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A Wildcat Strike Grows out of a Housing Crisis

In Santa Cruz, an unauthorized graduate student strike threatens to spill into its second week, with no clear resolution in sight.

University of California police contain demonstrators in Santa Cruz. (Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel/AP Images)

Lately, Brenda Arjona has been leaning hard on the campus food pantry. The 33-year-old single mother and third-year anthropology graduate student says she makes around $2,200 a month after taxes as a part-time teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also pays around $1,700 a month for the two-bedroom she shares with her 10-year-old son in student housing. After that, there’s little money to spare.  

If not for the cash shortfall, the lush, redwood-filled campus on a hill would be a lovely place to raise a kid: There’s a state park across the street; the beach is a 12-minute drive away. But Santa Cruz’s extreme housing costs have injected a feeling of “continuous stress” into Arjona and her son’s tranquil academic life.   

While other California cities may eclipse it in terms of average rent price, Santa Cruz, which has become a Silicon Valley commuter town in recent years, stands out for the disparity between what educators generally make and what they must pay for housing. It is not uncommon for graduate students to pay well over 50 percent of their income on rent, students say. Currently, teaching assistant wages are set by a union contract that was ratified in 2018 with a slim majority of votes from members statewide. However, more than 80 percent of graduate student instructors at UC Santa Cruz voted against the contract because they found the annual wage increases insufficient. Since then, the school’s Graduate Student Association has lobbied the state’s university system to address the disparity between cost of living and pay but didn’t feel it was taken seriously. The campaign it has waged since has had one clear focus: a substantial cost of living raise that will better account for local housing prices.

Against this backdrop, Arjona found herself on the picket line last week as part of an ongoing wildcat teaching strike. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released data showing that 2018 and 2019 had the highest two-year striking average in more than three decades. Generally, these work stoppages are union-sanctioned, meaning participants can access a strike fund and are legally protected from termination. But though they remain a rarity, unsanctioned strikes led by a union’s rank-and-file membership have loomed large in recent years, notably through the “red-state revolt,” a national wave of teacher insurgencies sparked by West Virginia educators who waged a largely successful wildcat strike in 2018, even though their right to collectively bargain was unrecognized by state law.

Wildcat strikes like the one in which Arjona is now participating come with particular risks: Employers can refuse to meet with strikers to renegotiate a settled contract—currently the official tack of the University of California. Wildcat strikers are also exposed to potential termination, and the union itself could face consequences for sanctioning or appearing to support a work stoppage that violates a no-strike clause, undermining its ability to assist, even if union leadership is sympathetic to the grievances of the rank and file (as it appears, in this case, to be).

But the graduate student strikers believe they have leverage of their own. UC Santa Cruz ranks highly in its enrollment and graduation of “economically disadvantaged students,” has self-branded as “the original authority on questioning authority,” and prides itself on a rich radical tradition. The administration may feel that a public crackdown on the strike could harm the school’s reputation. And if they are able to maintain momentum and support from faculty, undergraduates, the public, and graduate students at other schools in the UC system, the striking teaching assistants, or T.A.s, are betting that they can pressure the administration into granting concessions beyond what’s in the current union contract. 

Ultimately, as with so much else, who wins out will likely hinge less on legality than on power. “There’s a saying in the labor movement,” said Barry Eidlin, who studies labor at McGill University in Montreal. “There’s no such thing as an illegal strike—only an unsuccessful one.”

Even after the 2018 contract was ratified by United Auto Workers Local 2865—which has had collective bargaining rights for graduate students throughout the UC system since the 1990s—Santa Cruz graduate students worked to close the gap between their established wages and the local cost of living. They appealed the contract through the union and pushed, unsuccessfully, to pass rent control in Santa Cruz, according to Veronica Hamilton, the UC Santa Cruz UAW unit chair. But these efforts “didn’t materialize any kind of change.”

Hamilton said members of the Graduate Student Association met with university administration throughout 2019 to convey the urgency of many grad students’ plight but felt the administration responded with vague, noncommittal “platitudes.” UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Cynthia Larive said, in a statement to The New Republic, that the university has no authority to change an already agreed-upon systemwide contract and that the UC Office of the President—which manages the fiscal and business operations of the University of California system—“is best suited to talk about [the] systemwide collective bargaining agreement.” The administration acknowledged “the very real and difficult challenges” presented by the high cost of housing.  

According to Hamilton, tensions escalated into the fall of 2019 as students began holding rallies for the desired “cost of living adjustment,” or COLA, of $1,412 monthly on top of current T.A. pay. Their demand was for the administration to support the wage increase without passing the expense on to students in the form of fees and tuition. Toward this end, an early stage of the strike began in December: Graduate students held a “general assembly”—big lecture hall, pizzas by the dozen—and voted to go on what they called a “grading strike,” during which participants withheld their student’s final grades from the administration. (If specific students wanted their grades posted, all they had to do was ask, Hamilton said.) In January, with the new term set to begin, many T.A.s decided to maintain the grading strike. 

In late January, an email signed by Larive announced two new school policies to begin next fall: a need-based $2,500 annual housing supplement, as well as guaranteed funding for doctoral and MFA students (previously, some students received multiyear funding packages but they were not guaranteed as a matter of course, a spokesperson said). A response on the strikers’ website characterized the offer as “the bare minimum for a university that touts itself as a progressive research leader.” 

The chancellor’s email also noted that punitive action was a possibility for instructors who continued to withhold grades. This led to another general assembly of more than 270 graduate students, the majority of whom indicated they favored an escalation to the teaching strike that ultimately began last Monday.

Though it has not sanctioned the strike, UAW Local 2865’s staff leadership, citing the failure of recent legislative measures to address California’s housing crisis, said in a letter to the UC Office of Labor Relations reviewed by The New Republic that “we believe the circumstances have changed to such a degree as to necessitate immediate bargaining over this important issue.” But in an open letter published on Friday, UC system President Janet Napolitano wrote that the university “will not” reopen the contract or negotiate a side-letter, a kind of supplement to the contract, with strikers. “To accede to the demands of a group of employees engaged in an unauthorized wildcat strike,” she wrote, “would undercut the very foundation of an agreement negotiated in good faith by the UAW and ratified by thousands of members across the system.”

On Monday last week, the first day of the strike, Brenda Arjona woke up anxious at 5:30 a.m., got coffee, and hopped in her car to begin her “taxi” duties: driving strikers to the picket line. Meanwhile, Jessie Lopez, a graduate student studying molecular biology, arrived with a sciency cohort at the picket line bearing donuts—a modest “material contribution.” 

Lopez arrived at the picket line at the university’s main entrance at the bottom of the hill and joined the picketers already in position. Think “the nerdiest people from your classes you ever had,” Lopez said. A group of police officers loomed nearby. Careful to avoid provocation, Lopez said, picketers initially remained on the sidewalks before a group of faculty—some in their commencement robes—marched in the middle of the road toward the picket, bearing a banner of support. (Later that week, tensions came to a head between police and protesters: Seventeen people were arrested for “unlawful assembly” and “failure to disperse,” as reported by The Washington Post.)  

Talks between grad students and the administration have been unfruitful as the strike threatens to carry into its second week. A UC Santa Cruz spokesperson told The New Republic that approximately 200 graduate students continue to withhold grades from the fall quarter. In a Friday evening email, a university administrator wrote that all students who have continued to withhold fall grades have until this Friday to submit all missing grades, to end the strike, and to fulfill their contractual obligations. Those who do not submit full grades “will not receive spring quarter appointments or will be dismissed from their spring quarter appointments,” according to the email.

The strikers’ website has urged participants to hold off on submitting grades at least until a Tuesday general assembly of graduate students, and characterized the threats as a “last-ditch scare tactic, a desperate bluff.” But the possibility of losing work carried significant weight because the union contract includes a tuition waiver, without which continuing graduate studies could be prohibitively expensive for many T.A.s. 

Still, underneath the rhetorical battles and power plays, there remain the bare facts of housing costs in Santa Cruz, with no easy resolution in sight. “This is the situation: We can’t live on this salary in this town,” said Lopez. Some graduate students are already on the brink of being forced from the program for financial reasons anyway, Lopez added, “so they want to at least put up a fight.”