UC Graduate Student Workers Wildcat Strike

Against the Current, No. 206, May/June 2020

Shannon Ikebe

ON DECEMBER 8th, 2019, the General Assembly of graduate student workers at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) decided to begin a wildcat strike, demanding a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) of $1,412 a month for all graduate students, regardless of employment or citizenship status. By early March, the COLA movement took root in all University of California (UC) campuses, with wildcat strikes spreading to five campuses.

How did the COLA campaign lead to the most significant campus mobilization in California in many years, and what are its political prospects and lessons?

The wildcat strike emerged as a truly spontaneous call from below. Core organizers of the COLA campaign have been working on it since the beginning of the academic year in September, and have secured leadership of both the Santa Cruz chapter of UAW Local 2865 as well as the Graduate Student Association (GSA). The union is composed of academic student workers (graduate students and undergraduate tutors) across the UC system.

The first mass action in early November was a march to the chancellor’s office to present the COLA demand; it attracted around 250 grad workers. This was a significant number at the second-smallest UC campus, with only 1,800 grad students.

The organizers had developed a year-long campaign plan, which envisioned possibilities of more militant direct actions in the spring. But once energized, the rank and file would not wait so long.

The university adminstration’s condescending responses to the COLA demand sparked a flurry of angry emails denouncing them and calling for a strike, quickly amplified through a “reply-all” listserv. Pleasantly taken by surprise, the entire group of organizers pivoted immediately towards realizing a grade strike, even though very few of them had organized a wildcat before.

Everything had to be figured out from scratch, from technical mechanisms of grade submission to managing the strike fund. After an intense week and half, hundreds of Santa Cruz teaching assistants — estimated around a half of all TAs — refused to submit the fall quarter grades on the designated December 18th deadline, substantially disrupting the operation of the university.

Strong Support

The COLA movement has attracted strong support from undergraduate students and faculty, who occupy a strategic position regarding the strike. Since undergraduates would be missing grades, securing their support is crucial. COLA organizers clarified that most students would not be negatively affected by grade withholding. They offered to release grades on an individual basis to any student with a time-pressing need.

Undergraduate activists have also organized their own solidarity actions such as liberation of dining halls. They have also won commitment to non-retaliation for strike participation from faculty in many departments, in which the Faculty Organizing Group (FOG) — a group of politically conscious professors — has played a crucial role in facilitating.

The rapid growth of the strike underscores the dire material conditions that face grad workers at Santa Cruz, which has seen skyrocketing rent in recent years caused by nearby Silicon Valley. It has become one of the most unaffordable places to live in the country. Real wages have not increased to reflect the housing crisis at all. The struggle for affordable housing was dealt a further blow when the Measure M, the local rent-control initiative in November 2018, was defeated by landlord forces.

The vast majority of grad workers spend more than half of their income on rent, as we are reminded in the “Rent Burden” line on the strikers’ email signatures. The amount of COLA demand would bring down rent to 30% of income, defined as affordable housing in the federal guideline.

As many workers have expressed, the lack of a COLA has exposed them to substandard and unsanitary housing conditions, hunger, and overwork. But dire conditions are not sufficient on their own to spark a mass uprising. The exponential growth of the COLA movement also owes a lot to the political savvy of the militants organizing the months-long strike, who, with a combination of utmost seriousness and irrepressible optimism, have always sought to cultivate rather than stifle militancy.

COLA goes statewide

After maintaining grade withholding for many weeks, the wildcat gained another wave of impetus in February. In response to the UC Santa Cruz administration’s threat of retaliation through disciplinary charges issued in late January, Santa Cruz strikers decided to escalate into a full teaching strike from February 10th.

While the UCSC administration offered a tepid concession in the form of a housing supplement of $2,500 a year, available conditionally, they utterly failed to stop the momentum.

Strikers held mass picket lines every day at the campus entrances, managing to shut down the entire campuses on multiple days. They faced police violence and mass arrest at the picket lines, which were followed by the threat to fire striking workers issued by UC President Janet Napolitano herself.

The full teaching strike in February brought the movement a far greater level of attention and support than ever before, from articles in the national and international media outlets to Bernie Sanders’ solidarity tweet. Meanwhile the COLA strike fund collected nearly $300,000 from more than 5,000 donors.

Facing escalating retaliation, Santa Cruz issued an urgent call for solidarity wildcat strikes across the UCs, which began a new statewide phase of the COLA struggle.As the fast-rising cost of living and stagnant wages are a common experience across UCs, the simple and universal demand of a COLA quickly resonated.

COLA organizing had already been active on many UC campuses, as workers at UC Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara organized the first solidarity rally in December. Hundreds of grad workers across the state committed to withholding grades if Santa Cruz workers were fired, which in turn encouraged Santa Cruz to maintain grade withholding past the “doomsday” of February 21st set by Napolitano.

Mass pickets at Santa Cruz inspired other campuses to organize towards a strike, for their own COLA demand as well as against retaliation at Santa Cruz. While an intercampus strike had appeared a remote prospect not long before, this was the decisive turning point, when #spreadthe­strike became the ubiquitous slogan and the implausible suddenly became the obvious. We learned that when the struggle is in upswing, we were always more ready than we had thought.

Santa Barbara was the first campus outside Santa Cruz to spread the strike. Having already organized a one-day strike in late January, UCSB for COLA was ready. Two thousand students and workers turned out on their first day of teaching strike.

At Berkeley, a strike was organized on a departmental basis; within a week, grad workers in 15 departments declared themselves as strike-ready, prompting the General Assembly to call a wildcat strike.

COLA GAs at UC Davis and San Diego declared a grade strike for the winter quarter. As the COLA movement took root in all 10 UC campuses, mass rallies, assembly and occupations were happening constantly, which peaked on March 5th, the statewide day of action.

Mass Firing and Resistance

Amidst a great upsurge of COLA strikes, more than 80 Santa Cruz workers who had withheld the fall grades were fired at the end of February. While many departments did maintain support for the strikers, they could not prevent repression ordered at the highest levels at the UC Office of President (UCOP).

But UCOP would not find it easy to replace them with scabs, as 559 grad students across 22 departments committed to refuse TAships vacated by fired workers. Rather, they simply cancelled many sections that were to be taught by fired TAs, which meant deteriorating quality of education for undergraduate students.

The campus shutdowns and the shift to online courses since mid-March, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, have posed serious challenges to the COLA movement. As the Santa Cruz strikers wrote in a statement addressing the new situation, COVID-19 makes a COLA even more necessary than before.

Our precarity is exacerbated, precluding us from necessary protection from the disease in many ways; meanwhile our living conditions literally become the working conditions as we are made to teach online from home.

On the other hand, organizing conditions have become more difficult; the administration has taken the opportunity to undermine our leverage for withholding of teaching labor (even if it happens to coincide with the pandemic-related reasons), as (online) classes are made optional and grades are switched to pass/no pass basis on some campuses.

Even more importantly, in these circum­stances we are forcefully reminded that lifeblood of the movement is in mass assemblies and visible picket lines; deprived of those, it becomes difficult to demonstrate our power, to the boss as well as to each other.

While the pandemic led to wildcat strikes in many sectors where workers are forced to work in-person in unsanitary conditions, our particular working situations do not necessarily have the same factors conducive to organizing now.

Despite these difficulties, the COLA movement is adapting to the new conditions and remains active. The teaching strikes on some campuses have become a “social welfare strike, in which workers may connect with students only to discuss welfare, basic needs and sharing of resources.

COLA organizers on multiple campuses have established mutual aid networks, are participating in discussions on a rent strike, and created the Strike University, a series of COLA-related and other teach-ins, that provides a space for free, public education.

Worker on multiple campuses have made additional pandemic-related demands including free tuition and rent suspension for campus housing, and are still withholding the winter quarter grades that were due in late March, demonstrating that the strike is far from over. At the time of writing, the workers are organizing for a one-day statewide COLA strike on May Day.

UAW Politics

The COLA movement began as a wildcat strike and remains one, but we cannot fully understand it without examining its complex relationship with UAW Local 2865. Starting in 2011  the Local was run by a radical reform caucus called the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU). It democ­ratized the union, rejected the UAW’s corrupt Admin Caucus and won a strong contract after two strikes in 2013-14.

But the mass student movement in California peaked in 2009-12. That, combined with the rapid turnover in grad students, led to gradual weakening of AWDU as an organized caucus.

The round of bargaining in 2017-18 had an initially promising start as organizers sought to combine AWDU’s commitment to radicalism and militancy with a more systematic and coordinated approach to statewide organizing to maximize our power. This included hiring a professional organizing staff. Worker-leaders across the state began organizing to increase membership and then launch a powerful strike in Fall 2018.

But in the Summer 2018, a conservative, bureaucratic faction within the union leadership managed to ram through a weak, inadequate contract through anti-democratic means.

The contract included a 3% nominal wage increase, which amounts to stagnating — if not declining — real wages, and later precipitated the wildcat strike. It contained none of the other main contract campaign demands including abolition of discriminatory international student tuition and protection from police violence on campus.

But the process of imposing this contract was plagued by extremely biased ballot wording, use of paid staff to campaign for ratification. The summer ambush precluded possibilities of in-person deliberations.

As the “August Coup” shocked, angered and demoralized union militants across the state, it further entrenched the power of the coup perpetrators, a caucus called Organizing for Student-Worker Power (OSWP).*

As the contract was “ratified” in violation of both the basic norms of democracy and the Local’s own bylaws relating to conduct of elections, we filed a formal appeal to annul the contract, called the Mussman Appeal. It was predictably rejected by the OSWP-dominated union leadership, but it gave voice to the truth that the ratification process was deeply wrong. (See my piece https://thefilemag.org/the-roots-of-the-santa-cruz-wildcat-strike/ for more details on the August Coup and the Mussman Appeal.

But despite such defeats, Santa Cruz remained the only campus staunchly opposed to the OSWP dictatorship. They rejected the 2018 contract with 83% NO vote, the highest by far of any campus. The campus union leadership persisted in their commitment to a union based on grassroots democracy and militancy, which helped develop the wildcat strike.

The OSWP is, in a certain sense, another iteration of the UAW Administration Caucus at the local level. They espouse a centralized union whose power is concentrated in the Executive Board, with a much greater role for the UAW International Representative. They prioritize membership numbers and meeting with high-ranking politicians, and are hostile to any initiative from rank and file that does not originate from them.

Further, they directly assisted the UAW bureaucracy by defeating a resolution for direct election of UAW Executive Board members, championed by the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), the most significant reform effort in UAW in 30 years.

The OSWP is not just any Admin Caucus; its ideology is steeped in the language of the contemporary left revival in the United States. Not only do many leaders of this caucus claim to be socialist, they claim to be inspired by mass politics based on the high level of organization and a serious analysis of power, counterposing themselves to Occupy-style “horizontalism.”

Concepts like “supermajority,” “deep organizing” and “structure tests” are deployed by the OSWP, not for raising our aspiration to organize more, but to stifle actually-occurring mass actions by portraying them as weak and convincing workers that they do not have enough power. Perversely enough, the OSWP’s tactic is to suppress, rather than raise, expectations of workers about what we can win collectively.

The OSWP leadership predictably sneered at the strike after having treated the COLA campaign with hostility from the beginning and their high-ranking leaders published an attack piece against Santa Cruz merely days into the strike.

As the strike attracted broad support, including from the national leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the political cost for the OSWP to simply keep dismissing it became too high. The UAW 2865 Executive Board issued support for the COLA demand and issued a demand to bargain in mid-January, and filed Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against UCOP for firing Santa Cruz workers.

While they are in one sense an attempt to co-opt the COLA demand from the wildcats, the fact that they have should at the same time be seen as victory for the movement, who forced their hand.

The OSWP continued to agitate against wildcat strikes, which was particularly detrimental to COLA movements at Berkeley and Los Angeles, the OSWP strongholds; but their power has been weakened. Their majority on the bargaining team is very thin, and in the recent vacancy election in early April, the wildcat candidate for an open Executive Board seat defeated the OSWP (UFA) candidate.

In April, one focus of the COLA movement has been the fight to call an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike officially through the UAW 2865 structure. A ULP strike would give strikers greater legal protection from retaliations and dismissal; it can help expand the strike in these uncertain times. While the COLA movement has already won a considerable portion of the seats on the union’s statewide Bargaining Team, it falls short of the majority and the OSWP continues to present a formidable obstacle.

While there is some ambivalence within the movement regarding the pursuit of a ULP strike, which they may regard as unlikely to succeed due to continued OSWP dominance, COLA organizing for a ULP strike has played a role in significantly shifting the balance of power in the union apparatus.


The COLA wildcat strikes have transformed the political terrain on UC campuses, created entirely new, dense networks of organizing and politicized the entire generation of student workers at the UCs and beyond. While we have yet to win a COLA, no class struggle is so easily won, especially for such an ambitious demand.

We have already achieved what we never thought would be possible. Our task is to maintain our independent movement and community over a longer-term, amidst the challenges posed by the pandemic, to grow and emerge stronger than ever, to keep fighting for a COLA, against COVID-induced austerity, and create a liberated university for all.

*They have recently renamed themselves as Union for All (UFA).

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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