Gas station without pumps

2020 February 27

UCSC’s grad student strike for COLA

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:35
Tags: , , , , ,

A group of UCSC grad students have been striking since December 2019 to get a “cost of living adjustment” (COLA), because of the high cost of rent in Santa Cruz and the unaffordability  of housing for students paid as TAs.  The strike started out as withholding grades at the end of Fall quarter and expanded to refusing to do any work Winter quarter (while still getting paid their full salary).

I started out having a lot of sympathy for the grad students—the TAship pays only $2,435 a month (plus health insurance and tuition waiver) for the standard half-time position [https://www.ucop.edu/academic-personnel-programs/_files/1920/1920-adj-scales/t18.pdf], and the cost per person for their own room in an apartment is $1,025–$1,351 [https://www.ucop.edu/student-affairs/_files/housing-costs-near-campuses.pdf].  UCSC does have the most expensive housing market of any of the UC campuses (except the med school at UCSF, which has a COLA).

Most of the STEM PhD students are supported with grad-student researcher positions, which generally pay more.  All the TAs are paid the same, but the GSR positions are on a ten-step scale, with the departments I’m familiar with all using GSR VII ($2,904/month) [https://www.ucop.edu/academic-personnel-programs/_files/1920/1920-adj-scales/t-22.pdf]

The usual rule of thumb for housing is that it should not cost more than about 30% of what a full-time job earns.  That is a pretty stupid rule, though, as it assumes that all other costs scale with rent, which is demonstrably untrue in California—non-rent costs near UCR are very similar to non-rent costs near UCSC.  The real question is whether there is enough money left over after paying rent to pay other necessary costs.

A TAship is not supposed to be a full-time job that can support an extended family—it is a half-time job that is supposed to be enough for a single student to live on frugally.  So when the COLA supporters sent email to faculty with the following sob story, I felt that they were missing the point:

Since I was an undergraduate, a portion of my wage has been sent back home to my immediate family members to pay for necessities. I don’t want to see my family struggling, so I would much provide some money for them. My mother, who had a heart attack in February, was put on a seven-month leave from her job, and I had to provide more for my family at that moment. After more recent health issues, I have had to return home multiple times to physically help out, which means I am still paying rent on a space that I only spend partial time in (not including the airfare).

While one may feel sorry for a student who feels they have to fly home multiple times a year and wants to provide financial support to their parents, it is certainly not the function of a TAship to fund those actions.

The University of California grad students struck several years ago to form a union (affiliating with the United Auto Workers, which struck me as a strange choice at the time), with the first contract being signed in 2000. The UAW recently signed a contract with UC, approved by a vote of the  members.  The UCSC grad students were not happy with the contract, but there are far more grad students on the other campuses, so the union contract was approved, despite fairly strong dissatisfaction with it at UCSC.

The current strike at UCSC is not supported by the UAW leadership, but they have also not chided the strikers for picketing with official UAW-on-strike signs.  The union leadership wants to pretend that they have nothing to do with the strike, while also pretending that they back the strikers.  In practice, I think that the union leadership screwed up the contract negotiations and are looking for a backdoor way to re-open the contract.

The wildcat strike, which violates the no-strike provision of the signed contract, is damaging UAW’s credibility as a representative of the grad student workers.  This undermining of the union is likely to cause more damage to grad students in future than any “wins” that the strikers manage to get from the administration.

What the grad students here have been requesting is $1,420 a month increase in pay, claiming that this would put them at parity with UC Riverside (the second-cheapest campus for housing costs), even though the difference in rent is only about $450–$690 a month.  Compared to the other UC campuses in pricey housing markets, UCSC is only about $100–$300 a month more expensive.

So when the UCSC administration offered all PhD and MFA students $2500/year, the strikers should have declared victory and gone home.  That money would bring UCSC to parity with the next 5 cheaper campuses, and it is about all that UCSC can offer, given that UCOP is not allocating any new funds to UCSC.  The money would come from cutting student services and not hiring new faculty needed to replace retiring faculty and handle the increasing student population.

Instead, they doubled down on the strike, demanding that their ridiculously large pay increase be written as a side letter to the union contract—something that UCSC administration cannot legally do, and the UCOP administrators in Oakland see no reason to do (and many reasons not to, as every other campus would then demand the same side letter, basically voiding the union-negotiated contract).

The protesters have made a serious effort to shut off access to campus every day, by blocking the two entrances to campus.  This has been a nuisance, pissing off a lot of people that would otherwise have supported them, but it has been no more than a nuisance, as they only got enough bodies on the picket line to shut down the entrances from about 11 a.m. to 4:00 pm each day.  Those who have work to do come in before the grad students get up and go home after the grad students have packed up.  Undergrads are inconvenienced by having to walk a block between bus stops (the Metro buses don’t cross the picket lines, even though these are not union pickets), but nearly all have been coming to class and trying to get the education that they are paying $1000 a week for.

UCSC is the only one of the UC campuses to which all motor vehicle access can be blocked by a small group of protesters.  This is probably the reason why UCSC has the most disruptions from strikes and protests of any of the UCs—a small group can make a large nuisance of themselves here, when a similarly sized group would be completely ineffectual on the other campuses.

Today, the protesters changed strategies and marched around campus being disruptive.  They marched into one classroom where students in CSE 102 (a theory of computing course) were taking a midterm.  They then harangued the students taking the midterm for 10 minutes—after being asked to leave by the students taking the test.

At this point, the protesters have lost any sympathy I had for them.  They wouldn’t take a generous gift when it was offered, and they have made it clear that they are not interested in undergraduate education, but only in protest theater–making a lot of noise in the hope that someone will pay them to shut up.

3 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this very informative explanation. I’ve been wondering…

    Comment by Ron Goodman — 2020 February 27 @ 22:08 | Reply

  2. Things have changed since I was a TA. Being a TA was sort of a bonus. Getting paid to go to school was a big plus. Most of the grad students I knew were not TAs but were paying their way. Those that thought it did not pay enough quit and found a better paying job. We all knew the pay was not intended to be an income to support a family and that is was temporary with absolutely no guarantee from semester to semester. A strike would have seen a whole lot of TAs not rehired.

    Comment by gflint — 2020 February 28 @ 08:02 | Reply

    • UCSC has an unusually high undergrad/grad ratio for an R1 university, so a very large fraction of our grad students get TAships. This may have lead them to think of TAships as an entitlement, rather than as “sort of a bonus”.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2020 February 28 @ 08:10 | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: