‘United we bargain’: More than 1,000 students protest in support of COLA

Ireland Wagner/Staff

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Nearly 1,100 protesters showed up at the peak of the campus protest to support a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, for UC graduate students March 5.

About 100 protesters gathered on Sproul Plaza at about 10:30 a.m. to march around campus. As they gathered, they chanted “No justice, no peace, f— the police” and “UC, UC you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side.”

The group then marched from Sproul Plaza to the Campanile, where several speakers read statements representing other students. The protesters continually called for the “demilitarization” of UC campuses and the defunding of UCPD.

The march moved to the steps of Doe Library and then to California Hall, where campus junior Gus Guerrero spoke on the importance of supporting a COLA.

“We all need a COLA just as badly as the GSIs,” Guerrero said. “United we bargain, divided we beg. Now is the time where we decide whether to bargain or beg.”

STEM graduate students gathered at Hearst Mining Circle to show support before the rally. Campus chemical engineering graduate student Frankie Cunningham claimed that STEM representation in activist movements is “appallingly low.”

“Part of the COLA for all movement, in the context of STEM, is to make people aware that our privileges and our comfort is not guaranteed,” Cunningham said.

By 12 p.m., a rally began to organize on Sproul Plaza, joined by marchers coming from Memorial Glade.

There were no instances of property damage or injury, according to UCPD spokesperson Sgt. Nicolas Hernandez. He said UCPD is neutral toward the rally, and its primary role is to ensure public safety and maintain the peace if necessary.

At the event, campus undergraduate Jasmine Erhard said they came out to support because of their experiences as a student.

“I’m applying for grad school,” Erhard said. “Financial aid packages are coming in, and it’s so obvious that there’s no funding for grad students.”

Joe Hart, a COLA 4 ALL at CAL organizer, said during the event that he felt it was going “amazingly,” comparing the crowd size to that of the climate strikes that took place in the 2019 fall semester.

Hart added that it was important for students to realize that a COLA is not just for graduate students.

“I think this applies to everyone in very obvious ways; I think this is an issue that really affects every single person,” Hart said. “If you go to this university, this is your issue as well.”

A large group of protesters congregated in front of Doe Library at about 2 p.m., speaking out against UC President Janet Napolitano to spectators at Memorial Glade.

While marching, the crowd repeated chants such as “Fight back, fight back, the UC is wack.” The protesters then relocated back to Sproul Plaza.

Sheyda Khonji, a campus senior and organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops, noted how graduate students not being able to afford rent or food is a problem shared by undergraduate students.

“It’s important that we show solidarity with the graduate students and we show the university and the administration that we all understand that this fight is all of our fight,” Khonji said.

UC Santa Cruz graduate student and COLA 4 ALL member Bre Byrd led chants at California Hall and spoke to crowds on Sproul Plaza. She said the UC administration’s response was “deplorable” and alleged that they are acting in retaliation.

“I think to threaten students who are precarious with more ‘precarity’ is inhumane and I think that most of the students who are fighting, who withheld grades, are first-generation, undocumented, single parents, queer folk and Black and brown folks,” Byrd said.

UC Office of the President spokesperson Andrew Gordon said in an email that the UC system values all graduate students and academic student employees, or ASEs, who play a crucial part in the university’s teaching mission. He added that “however, that mission is in jeopardy when ASEs refuse to fulfill their teaching obligations.”

The group of ASEs who refused to teach class sections and submit grades “unfairly harmed” undergraduate students, with consequences such as preventing students from declaring majors, graduating and receiving a transcript, according to Gordon.

“There is a significant difference between public demonstrations of self-expression and actions that directly violate the terms of a collective bargaining agreement and disregard one’s job responsibilities,” Gordon said.

He added that UC administration believes these issues can only be solved through collaboration.

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email that the campus financial situation of paying graduate student instructors is different from other UC schools. Campus funding is comparatively greater, with fewer students living off of GSI salary alone, such that only about 30% of campus doctoral students are employed as GSIs in a given semester. The remaining are funded with fellowships or graduate student researcher appointments.

Within the overall graduate student population, there are vastly different funding levels based on departmental practices and fund availability, according to Gilmore. For example, 28% of campus doctoral students received $30,000 or less, while about 5% have stipends of more than $48,000.

Due to this unique circumstance, Gilmore suggested that a blanket, across-the-board COLA would not address students’ different funding needs fairly. Instead, campus plans to create a baseline funding model for all doctoral students.

Cole Rainey, campus Ph.D. student and member of the events and actions working group in Cal COLA, emphasized the role of taking individual action in this “overwhelming historical moment.”

“If universities like Berkeley aren’t the center of real change, what will be?” Rainey said. “Where will that change come from?”

Shylie Ati, Sebastian Cahill, Nat Gott and Angelina Wang all contributed to this report.

Contact Angelina Wang, Sebastian Cahill, Natalie Gott and Shylie Ati at [email protected].