A quick update on the student strikes at the University of California Santa Cruz.

On December 18th, 2019, the official date that grades for undergraduate students were due, hundreds of graduate workers at UC Santa Cruz engaged in a long-awaited wildcat grade strike.

The strike itself was precipitated by several factors.

First, the cost of living in Santa Cruz is some of the highest in the country, with graduate workers spending the majority of their meager paychecks on rent alone. A burgeoning tenants union — Santa Cruz Tenant Power — is trying to ameliorate these concerns, but for the time being skyrocketing rents and low wages are keeping graduate workers on the edge of poverty.

Second, the current contract for graduate workers contains only a minor annual pay increase and no housing subsidy or cost of living adjustment. Despite 83 percent of Santa Cruz workers and 42 percent of United Automobile Workers members statewide rejecting the contract, in August of 2018, the leadership of the UAW local pushed it through anyway. 

As the grade strike continues into the Spring semester, Wobblies are working to organize an IU 620 branch on campus.

Lynn (xe/xyr), a newly-elected delegate in Santa Cruz, stated that the wildcat strike and dissatisfaction with the UAW’s model of unionism has led many graduate and undergraduate workers to look to the IWW as a model of unionism both in form and function.

“The graduate workers were demanding a COLA of $1,400 a month,” Lynn stated, “but received nothing in return. The UAW wasn’t much help leading up to the strike and have only recently put forth more vocal support, mostly to save face, but there are talks that UAW higher ups are meeting with administration to find a resolution to the on-going strike.”

Graduate workers who participated in the grade strike have been threatened with disciplinary actions on their records that would affect future employment. They’ve been called into hearings, berated by administration, and even threatened with arrests.

To double down on their threats against the graduate student workers, UC Santa Cruz released an online newsletter attempting to divide graduate and undergraduate students. In the newsletter, UC Santa Cruz states that, “It has been said that the grade strike is a ‘victimless action. However, when students do not have grades, it can have profound, and perhaps unexpected, impact on student success…” The newsletter goes on to outline several ways that the grade strike impacts undergraduate students — from loss of financial aid and enrollment issues to declaring a major and graduation. However, as Lynn stated in our interview, “Any student who needed their grades inputted for financial or graduation reasons had to only email their instructor and their grades were released.”

As business unions fail to take on this new fight for low-income workers on campus, IWW organizers have begun to fill the void.

The success of the continuing grade strike comes down to the relationship graduate workers have built with undergraduates. Because graduate workers control the grades of undergraduates, there is an inherent imbalance of power between the two. UC Santa Cruz is aware of this fissure, and has used formal and informal ways of attempting to divide the two. Building up to the grade strike, however, the graduate workers held several rallies and marches, bringing in undergraduates to the conversation. They continued developing a relationship with undergrads so that when administration did inevitably retaliate, the undergrads who would be affected by the strike would be adequately inoculated against these tactics.

Indeed, it was this relationship, the dissatisfaction with the UAW, and the need for continued organizing among low-income education workers at UC Santa Cruz that has allowed for new organizing opportunities for the IWW on campus.

At present, Lynn and other undergraduate students are working to organize undergraduate on-campus, off-campus, and unemployed students into an IU 620. They have been able to work alongside the COLA grad student strikers to maintain a positive relationship and, as grad students have announced a new hard strike on February 10th, the potential for IWW affiliation across student sectors is growing.

Precarious work conditions on campus have exacerbated these possibilities.

UC Santa Cruz often uses non-union contract workers in construction, temp agencies, maintenance, and housing projects rather than union workers despite having a unionized workforce. When someone retires at the dining hall, for example, UC Santa Cruz replaces that individual through a non-union contract agency. As business unions fail to take on this new fight for low-income workers on campus, IWW organizers have begun to fill the void.

As the fight for COLA continues into the new year, Lynn reminds us that while “undergraduate support is nice, organized undergraduate support is better.”

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