UC Berkeley organizations discuss cost of living adjustment amid UC Santa Cruz strikes

Celine Bellegarda/Staff

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Campus students gathered in Dwinelle Hall for an “Undergraduates for COLA at Cal” meeting Feb. 19 to discuss cross-campus solidarity and what a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, would mean for UC Berkeley.

In support of graduate students on strike at UC Santa Cruz, or UCSC, multiple campus organizations hosted the discussion, including UC Berkeley Young Democratic Socialists of America, or YDSA; Cal Berkeley Democrats; Students for Climate Action and United Students Against Sweatshops, UC Berkeley.

“The intention is to convene space so that we can educate ourselves, talk together, organize together in a really urgent moment,” said Aleah Jennings-Newhouse, campus senior, organizer for the campus chapters of YDSA and Students for Climate Action and a former reporter for The Daily Californian.

In December 2019, graduate student instructors and teaching assistants initially began withholding grades at UCSC in the struggle for a COLA. A full strike was declared by the UCSC wildcat strikers Feb. 10 to start conversations about “COLA For All.”

Graduate students and undergraduate students alike are striking at UCSC in demand of a monthly wage increase of $1,412. UC Berkeley undergraduate students at the meeting discussed holding similar walkouts with graduate students.

The University of California values the important work of academic student employees (ASEs), who are essential to UC’s teaching mission,” said Andrew Gordon, UC Office of the President spokesperson, in an email. “The University is sympathetic to the rising cost of living, particularly housing, throughout California and the pressure this puts on teaching assistants and all our other employees.”

UC President Janet Napolitano wrote in an open letter to UCSC staff and students Feb. 14 that strikers who withhold undergraduate grades and refuse teaching responsibilities could possibly lose their jobs.

According to a letter from wildcat strikers, Napolitano set Friday as the UCSC administration’s final deadline for the submission of fall quarter grades before student employees face dismissal.

The strikers’ demand for UC systemwide solidarity produces the urgency to organize for “collective well-being” across UC campuses, according to Jennings-Newhouse.

“It’s also this really lovely opportunity to assert the urgency of the precarity of most people at the University of California, whether we students as undergrads or grad student workers,” Jennings-Newhouse said.

The current contract for student workers includes a 3% increase per year to reflect the cost of living, but students allege this is not enough.

Gordon also said the UC system is working on building student housing projects, which are all priced below market value, and does not plan to reopen their signed contract with the student worker union, United Automobile Workers, or UAW, Local 2865. He added that the wildcat strike was a violation of the current contract.

The University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT, stated in a press release Feb. 19 that it fully supports UAW Local 2865’s COLA demand, which “adequately reflects the skyrocketing cost of living in California.”

“The struggle for a living wage is one that unites graduate students, teaching faculty, and many other workers whom UC admin has been content to exploit for far too long,” UC-AFT’s press release states. “The median annual salary for a UC lecturer is $19,900, meaning that more than half of UC-AFT faculty earn less than the graduate students who have walked out in protest. Our fights are the same fight.”

Sheyda Khonji, a campus senior and organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops, said the potential firing of UCSC employees drew her to participate in the “Undergraduates for COLA at Cal” meeting.

A COLA rally will be held on Sproul Plaza on Friday in solidarity with UCSC graduate students.

“We’re trying to figure out what this coalition wants and what students want,” Khonji said. “Definitely trying to center and empower marginalized voices in demanding from the institution what they need in order for students to not be food insecure or housing insecure and to have their needs and demands met.”

Contact Olivia Buccieri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @obuccieri_dc‏.