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Monday, April 15, 2024

Two weeks of action for UC Davis COLA organizers culminate in pledged strike

Davis branch of Cost Of Living Adjustment movement comes to a head with Feb. 21 March on Mrak Hall

The UC Davis students marching for a Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) — higher wages to keep up with rising housing costs — came face-to-face with UC Regents last Friday, Feb. 21. 

According to doctoral student Beshara Kehdi, a COLA is an ongoing stipend to bring a graduate student out of a rent burden. Kehdi said at current rates in Yolo County, that amounts to an extra $1,553.20 a month.

The march was organized in solidarity with UC Santa Cruz, where the COLA movement began as a wildcat grading strike — one unapproved by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, representing over 18,000 UC student workers, including those at UCSC — in December. Striking graduate students did not release over 12,000 fall quarter grades. The strike expanded on Feb. 10 to include a stoppage of all grading, teaching and research.

UC President Janet Napolitano, after previous messages from UCSC administration, said in a Feb. 14 statement that if the striking students did not release grades by 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 27, they could face consequences, such as “termination from the university.”

During the march, Kehdi said supporters of the COLA movement would not let the UC “terrorize” its graduate students.

In front of Mrak, Kehdi listed off eight demands from the UC Davis COLA supporters, including a cost of living adjustment, dropped charges against all students and workers arrested at UCSC and UC Irvine for their organizing, ceased efforts of retaliation against striking associate student employees, ended threats of deportations against international and undocumented students and affordable housing for all. 

The demands reflected a statement sent out by UC Davis COLA organizers before the march, describing the COLA movement as first addressing only the housing crisis, then expanding to “become a nucleation point to articulate criticisms of the University’s role in upholding structural inequities, systemic racism, colonialism, state violence, policing and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), poverty, imperialism, and militarism.”

According to the organizers, hundreds of students expressed support for a grading strike if the UCSC strikers were fired from their positions. 

Once the initial march to Mrak Hall ended, a smaller group of students learned that several UC Regents were visiting the Student Community Center (SCC) and marched there. 

The Regents sent a representative from the Student Recruitment and Retention Center (SRRC) to offer a conversation with the regents to five or six of the marchers. When the offer was refused, the regents then offered them the entire SRRC as a space for a town hall.

“We are not waiting outside your office talking to your secretary!” a marcher responded. “We are out here screaming at you! We are already having a conversation, because like it or not, you are hearing us, and that is the only conversation you will get from us today.”

Once the crowd left the SCC, however, Ben Claire, a fourth-year environmental science and management major, and Marlen Garcia, a first-year political science and community & regional development double major, accepted the Regents’ offer.

At the meeting were Regents William Um and Debby Stegura, who said they were visiting different campuses to educate themselves about what was going on. UC Davis Chief of Staff Karl Engelbach was also present. Claire and Garcia, with consent, recorded the entire conversation.

One talking point during the conversation was housing. Claire and Garcia both discussed their struggles finding housing as undergraduates.

Engelbach said that UC Davis was planning to add 5,000 new beds available at 20% below Davis housing market rate.

When asked what they made per month and if they would support a raise for the grad students who made around $2,000 a month, the Regents and Engelbach laughed. 

Engelbach makes over $300,000 a year, including benefits

“Both parties [UAW and the UC] would have to agree to re-opening the contract,” Engelbach said with regard to negotiating higher wages. Um and Stegura gave Garcia and Claire information about the public comment section at the UC regents meetings and invited them to contact the Basic Needs Subcommittee.

“Thank you for your advocacy,” Um said. “That’s how we […] learn from the students.”

Stegura, when asked if she supported cost of living adjustments, said she supported people being able to live. 

“Just because we can’t say we can open up a contract tomorrow doesn’t mean that we don’t get it,” she said. “I don’t know what the resources are, but it’s a problem everywhere, it’s not just a problem with the UC.” 

Garcia said she was thankful that the regents were thankful, but that wasn’t enough. To her, she said, it felt like the regents sounded like they had heard about the problem before.

“It wasn’t that they were uninterested, but they already knew it was a problem,” Garcia said. “If it was something they were interested in doing, they would have done something long ago,” 

At the conversation’s end, Stegura told Claire to “burn that video” and asked, “Am I on your good side?” 

When Claire responded no, Stegura told him, “I don’t have a good side.” 

Updates from UCSC:

UCSC External Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer published a statement on Feb. 24 clarifying the “needs-based” $2,500 housing subsidy offered to graduate students, providing a conditional offer of non-retaliation should strikers resume normal duties and moving the deadline to submit fall quarter grades to Feb. 24. 

The day before, UCSC strikers began considering themselves effectively terminated from their jobs, according to a statement posted on the UCSC COLA strikers website. 

Napolitano offered to meet with the UC Graduate and Professional Council (UCGPC) to discuss housing, cost of living, mental health and other issues on Feb. 21, but her offer was refused by both the UCGPC and the UCSC strikers

The president of the Graduate Student Association at UCSC, Cierra Raine Sorin, said on Twitter that UCGPC did not have a UCSC representative on its board and so did not accurately represent the UCs. 

“The GPC executive board is run by folks that have been and continue to be incredibly anti-COLA,” Sorin wrote. 

Additionally, UCSC doctoral student Krizia Puig said UAW Local 2865 was attempting to make it look like COLA4ALL was a campaign they started

The California Aggie has reached out to the union and the UCGPC for comment.

The History of Consciousness, Astronomy and Astrophysics, Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology and Environmental Studies graduate departments have pledged to turn down graduate student instructor, readership and TA positions should any UCSC strikers from their department be terminated.

Updates from UC Santa Barbara:

UCSB’s COLA movement announced on Feb. 24 that they are planning a full wildcat strike — no teaching, research or grading — on Feb. 27. That makes it both the second UC to start its own COLA movement and to launch a full strike.

Adam Parison, a sixth-year classics doctoral student representing the UCSB COLA movement, said the movement’s supporters chose to pursue a full strike instead of a grading strike based on what they saw at UCSC.

“A lot of people thought it [a grading strike] was an ineffectual way to escalate,” he said. “UCSC has been having a hard time and if we wait until the end of the quarter, it doesn’t seem to do as much. We have to strike when the iron is hot.”

He said that UCSB’s administration has been more receptive than UCSC’s and that the UCSB COLA movement will be meeting with administration on Feb. 25.

“I’m kind of surprised myself [at the support that emerged],” Parison said of UCSB being the second campus to escalate action to the extent of UCSC. “We’re in a very similar position as them [UCSC] — it’s incredibly expensive to live here and we’ve been feeling that economic pressure. Some departments, like sociology, have been already agitating for change.”

Parison called the movement a “first step to reworking how the university works, where students don’t have to fall into deep debts.” 

Updates from UC Irvine:

Over 200 UC Irvine graduate students and supporters rallied in solidarity with UCSC and aimed to call attention to the high cost of living in Irvine on Feb. 20, according to an email statement from a representative from the UC Irvine COLA movement.

On the UCI 4 COLA Twitter, Feb. 20 also saw UCI students rush into the administration building, which the representative said they locked down for 48 hours as Chancellor Howard Gillman refused to meet with students. There are also videos of UCI police using force on students, and according to the statement, a black woman unaffiliated with the action was arrested. 

The representative said that same day marked the start of UCI’s own COLA FOR ALL movement. 

“COLA FOR ALL is a recognition that we cannot address racial inequities in this country without addressing housing, and we cannot address housing inequities here at Irvine and elsewhere without addressing race,” the statement said. “Cola for all is also a recognition that our economic struggles are inextricably linked with the strikers at UC Santa Cruz, with the undergraduates at Irvine and with workers all across America.” 

Updates from UC Merced:

Anh Diep, the unit chair for the Merced chapter of UAW Local 2865, said via email that on Feb. 21, about 70 folks including graduates, undergraduates, postdoctoral students and faculty showed up to a demonstration held at their campus.

Diep described UCM as undergoing a cultural shift despite being celebrated as having “cheap” and “affordable” rent.

“As a commuter campus, the apartments and houses close to UCM bus transit stops have seen rent hikes,” Diep said, citing rent that increased from $700/month to $1,400/month.

Diep said the UCM COLA movement’s lists of demands are: for the UC Office of the President (UCOP) to hear the demands to bargain for a cost of living adjustment, as delivered by UAW 2865 reps from all UC campuses on Feb. 10 to 12. They also demand that UCOP and UCSC not retaliate, fire or discipline striking UCSC students and faculty, and those across the UC system. 

To Diep, part of the next steps for the UCM COLA movement include working with other unions and organizations across campus, dispelling the myth that UCM has “cheap” rents, using the rent-burden conversation as a segue to emphasize UC-wide solidarity and make the UCSC struggle more salient and hosting peaceful, public demonstrations in solidarity and support.

Updates from UC Berkeley:

UC Berkeley, like other UCs, also held a solidarity rally on Feb. 21. A representative from UC Berkeley’s COLA movement said after the rally, COLA undergraduate allies occupied a campus dining hall in solidarity with Santa Cruz and maintained it all day, providing free food for all. 

“Considering that nearly 100 grad workers at Santa Cruz defied Napolitano’s threats and maintained withholding of the fall grades past Friday, solidarity actions across UC campuses are ever more important,” they said. 

The representative added that their COLA movement is holding a General Assembly on Feb. 24 to determine next steps, such as possibly developing a wildcat strike on their own campus, and said the movement plans to have multiple actions this coming week. 

The Aggie is in the process of getting statements from COLA organizers at UC San Diego, UC Riverside and UCLA. 

Written by: Janelle Marie Salanga — campus@theaggie.org

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article named Anh Diep as a representative of UC Merced for COLA working with the Merced chapter of UAW Local 2865. Diep is actually the unit chair for UAW Local 2865 at UC Merced and a part of the UCM COLA movement. The UCM COLA and UAW actions are not mutually exclusive. Additionally, it previously stated that the deadline to submit Fall Quarter grades was Feb. 24. That is incorrect; the date is Feb. 27. The article has since been updated. The Aggie regrets the error.



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