Across the University of California, a unifying message — shouted at the police barricade at UC Santa Cruz, taped to the walls of the UC San Diego’s chancellor’s office, yelled on the fifth floor of UC Santa Barbara’s Cheadle Hall — has emerged: Crack open the UC, because its graduate students want a COLA.

The demand for a cost-of-living adjustment began at UC Santa Cruz in September. Sam Rankin / Daily Nexus

The demand for a COLA, or cost-of-living adjustment, began at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) in September, but organizers at UCSC first delivered their demands for a COLA to the administration on Nov. 7, 2019. On Dec. 9, hundreds of graduate students went on a wildcat strike, meaning the strike is not authorized by their union. 

The graduate students, as part of their strike, refused to release over 12,000 undergraduate grades by the submission deadline of Dec. 18 until the university agreed to a COLA of $1,412 a month to supplement their current TA salaries. The university refused, and this past Monday, UCSC graduate students began an indefinite full wildcat strike, meaning a strike without the authorization of their union, UC Student-Workers Union (UAW Local 2865). 

At the root of the UC COLA movements is the concept of rent burden, defined as spending more than 30% of one’s wages on rent, according to the UCSC COLA website. Students’ rent burdens vary from campus to campus, but across the UC, organizers have been using rent burden to calculate COLAs specific to their respective universities. 

While only the UCSC COLA movement has officially gone on strike, several other UCs, such as UCSB and UCSD, have now drafted and presented demands to leadership at their respective universities. At other UCs, such as UC Los Angeles, UC Berkeley and UC Davis, COLA movements are in their infancy, but are growing fast. 

The Nexus spoke with organizers at various UC campuses to document their COLA movements and the stages each movement is in. 

Further coverage of UCSB’s COLA movement can be viewed here.

UC Santa Cruz:

UCSC graduate students finished their third day on strike on Wednesday; throughout the day, hundreds of graduate students linked arms and blocked the intersection at the base of UCSC’s campus, facing off against a blockade of police officers and disrupting bus services. At least 16 people were arrested and given citations, City on a Hill Press reported, but as of 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, only one remained in custody. 

According to a press release sent out by the UCSC COLA movement, at least one student allegedly “had her finger broken by police, another was bleeding profusely from his head after being hit by batons, and others received bruised ribs and bones.” 

Jane Komori, a doctoral student within the history of consciousness department and co-secretary of the UCSC Graduate Student Association, explained that at UCSC, the demand for a COLA officially began in November, when graduate students presented their demands to the university.  

“UC Santa Cruz students pay 50, 60, 70% of their wages of rent per month, which makes it next to impossible to afford most other things, especially if you have medical copays or childcare or any kind of emergency,” Komori said.  

Now, UCSC graduate students are on an indefinite strike; those who are a part of the COLA movement are not holding office hours and sections and will not release undergraduate students’ fall quarter and upcoming winter quarter grades. 

Komori said that last week, UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive offered new programs for graduate students that would help offset the cost of living, such as one that offers five years of funding at their current pay rate, and another than would provide a $2,500 a year housing supplement or fellowship for those in need. 

But Komori called the offers “insufficient,” and said that showed, to her, that the university “doesn’t take our demands seriously at all.” 

She added that the last she heard, administration would be starting “disciplinary action against the strike.” Several graduate students posted to social media about receiving disciplinary hearing summons and formal warning letters. 

As of Monday, upwards of 1,500 UCSC undergraduate students have also signed a petition in support of their graduate students, Komori said. 

Komori said the university is now refusing to meet with the striking graduate students now that they are “carrying out an unsanctioned strike.” 

The movement has been updating through the Twitter account @payusmoreucsc and on the website payusmoreucsc.com. 

In an email statement, UC Office of the President Associate Director for Media Relations Andrew Gordon said the strike at UCSC is “illegal” and that it “does not further the discussion on how to increase housing affordability for student employees.” 

UC San Diego: 

UC San Diego’s COLA movement began last year, when the university’s Housing, Dining and Hospitality Unit — the equivalent of UCSB’s Housing, Dining & Auxiliary Enterprises — planned to increase graduate students’ rents for on-campus apartments, according to Celine Khoury, a doctoral student in literature and recording secretary within the San Diego chapter of United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the UC-wide union representing graduate students. 

Graduate students held a housing march to protest the plan, but the unit raised the price of rent regardless. 

It was out of this momentum that the UCSD COLA movement formed, Khoury said. 

“Our [graduate students] make up 15% of our workforce,” Khoury said. “UCSD has the largest number of academic employees out of all of the UCs.” 

According to a UCSD COLA fact sheet posted to the movement’s Twitter account, graduate teaching assistants made $2,434 a month, and a majority of them paid over 42% of their monthly wages in rent. 

Khoury described the UCSD COLA moment as very “grassroots” and “collaborative,” explaining that there are a number of members of the UCSD COLA movement that are also involved with the UCSD Graduate Student Association (GSA) and the campus union, UAW 2865. 

Earlier this week, the UCSD GSA unanimously passed a resolution that supported both the striking UCSC workers as well as any future action taken by graduate students at UC San Diego, she said. 

On Monday, approximately 80 members of the UCSD COLA movement, alongside a few campus groups and undergraduates, held a “peaceful march” across campus. 

The group made its way to UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla’s office, where they planned on delivering their demands, which include providing all student workers with housing stipends that translate to between $1,400 and $3,100 a month; lowering rent on all existing on-campus housing; and building affordable on-campus housing for the future. 

But Khosla didn’t open the door, Khoury said. 

Instead, organizers “chanted the letter” and, before they left, “taped all of our signs to the chancellor’s door and the [outside] walls of his office.” Now, they are waiting for the chancellor to respond to their demands. The UCSD COLA movement also held a public forum Wednesday night, open to all students and faculty, to provide updates on the UC-wide COLA rallies. 

The movement has been posting online under the Twitter account @ColaUcsd. 

UC Davis: 

Emily Rich, a doctoral student in English at UC Davis, said the UCD COLA movement began in December, in solidarity with the UCSC COLA movement. Several other UC COLA movements also held rallies in solidarity with UCSC on the same day. 

“Our initial purpose was to just try and support them, but we pretty quickly, like a lot of other campuses, were realizing that we have a lot of similar problems that Santa Cruz is having … so we used that first event as a jumping off point.” 

Rich said the movement is currently composed of a smaller group of graduate students rather than an entire organization. They plan to attend their UCD GSA meeting and talk to the local union members about how to broaden the movement, Rich said, and they’re also starting to reach out to undergraduates as well. 

Moving forward, Rich is hoping they can draft a list of demands that also would help with equity between departments or guaranteed summer funding. 

A few members of the UCD COLA movement also travelled to UC Santa Cruz to support the strikers; according to the @ucd4cola Twitter account, one of the UCD COLA organizers was among those arrested during the Wednesday UCSC COLA strike. 

The movement has been posting online under the Twitter account @ucd4cola. 

UC Berkeley: 

Tara Phillips, UAW 2865 and UC Berkeley COLA organizer, said the COLA movement at UC Berkeley is “still in its infancy,” noting that it was difficult to get a COLA movement off the ground because the campus union wasn’t supportive of the movement “until recently.” 

The movement’s first action was in December, she said, when around 70 people held a solidarity rally for UCSC strikers. 

“[We] talked about how difficult it is to get by here, how precarious the lives of grad students are because pay is so low and rent is so high,” Phillips said. “Folks were talking about landlord abuse and the inability to pay for medical treatment, loans that folks need to take out just to supplement their income … [but] also how much we love teaching, and that we wish the university valued it more.” 

Phillips said that while most graduate students pay 50% or more of their wages on rent, that payment only lasts for 10 months of the year — nine months for the UC campuses on the quarter system — and most students “have to scramble over the summer to get rent money together, because teaching is not guaranteed in the summer.” 

“We’re living very stressful, financially precarious lives for a long time,” she said, adding that she believes the university has done a “very poor job” in terms of equity across the various UC Berkeley departments. 

UC Berkeley’s Graduate Assembly – the equivalent of UCSB’s GSA – and UAW 2863 passed a resolution in support of the UCSC strike last week, she added.

Moving forward, Phillips said the movement is “just starting to map out what the future looks like for us, and how to keep building that movement.” 

“We’re sort of in this educational phase … but ideally we’d like to be able to turn out a lot of graduate students to a general assembly, and discuss collectively what we want, what our demands look like, and how to pressure the administration to give us a COLA.” 

She added that UAW 2865 came up with a projected COLA for UC Berkeley to bring students out of rent burden — $2,103, the highest number so far across the UCs. 

The movement has been posting on the Facebook page “Cal COLA: Pay Us More UCB.” 

UC Los Angeles: 

UCLA GSA President Zak Fisher, who attends UCLA School of Law, explained that after UCSC students went on strike, the conversation of a UCLA COLA became a “hot topic of conversation.” He noted, however, that there is “no official club” for a UCLA COLA.

“I’ve seen this campus today engaging this important question of, ‘How do we fight for a cost-of-living adjustment or for cost-of-living issues more generally?’ I haven’t met a graduate student yet who said, ‘No way, we get paid enough, what are you doing?’”

Fisher said that he ran for GSA president on a platform of creating a cost-of-living adjustment for graduate students, among other issues. 

Currently, graduate students are spreading a survey around in hopes of getting a better idea of how rent-burdened students are, he said.

As GSA president, Fisher said he has spoken to administrators about the issues that he ran on, but “they’ll give you lip service all day, saying ‘Hey, these are important issues,’ but then you’ll meet with them three months later and say, ‘Oh, what have you done? Absolutely nothing.’” 

He added that he’s seen support from UCLA undergraduate students as well, noting that the undergraduate student government and the GSA unanimously passed a resolution in support for UCSC strikers, demanding that there be no retaliation. 

“Everyone is starting to realize, this is our collective fight and our collective struggle.” 

The movement has been posting under the Twitter handle @ucla4cola. 

UC Riverside: 

UCSB COLA Outreach Committee member Adam Parison confirmed that a “pretty small” COLA movement was beginning at UC Riverside, but that the movement has no social media platforms yet, and Parison could not provide contact information for any COLA organizers at UCR.

A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Feb. 13, 2020 print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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