UC Berkeley graduate students demand a COLA

Cameron Oppartkiettikul/Staff

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In front of a crowd on Upper Sproul Plaza on March 5, a graduate student calculated how his wages compared to the rent at the UC Berkeley-owned University Village in Albany. If he only worked during the academic year, he calculated, he would spend 108% of his income on rent alone, and with a summer side hustle, rent would still take 80% of his earnings. His partner stopped working, since they only qualified for subsidized child care without her income; otherwise, they would spend more than her monthly take-home on child care alone.

Rent is too high, and the UC system is only making the problem worse. As graduate students, we demand a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, to address skyrocketing rent burdens that have made life in a university town untenable and, for many, unlivable. 

On March 9, the graduate students of the Berkeley COLA General Assembly voted in favor of a full work stoppage — a wildcat strike starting Monday. This follows a widely attended strike and rally held March 5.

On Feb. 28, the UC Office of the President fired or rejected future contracts for 82 UC Santa Cruz graduate student instructors for their participation in a wildcat strike. Strikers withheld grades and stopped instruction to demand a pay raise of $1,412 a month for all graduate students, regardless of residence, visa, documentation, employment or funding status to help alleviate rent burdens. Led by UC Santa Cruz workers, the COLA movement has spread rapidly across UC campuses to address the precarious living situations we all face as graduate students and university employees.

As part of a statewide day of action, our demands are fivefold. First, we call for the immediate reinstatement of our colleagues at UC Santa Cruz who were dismissed from their current teaching appointments and denied spring teaching positions. Second, we call for a COLA for all graduate students across the UC system. Third, we demand that the UC administration drops its unfair labor practice charges against our union, United Auto Workers Local 2865. Fourth, we call for the demilitarization and divestment from the UC system’s police force. Fifth, we demand the abolition of single-semester appointments for adjunct lecturers. 

Graduate students and nontenure-track lecturers are the backbone of undergraduate education at UC Berkeley. Tenure-track professors serve as head instructors and teach in only 54% of classes at UC Berkeley, with graduate students heading 5% and lecturers and adjunct professors heading 36%. Even for the slim majority of courses taught by tenure-track professors, many undergraduates only ever talk to their graduate student instructors, since the median class size is about 200 students. Nationally, less than 40% of college courses are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty.

Lecturers and graduate students are not paid in accordance with how vital they are to the UC system. While universities are on track to vastly continue producing Ph.D.s, tenure-track positions at institutions are being replaced by adjunct lecturer positions, which pay a few thousand dollars per course and largely lack health insurance and job security. The promise of adjunct jobs — and graduate student labor — is that we will, someday, get a tenure-track job, but this is an increasingly unrealistic dream.

At a public university that is supposedly dedicated to having a diverse student body, the housing crisis disproportionately affects the Black and brown students whom the university is trying to attract. Our colleagues in African American studies underlined this point in their letter declaring their readiness to strike, “The University of California’s mission of providing quality education through teaching, research, and public service remains incomplete when the vast majority of its academic labor is not paid a livable wage.”

While our pay is drastically inadequate, the university is undermining our best efforts to live here. UC Berkeley is exacerbating the housing crisis by providing almost exclusively at-market- or above-market-rate apartments. As the city’s largest landlord, UC Berkeley provides fewer beds per student than any other UC campus, and what it does provide for graduate students creates a severe rent burden of 50% or more in the context of most graduate student incomes. By helping keep rents high in this city, UC Berkeley is seemingly accelerating gentrification and displacement of people of color.

In a housing survey that UC Berkeley circulated in May 2018, the proposed cost of a new studio apartment, ostensibly for couples, was $2,835 per month. Even one of the campus’s top fellowship packages at $28,000 per year would not cover the cost of these studios. The campus seemingly provides housing it knows only its wealthiest students can afford.

Graduate student stipends at UC Berkeley vary between $18,500 and $33,000 per year, and the UC Berkeley stipend cap is $36,000 per year. Graduate student workers, working two semesters at 20 hours per week make about $22,000 per year (and are expected to keep a full doctoral work schedule on top of this labor). The typical one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley costs $2598, according to the Zillow Rent Index, about $400 less than the maximum UC Berkeley monthly stipend. We’ll say it again: The rent is too high, and we need a COLA.

We are deeply grateful for the fearless graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, including the graduate students of color in The People’s Coalition, who started this movement to force the UC system into reprioritizing its expenditures and appropriately valuing the graduate students who make the UC system run. Our colleagues have endured police brutality, intimidation and job termination to help us all achieve a COLA — and more than a COLA, including the abolition of police on campus. We stand in solidarity with them, all graduate students and lecturers who endure precarity across the UC system.

This op-ed has been written by various authors, all of whom chose to remain anonymous for fear of mass retaliation in the workplace.