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The University of California, Santa Cruz’s ongoing graduate student strike over a requested cost-of-living adjustment escalated late Friday, when many teaching assistants did not turn in undergraduates’ fall quarter grades by a deadline set by Janet Napolitano, university system president. A week prior, Napolitano said anyone who withheld marks as part of a December grade strike would be ineligible for a spring teaching appointment. She also told those teaching assistants on a current labor strike to resume their duties.

In response, graduate students from some Santa Cruz departments pledged not to accept vacated assistantships, as others said they wouldn’t take on any assistantships at all if any of their peers lost jobs. The university is “threatening to fire graduate student workers en masse for asking to be paid enough to live where they work,” reads a memo from graduate employees in the department of astronomy and astrophysics, for example. “We reject the notion that our fellow workers at [Santa Cruz] should be threatened with a loss of employment, ability to feed themselves and their families, and likely loss of ability to continue in a graduate program, for demanding to be relieved of extreme rent burden so that they can focus on the university’s academic missions of excellence in teaching and research.” The entire California system relies heavily on teaching assistants to deliver undergraduate education and for research.

Graduate employees across the university system are unionized in affiliation with the United Auto Workers. Santa Cruz has said its hands are tied with the respect to the COLA demand due to the systemwide contract. But Santa Cruz graduate employees insist that there are precedents for amending their campus contract terms to accommodate their request for $1,412 extra per month. They say they live in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, and that many of their rank spend about 60 percent of their pay on rent, leaving little left over for anything else. They say the adjustment would mean that they could spend closer to 30 percent of their pay on housing, bringing them out of what’s known as cost of rent burden.

The statewide UAW chapter on Saturday denounced Napolitano’s recent announcement about holding a meeting with the UC Graduate and Professional Council, and not the union. Kavitha Iyengar, president of the statewide union and a Ph.D. candidate in jurisprudence and social policy at the Berkeley campus, said the “time has come for UC to meet us at the bargaining table so that we can work to resolve the issues that have left so many student-workers economically insecure. Conflating COLA negotiations with the [council’s] other advocacy efforts is an attempt to buy time and deflate the energy of this movement -- and it will not work.” Graduate students on several system campuses have also held solidarity rallies in support of Santa Cruz student workers.

Scott Hernandez-Jason, Santa Cruz spokesperson, said Saturday via email that “future employment as an academic student employee will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration current disciplinary actions and/or student misconduct.” Graduate students who met the deadline will be eligible for spring and future teaching appointments, along with the university’s new, five-year funding program and $2,500 annual housing stipend. These students also will be eligible to serve on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Graduate Education to “help continue to improve the support for graduate students.”

Asked how many graduate students withheld fall marks, Hernandez-Jason said exact numbers were not yet available, but “we will respect all good-faith efforts to turn in grades.”