from other newly concocted student expenses.
According to Sirigotis, rent in Santa Cruz increased by 15 percent in 2018 when their current contract went into effect, and more than 80 percent of UCSC graduate students who participated in a strike poll voted to reject that agreement. Sirigotis said the UAW 2865 bargaining team itself “was split right down the middle” on whether or not to settle, and recent changes in the graduate student workers’ union shed light on how the wildcat in Santa Cruz emerged and gained viral attention.
The Historical Context
Several years back, Sirigotis said, the caucus that controlled the union employed tactics similar to what he and others accuse the current board of doing, like centralizing funds and monopolizing control of communication channels. Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, a reform caucus comprised of members frustrated with the top-down function of the union, gained control in the early part of the decade and instantiated direct actions and democratized decisionmaking as part of a campaign that resulted in a favorable contract in 2014.
But a fundamental element of graduate student labor is that there’s a guaranteed turnover in membership every few years. Graduate students finish their master’s theses and complete their dissertations. In short, they graduate. The newest caucus, keen on centralized control, negotiated the current UAW 2865 contract with the university.
“Following that contract, the statewide union increasingly centralized power,” Sirigotis said. He added that the statewide union took ever-greater portions of members’ dues, to the point that officers at UCSC lacked enough funds to buy snacks and materials for their meetings.
The president of UAW Local 2865 did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding these tensions and the wildcat strike at Santa Cruz.
“After the contract was ratified and the UAW showed very little concern for the plight of graduate students, in Santa Cruz many of us worked around the clock on what was called the ‘Measure M’ campaign, which was effectively a rent control and just cause eviction ballot measure,” Sirigotis said.
Last spring, following a milquetoast collective bargaining agreement and the failure of the Measure M campaign, several organizers went on a weekend retreat, Sirigotis said. They devised a strategy for a COLA and planned to focus on visibility during the fall 2019 quarter, thinking they might be able to pull off a strike next spring.
Unanticipated Calls for Action
It turns out that they didn’t have to wait long. A collective, calling themselves COLA4ALL, soon formed. Yet, the kind of actions seen in the last two months were “just an idea” as recently as a few months back, according to Carlos Cruz, a graduate student in history at UCSC.
“So thinking about the UC as a landlord, we strategized around a cost of living adjustment,” Cruz explained.
As part of the larger COLA campaign, the academic student employees—ASEs, in the prevailing contract language—delivered demands to the university on November 7th. “And the weekend that followed our demands delivery to the chancellor,” said Sirigotis, “the administration—the chancellor and the executive vice chancellor—sent us an email, or sent all graduate students an email.”
By then, the UCSC administration had garnered a reputation for mass emailing placating messages to graduate students filled with hitherto unfulfilled promises. Francesca Romeo, a Ph.D student in film and digital media at UCSC, said that last year the administration also emailed faculty, asking that they open their homes to grad students in need. She said it was “indicative of the fact that the administration has known for a long time that there is not a safe and equitable ability to access housing in Santa Cruz.” The December email from the chancellor’s office proved to be the proverbial last straw.
“I think because the nature of the strike was so impromptu, in a sense, it really happened organically, in that collectively a large number of students were expressing frustration with the lack of a resolution to a crisis that has been mounting at least over the last seven years,” Romeo said.
Sirigotis said one graduate student replied to the message from the chancellor, hitting ‘reply all’ and rebuking the administration for making empty promises. Their email took admin to task for failing to take the concerns of graduate students seriously. A long thread of some 40 emails from others ensued—a veritable “firestorm” of reply-all messages from frustrated graduate students expressing their dissatisfaction to university higher-ups and feeding off each other’s indignation.
“Another thing that happened in those email threads was that rank-and-file members—just regular graduate students who had no previous engagement or really participation in union activities—started calling for a strike,” Sirigotis said.
Yulia Gilichinskaya, a Ph.D candidate in film and digital media, said the fiery emails served as “a massive catalyst” for the wildcat.
“There is this framework of responding to all and disrupting the narrative of the administration,” she said, adding: “What happened with our strike is that the ‘reply all’ has been taken up by rank-and-file members of the union, by graduate students who have not necessarily been active in COLA organizing thus far. But people just started to respond to an email from admin saying, ‘Let’s strike now. Why wouldn’t we strike?’ People have been saying, ‘Fuck you. Pay me’ in emails to the chancellor with all grads cc’ed on them.”
The initial embers of e-communications appear to have lit a spark and emboldened those in the loop. “The ‘reply all’ has been an amazing organizing tactic that I don’t think anybody anticipated, but I think it was really instrumental in building courage amongst graduate students,” Sirigotis said. After numerous documented attempts over the last several months to engage administration through official channels, graduate students held a general assembly on December 8th, attended by around a hundred students.
“We had 140-150 who attended the meeting virtually, over Zoom,” Gilichinskaya estimates. “We had people who gathered around the same computer in their houses, in their apartments—maybe in the Bay Area, maybe abroad. But they joined the meeting virtually, and they conducted the poll to vote along with the people who were present in the room.”
After discussing what the wildcat would entail and weighing the pros and cons of a strike, the meeting attendees made a near-unanimous decision to withhold grades at the end of the quarter. Of the approximately 750 TAs at UCSC, 500 committed to withholding grades, according to Sirigotis.
Direct Actions in Physical Space
Those involved in the COLA movement held a rally the second week of December to formally launch COLA4ALL and generate interest in the campaign. They camped out and compiled information on how much people on campus were able to eat, how much work they were doing, and how much sleep they were getting before going to work. They strategically moved locations from one day to the next so the administration couldn’t predict where they would be operating. On Wednesday, December 11th, they shut down a dining hall.
Criticizing the university’s food pantries as inadequate, organizers got the approval of the dining hall manager to let everyone who was hungry come eat free for eight hours that day. The move, said student Carlos Cruz, was a conscious homage to the Black Panther Party, which autonomously organized a free breakfast program for schoolchildren decades ago. “We’re really interested in seeing how we could take things into our own hands,” he enthused.
Cruz related how COLA organizers encouraged people to bring Tupperware to take what they needed home, and activists brought biodegradable plates, utensils and cups to create less work for the service workers, who reportedly voiced support for the cause. That Friday, when they found out administrators were still on campus and would be attending an event hosted by the chancellor’s office, the COLA coalition crashed the party, picketing inside and outside of the building. Those in the COLA movement are now attempting to coordinate with Food Not Bombs to put on public event to feed and address the needs of the broader Santa Cruz community and to support the organizing efforts of the housing-deprived on and off campus.
Digital Planning and Democratization
According to Romeo, the COLA movement and the corresponding wildcat strike really reflect a decentralized mode of organization. Digital communications among graduate students leading up to and following the strike mirrored and facilitated that organizational form.
“It very quickly became apparent that networked communication was going to be essential,” Romeo said, “so this means using particular apps to operate outside the bounds of UCSC email accounts, which of course are privy to review by the administration.”
The day grades were due, a flurry of email messages from striking graduate students containing no more than a cola-bottle emoji and a question mark flooded the chancellor’s inbox—a not-so-subtle form of cyber protest. Myriad COLA and strike-themed memes circulated on the web. An archive of those Internet memes now exists on the movement’s website.
“You have a sense that memes are a force that’s sustaining the sense of solidarity and the sense that we are in the right for folks who are away and for folks who cannot be in these conversations consistently,” said Yulia Gilichinskaya.
Many of their movement’s e-communications occur via Signal, the encrypted SMS service popular among organizers. “We’ve actually, like, organized into various committees and, like, working groups that all have separate Signal chats,” Gilichinskaya said. “So people self-organize no matter where they are. We have a shared Signal chat where sort of big conversations happen, and we still ‘reply all’ to many emails. And every time we plan a meeting, there is a Zoom option to join.”
Romeo said graduate students did a lot of organizing within their respective departments, bringing own particular academic skillsets to the strike, and they linked back up with the broader movement via mass emails and online conversations, which have helped “make transparent the participatory nature of progressive democratic politics.” They reported back to others the positions faculty in their departments were taking with respect to the strike, and how many TAs in the departments planned to withhold grades. They also used digital platforms to communicate which documents they needed to produce to deal with legal issues surrounding the strike, and to determine who would liaise with the press.
“Because this is visible to everyone on the thread, we have everybody’s ability to voice dissent, corrections, new ideas—and that helps us become stronger as a movement… When people are wary of a particular tactic, and we can read that in real time, it makes us all more conscious as strikers, as protesters, as people trying to organize this movement,” said Romeo.
The transparency forces everyone involved to make their own arguments for the COLA stronger, she added. Given the dynamics of academic labor, e-mediated communication in this case effectively becomes a necessity. “For us, the networked part is essential because a lot of people have already left campus and are still mobilizing from their respective geographical places, such as Australia, or Korea or Russia.”
Gilichinskaya, an international graduate student who left Santa Cruz for central Russia on December 16th as the quarter was winding down, emphasized that the digital sphere helped reveal the urgency of the strike and enabled those who had not been heavily involved with in-person organizing to shift conversations in a more militant direction. She and eight other international students emailed a letter to their fellow graduate students the morning of December 18th with a link to a set of FAQs specifically for Santa Cruz students studying abroad. They stressed the greater potential risk they faced if grades were withheld and urged those who are US citizens who had not committed to strike to reconsider.
University communications repeatedly referred to the grading strike as “an illegal work stoppage,” which could be intimidating for international students whose status is already precarious. Despite these understandable fears, Tony Boardman, a TA in the literature department at UC Santa Cruz and an international student who recently returned to England, his home country, also signed the letter.
“International students are in a particular kind of precarious situation at UCSC, with visa restrictions that limit them to both working no more than 20 hours a week and not working jobs off campus,” Boardman said. Many like himself often relocate for school with no connections in the area, he said, and they typically lack vehicles, which makes living in and commuting from cheaper areas outside the city impossible.
“I think just the sheer number of international graduate students who are active organizers on campus speaks to the unbearable conditions that we are put in,” Gilichinskaya said. Boardman and Gilichinskaya also described how many TAs lack funding over the summer, placing an additional burden on international students, who cannot easily go home during the summer months or who must sublet or sublease their apartments and spend more of their meager paychecks from the university to do so.
“I think this is the main reason international grads are so involved—a COLA is really vitally necessary for us, and for many of us it’s worth the risk,” Boardman said. “Besides, the least risky situation is if everybody strikes!”
Contrary to what some outside commentary has suggested, though, Boardman insists the COLA campaign has not been merely a social media phenomenon. “While many of the commentators have picked up on how much we’ve been present on social media, and the large role that an email chain had to play in making the decision to strike,” Boardman said, “it’s important to note that there’s been so much work on the ground over the past year—‘COLA IRL’, as we like to say.”
Given how quickly the definitive impetus for a strike emerged, it was crucial that they move fast to get information about the wildcat online for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Using their Instagram and Twitter accounts, strikers also communicate with the wider community, starting with students and workers at the other UC campuses, according to Boardman.
Solidarity, Virtual and Real
Gilichinskaya was already out of the country when the deadline for grade submission passed. She was in an interesting and somewhat ironic situation this past quarter, working as a TA for a graduate student course about how to become more pedagogically effective.
“As a result of teaching this course and having the politics that I do, yeah, I ended up withholding my graduate students’ grades who are now withholding their students’ grades because they’re being effective TAs, and I’ve taught them well,” she said. Her supervising instructor, who is also the director of graduate studies in her department, made it clear before the grade deadline that he would not cross the virtual picket and that he respected her position on the strike.
Striking graduate students in general have received an outpouring of support. The Santa Cruz Faculty Association offered up a statement of solidarity with the strike. The Faculty Organizing Group on campus authored an open letter encouraging professors to support graduate students in their COLA campaign. Outside of Santa Cruz, UC-AFT 2023, the local at UC Davis that’s part of the union representing lecturers and librarians across the UC system, made it clear where they stand with a supportive tweet on December 12th. Examples abound; participants in the movement have listed many on their website.
People have also contributed more than $8,800 to the fund for the striking graduate student workers—a fund to which individuals can still give. They also created an online form for supporters, especially academic workers in the UC system, to sign in solidarity. And they put a form online for their fellow UAW 2865 members to sign to demand that UCSC administration meet with graduate student workers about the COLA.
Veronica Hamilton, a Ph.D student in social psychology at UC Santa Cruz and elected representative of UAW 2865, requested a reopening the union contract to consider the addition of a side letter which could guarantee the COLA. In a letter sent on behalf of Jennifer Schiffner, the director of employee and labor relations at the university, the university replied that based on “past practice between the parties, individual campus local chairs of the union do not have the authority to request a re-opening of the systemwide contract and/or negotiate a side letter.” Schiffner stressed in the letter that a COLA can only be negotiated through systemwide bargaining and asserted: “This concerted wildcat strike is also prohibited by your collective bargaining agreement and unsanctioned by your union. To that end, while you continue to engage in a wildcat strike, you remain entangled in a collective bargaining process in which the campus cannot participate.”
In turn, the co-vice president of shared governance of the Graduate Student Association (GSA) countered in an email that labor law does not prohibit parties from voluntarily reopening negotiations. The GSA officer pointed out that there is precedent for side letters; their current contract contains two side letters specifically pertaining to ASEs at UC San Diego. As the officer’s email recalled, teachers in West Virginia went out on a wildcat strike in 2018, and they were successful in getting the pay raise they demanded.
As of this writing, the conflict in Santa Cruz remains at an impasse. Strike organizers worked hard to ensure students who needed their grades immediately—for reasons related to financial aid or otherwise—would receive them upon request. A message from the university disseminated five days before the strike asserted that “ultimately the assignment and submission of grades is the responsibility of the faculty member (Senate faculty and non-Senate faculty), including those who have oversight of graduate student instructors.” Essentially, the statement told instructors to do more work. As of this writing, there is no reliable information available on how many students remain without grades, and the COLA issue remains unresolved.
However, the disruption to academia-as-usual produced by the wildcat was not limited to quarterly grades (or the lack thereof). In contrast to the constant competition that often arises between graduate students when it comes to obtaining fellowships, securing grants, landing teaching opportunities, and working with specific professors, hierarchies have been dissolving within the movement thanks to their shared goals, according to Romeo, who studies networked protests.
“That sense of communal—or ‘collective effervescence,’ to use an academic phrase—has been really inspiring,” she said.
Online and offline, the movement may be spreading. A handful of COLA advocates have discussed the possibility of a more sustained visual media campaign. And James Sirigotis highlighted COLA rallies occurring on other UC campuses—namely Berkeley, Davis and Santa Barbara—and said there is a growing sense that the movement is bigger than the latest work stoppage.
As Sirigotis puts it, “I think basically people are starting to think broader about a cost-of-living adjustment and the potential to really make a much bigger intervention into public education in California.” ♦
James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois, and has recently taught in the Communication Studies Department at Riverside City College, in the Media and Cultural Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside, and the California Rehabilitation Center as part of the Norco College prison education program. He has worked as a freelance writer for several outlets.