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Graduate student workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, escalated their ongoing grade strike to a general strike Monday, saying they can’t afford to live where they’ve been recruited to work and study.

Hundreds of students gathered on campus throughout the day for rallies, talks and solidarity. Faculty members and undergraduates visited to offer support. Graduate students don’t know how long they’ll keep agitating, but they’re prepared for a fight.

“We organized for a local rent control measure that failed, and we’ve worked very hard to support the university, but now it’s time for the administration to work hard to support us,” said Yulia Gilichinskaya, a graduate assistant in film and digital media studies at Santa Cruz.

Graduate student instructors, readers and graders across the university system -- from inland Merced down to San Diego -- all get about $2,400, pre-tax, per month for nine months out of the year, based on their United Auto Workers-affiliated union contract. While the deal passed statewide last summer, Santa Cruz students voted down it down by 83 percent and have been looking for ways to address their specific cost-of-living concerns since. Now they are protesting for $1,400 more per month.

California is an expensive place to live in general, but Santa Cruz residents face one of the tightest, most expensive housing markets in the country. Many graduate students have a horror story about trying to find a place to rent and a worse one about trying to pay for what space they eventually find. 

To change that, Santa Cruz graduate assistants are now seeking a campus-based increase in pay -- what they call a cost-of-living adjustment. Their calculations suggest that the extra $1,400 would enable many of them to spend a relatively reasonable 30 percent of their pay on rent, instead of the 50 percent or more many spend now. 

“It’s my fourth year in Santa Cruz, and I’ve had to move four times -- this is the first time I feel safe in my housing situation,” said Gilichinskaya, 31. Prior experiences with older, live-in male landlords and other concerns forced her to seek out a more secure, quiet space. And now that she’s living alone, she can’t really afford it: she says 79 percent of her pay goes toward rent.

Jane Komori, a third-year Ph.D. student studying in the interdisciplinary history of consciousness program, said she shares a room with someone, in a house with three other roommates, for $600 per month. Utilities and other fixed expenses add up to another $150, she said, making her own squeeze of a situation barely affordable.

“And I have it really good compared to a lot of people on campus,” added Komori, 25.

Seeking to force Santa Cruz’s administration to discuss a COLA, graduate student instructors launched a grade strike in December, even though their UAW contracts have a no-strike clause. Some 12,000 undergraduate grades were withheld, and many of the assistants who withheld them received letters of reprimand this month. Those who went a step further and deleted their grades from the university network received student conduct summonses.

The statewide union has said it will assist graduate students who face disciplinary action. It also told the university that withholding grades is an employment-related issue, and that concerns should be addressed through the union, not as student conduct violations.

Yet as the statewide union offers its support, Santa Cruz’s administration says that its hands are tied due to the statewide contract.

“UC Santa Cruz is in no position and has no authority to separately change an already agreed-upon, system-wide labor contract with the UAW,” the university said in a statement. Graduate students “play an important role in the educational mission of UCSC and this escalation of their wildcat strike will only impact our undergraduate students further.”

Of the ongoing grade strike, in particular, the university said that it is “extremely disappointed some graduate students are planning to continue to withhold grades” and that such actions “can have a profound, and perhaps unexpected, impact on our undergraduate students, including loss of financial aid, ability to graduate, declare a major, or apply to other programs including graduate school.”

Gilichinskaya said she’s all too aware of the consequences of the strike, as her participation puts her own legal status as a student at risk. But students are fighting for survival.

While the university hasn’t responded to the COLA request, it announced two new graduate student programs in January. The first is guaranteed five-year funding at half-time appointments, at minimum, for all new and continuing teaching and research assistants in good standing. The second is a need-based annual housing supplement of $2,500 until more campus living space becomes available.

Graduate students say these responses are inadequate, however, as need-based supplements aren’t available to international students. It's also unclear to them as of now who will otherwise qualify for housing assistance. Santa Cruz says that only students with "sufficient need" will get help. It defines need as the gap between the cost of attendance and students' expected contribution, based on their federal financial aid applications.

Students also say that the university continues to frame the problem as one of mere supply, and that building more rentals won’t necessarily prevent students from getting priced out of the local market.

As for the university’s position that it cannot negotiate with students on one campus during an ongoing contract, students take a different view. Agreement letters can be added to current contracts, they say. Fellowships could be announced. There are ways to get creative.

“We don't have to reinvent the wheel,” Gilichinskaya said.

Komori suggested that going forward, the university could fund students based on the local rental market, mirroring the way some federal agencies compensate their employees.

Gilichinskaya said that if the university doesn’t do it that way, then everyone in the system needs to be paid a living wage based on the most expensive campuses -- not the most affordable.

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