Ali Fuat Yuvali via Twitter/@payusmoreucsc
The University of California, Santa Cruz, made good on a threat to fire striking graduate student employees late last week: 54 graduate assistants received notifications that they’ll lose their spring teaching appointments for failing to turn in undergraduates’ fall quarter grades.
It’s all part of December grade strike over a requested cost of living adjustment, which has since escalated to a full labor strike. The strike, in turn, spread to California’s Davis and Santa Barbara campuses last week. But Santa Cruz is the only site where graduate students have been fired.
“Your abandonment and sustained willful dereliction of your job responsibilities as a teaching fellow constitutes serious misconduct,” read intent-to-dismiss letters sent to the graduate instructors Friday. “Your conduct has harmed graduate students and disrupted university operations.”
The letters warn students that they’re also at risk of losing financial aid, eligibility for academic honors and even adequate advising.
Some 200 Santa Cruz graduate workers initially withheld fall grades. Their union, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers, says that 82 students are still holding back marks and that those who didn’t receive one of the 54 dismissal letters instead received notes that they are out of consideration for spring appointments.
The university said two weeks ago that it would fire those who refused to turn in grades, as the action unfairly impacted undergraduates. In the interim, 500 graduate students pledged not to pick up any assistantships from fired workers. So Friday’s development raises new questions about how the strike will impact campus operations.
“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to find an amenable resolution, 54 teaching assistants have continued to withhold fall grade information,” Lori Kletzer, interim provost, announced. “As a result, we have been left with no choice but to take an action that we had truly and deeply hoped to avoid.”
The firings increase the financial hardship of graduates students who say they already face severe rent burden, which they cite in seeking more money. They also put the legal status of international students at risk.
“It’s like a chain of events that starts with termination of employment, leads to removal of tuition remission and goes all the way to losing your visa and having to leave the country,” stated Stefan Yong, a Ph.D. candidate from Singapore who is studying in Santa Cruz’s history of consciousness program. Yong estimates he pays 45 percent of his salary for rent, and said over the weekend that he's "one of the lucky ones in that regard." Like many of his colleagues, he received a notice that he's blocked from spring appointments over the grade strike.
The federal government defines rent "burden" as paying more than 30 percent of household pay for rent and severe rent burden as spending more than 50 percent of pay on rent.
California is generally an expensive place to live, but graduate employees at Santa Cruz say that their city is so lacking in affordable housing that many of them pay 60 percent of what they make for rent. Based on their calculations, their requested COLA of $1,412 per month would enable many of them to spend a more manageable 30 percent of pay on rent.
Protesters at Santa Barbara are seeking about $1,800 extra per month for the same reason. Colleagues at Davis say they need about $1,550 extra to make ends meet.
Across the University of California system, graduate student instructors, readers and graders make $2,400, pre-tax, per month for nine months out of the year for half-time appointments.
Because the statewide UAW contract is current, Santa Cruz has said it can’t renegotiate graduate workers’ pay. But Santa Cruz strikers say that the contract never suited their needs and that 83 percent of voters on their campus opposed it, even as it passed statewide in 2018.
Graduate workers insist that Santa Cruz’s administration could amend the contract if it wanted to, as does the UAW. Instead, Santa Cruz offered $2,500 annual housing supplements -- first on an as-needed basis, and then, after pushback, to everyone -- until the university builds more student housing. The university also promised full funding packages for doctoral students in the first five years of their programs and for master of fine arts students in their first two years, among other changes.
That’s still not enough for graduate students who say they can’t afford to live where they’ve been recruited to work and study.
The statewide UAW union has not approved any of the “wildcat” campus strikes, and the contract includes a no-strike clause. But the union has encouraged university administrations to bargain with workers. On Thursday, it also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the state alleging that the university has failed to meet and confer to negotiate a COLA. The claim says that the university has tried to avoid bargaining with the union by engaging individual graduate students and university-funded student graduate student assemblies.
Both Santa Cruz and the greater UC system say they’ve worked in good faith to resolve the conflict. Janet Napolitano, system president, previously announced that she plans to meet with the UC Graduate and Professional Council, but that group said in a statement that it agreed to do so to “discuss joint advocacy opportunities with the state legislature, not to negotiate a cost of living adjustment or union contracts.”
The American Association of University Professors' governing council last week endorsed the Santa Cruz grads, saying that graduate student workers “do important work to fulfill the university’s academic mission and their compensation should reflect that simple fact.” The UAW represents 19,000 graduate employees across the California system.
Santa Cruz and other system campuses are located in areas with "extraordinarily high housing costs that put a great burden on graduate students and other low wage workers," according to the AAUP. One-bedroom apartments in the Santa Cruz area rent for an average of $2,600 a month, the group said, “but graduate students only earn about $2,400. The university needs to recognize that this is an unsustainable situation.”
As for the university’s argument that it can’t bargain with one campus during a statewide contract, the AAUP Council wrote that universities are “creative places and we expect better from UCSC administration. Options include increases in wages, fellowships, stipends, and scholarships.”
The council further condemned "the use of riot police against the graduate student picketers and condemn President Napolitano’s threat to fire striking graduate student workers. No university should be taking that approach toward its own employees."
Regarding police activity, 17 students were arrested last month during campus protests.
In addition to the support from the AAUP, about 3,000 academics, mostly faculty members, have pledged not to hold or attend events at Santa Cruz or any other California campus where there is a strike.
A Santa Cruz administrator who did not want to be identified by name, citing the ongoing situation, said that the “disaster” unfolding at Santa Cruz “speaks to the dismal financial plight of public higher education in this country, a situation that has been deteriorating for many years,” and especially since 2008.
If the world’s “premier public higher education system” can’t afford to pay graduate students “enough to house and feed themselves,” the administrator said, “perhaps that’s because state funding for colleges and universities has plummeted to an all-time low." California dedicates 2.5 percent of its budget to the UC system.
Before “imagining that we are frivolously squandering taxpayer dollars or voluntarily starving our students,” the administrator said, anyone wondering how this situation came about should study that budget.