Over 40 UC Santa Cruz teaching assistants fired for withholding grades during wage strikes earlier this year will be rehired this fall, UC Santa Cruz administration and United Auto Workers 2865 announced on Tuesday.
The cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) movement officially began in Fall Quarter 2019 at UC Santa Cruz, where teaching assistants withheld grades at the end of the quarter to advocate for a monthly stipend of $1,412 to alleviate rising housing costs.
Graduate students across the UC joined UCSC in advocating for a COLA, including UC Santa Barbara, where teaching assistants went on strike from the end of February until the campus switched to remote instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic at the end of winter quarter.
The 41 reinstated teaching assistants will receive anywhere between a quarter and a year of additional funding, according to Veronica Hamilton, a fourth-year doctoral social psychology student and UCSC unit chair for United Auto Workers 2865 (UAW), the union representing teaching assistants across the UC. Conduct warnings received because of grade withholding and striking will be removed from their files unless they enter a wildcat strike in the next two years, meaning they strike without approval from UAW.
“The reinstatement is just essential for us to be able to stay in our programs and stay in our communities and keep up the fight for what we started fighting for,” LuLing Osofsky, a reinstated teaching assistant and fifth-year doctoral student in the history of art and visual culture at UCSC, said.
UCSC announced its dismissal of 54 teaching assistants at the end of February for withholding grades, but that number was originally in the eighties, according to Hamilton.
In addition to the 54 teaching assistants whose firings were announced officially, Hamilton said UCSC issued 33 emails to other teaching assistants that said they would not be considered for future employment.
“You probably won’t find a consistent estimate for that original number, because the way that they did this was really sneaky,” Hamilton said. “It’s an indirect way of firing people in a way that excludes the union from contesting the facts of that discipline.”
Hamilton was officially fired in mid-March and said she felt lingering uncertainty over the past six months not knowing whether or not she’d have a job in the fall.
“Throughout the COLA campaign, my husband lost his job just before things kind of took off. And so we were supported solely on my income,” she said. “During the strike we lost our housing, we had to find something else really quick … I was in this position where it felt really personal and really high stakes.”
Hamilton said that direct action by COLA organizers and union negotiation led UAW and UCSC administration to the bargaining table last week. While UCSC and UCSB were actively striking, the UC Regents filed an unfair labor practice charge (ULP) against UAW, alleging that the union encouraged the wildcat strike, which is a violation of the no-strike clause in teaching assistants’ contracts. In response, UAW filed multiple ULPs against the UC, alleging that the UC was violating employer-employee relations by firing teaching assistants for withholding grades.
The ULPs led to a settlement between the two parties in June and all teaching assistants were reinstated except for the 41 who were formally fired. The UC dropped almost all discipline and warnings from files except for the 41, according to Hamilton.
The UC and UAW signed a formal agreement on Aug. 8 and UCSC and UAW both publicly announced the reinstatement on Aug. 11.
Larive and Kletzer wrote in their statement that reinstatement was an “important step toward rebuilding community trust and moving beyond the discord created by the wildcat strike.”
Yulia Gilichinskaya, a fifth-year film and media studies doctoral student and former UCSC Graduate Student Association president, was “angry and betrayed” a statement released by UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer on Tuesday. Gilichinskaya said their decision to fire teaching assistants was “the harshest way possible” to handle the situation.
“The way they frame the course of the strike is that graduate students are to blame. And all of the harm that has happened to the university community is our fault, which doesn’t at all acknowledge that we are paid poverty wages and we can’t afford to live where we work,” Gilichinskaya said.
Months-long uncertainty over job security led some graduate students to leave UCSC altogether, and the stakes were even higher for fired international students, who are ineligible for any work outside the university.
“It was ‘if I don’t get reinstated, I am leaving the program,’ and that’s definitely true of all the people I’m close with and I think it’s true of most of the 41 of us. If this didn’t happen, we definitely wouldn’t have been going back,” Lachlin Summers, an international student from Australia, said.
Summers moved to Mexico, where he conducts research as a cultural anthropology doctoral student, shortly after being fired. He had no idea when he would be able to come back to the U.S. because of new ICE regulations affecting international students, and has begun to think about “a world in which [he] didn’t finish this PhD.”
“This is an institution that prides itself as being the number one public university in the world. And it’s just about impossible to be here unless you come from a wealthy family,” he said.
Graduate students across the UC continue to advocate for a COLA, even as the pandemic brings challenges to in-person activism. While wildcat striking in the next two years would put conduct charges back in students’ files, Hamilton said a union-sanctioned strike is “always on the table,” and that one ULP charge is still ongoing between UAW and the UC.
Hamilton said there are still some student conduct charges that haven’t been dropped, but UCSC hasn’t told her how many students this includes. One student with ongoing charges is Carlos Cruz, a doctoral student facing a two-year suspension for strike action, Hamilton said.
“They had the police sort of surveilling, and essentially stalking Carlos … that resulted in Carlos being targeted for actions that hundreds of people did. But he is facing this very severe punishment, two-year suspension, for doing the same, or similar alleged behavior that hundreds of people did,” Hamilton said.
A key initiative for COLA moving forward is its Cops Off Campus campaign, which aims to abolish campus police and bring attention to nationwide police brutality.
Gilichinskaya said that the reinstatement is a testament to the power of collective action, and that graduate students will continue to organize for a COLA, with the help of UC-wide support.
“We’re grateful for reinstatement and I think it’s a big victory. And it’s great to have a little bit of security and have a job and the pandemic and in a global recession, but also it’s a job that still pays under minimum wage, or equal to a minimum wage,” she said. “I would qualify that as a crisis.”