Graduate student workers from 16 UC Berkeley departments officially began their wildcat strike Monday, pledging to withhold grades and fully cease all work duties in support of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, from UC administration.
The strike was voted on and approved at a general assembly meeting March 9. According to Pay Us More UCB, the student-led campus organization directing the strike, more than 150 graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty members and lecturers voted, 93.9% of which voted in favor of the grading strike and 89.6% of which voted in favor of the full work stoppage. According to a statement from Pay Us More UCB, the students are prepared to strike indefinitely.
“We hope that we can positively impact students through our strike, by showing the importance of standing up for your rights, and engaging in mutual aid,” the statement reads. “We hope to show the world that workers cannot be expected to remain silent when faced with the untenable situation of rising cost of living with stagnant and woefully inadequate wages.”
The strikers have three main goals: gain a COLA for UC graduate student workers, pressure UC administration to reinstate graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, or UCSC, who were fired in February for withholding grades, and the defunding and demilitarization of UC police departments.
According to the statement from Pay Us More UCB, graduate student workers are also striking to stand in solidarity with the other striking workers at UCSC, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and UC San Diego.
UC Office of the President, or UCOP, spokesperson Andrew Gordon said while the UC system values its academic student employees and considers them to be “essential” to fulfilling its mission, the actions of the students put that very mission “in jeopardy.”
“First and foremost, any (academic student employees) who refuse to teach class sections and submit grades at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz or any other campus are unfairly harming undergraduate students,” Gordon alleged in an email. “Without course grades and subsequently the ability to advance to the next level, undergraduate students may face a host of negative impacts, through no fault of their own, on top of unnecessary disruption to their education.”
Gordon added that UC administration is willing to meet with United Auto Workers, or UAW, Local 2865 to discuss and address concerns in their next contract negotiations. According to Gordon, UCOP currently has an approved contract with UAW Local 2865, which includes a “no-strikes” clause and what UC administration considers to be “fair pay and excellent benefits,” including child care, tuition and campus fee remission. The current contract expires in June 2022.
UAW Local 2865 had no part in and did not allocate any resources toward organizing the wildcat strike, according to UC Berkeley unit chair Gerard Ramm. He added, however, that the union is supportive of the reinstatement of the UCSC students and a COLA and plans to hold its own official unionwide vote in April to gauge member support for a strike against the unfair labor practice charges that UCOP filed against the union in February. UAW Local 2865 also filed its own charges against UCOP in response.
According to strike organizers, their plans were impacted by the cancellation of in-person classes due to the risk of COVID-19, or the new coronavirus. The strike has now been organized as a “digital picket-line” and will include teach-ins and events through Zoom calls, according to the Pay Us More UCB statement.
Ramm said the COVID-19 pandemic made the fight for a COLA especially important, specifically for the reinstatement of the graduate student workers at UCSC, who allegedly lost their health care with their jobs.
“Our living conditions are literally becoming our students’ learning conditions,” Ramm said. “We need the UC to come to the table.”
The strikers have support from about 500 undergraduates, according to Pay Us More UCB, which referred to the supporters as “comrades.”
Faculty from several campus departments, such as the rhetoric department, also support the strikers and sent letters of support for the graduate student workers to Chancellor Carol Christ.
“We support the absolute right of students to protest in different forms,” said campus professor and chair of the rhetoric department Daniel Boyarin. “Recognition of the emergency situation for so many students really needs to be addressed as an emergency situation.”