Graduate student workers protest for cost-of-living adjustments in the foyer of UC San Diego’s Geisel Library on Feb. 20, 2020. / Photo by Lilly Irani
Graduate student workers protest for cost-of-living adjustments in the foyer of UC San Diego’s Geisel Library on Feb. 20, 2020. / Photo by Lilly Irani

The coronavirus pandemic has moved virtually all of UC San Diego’s offerings online – and the same goes for its graduate students’ ongoing strike.

The organizers, who are advocating for a cost-of-living adjustment – commonly referred to on social media as a COLA – due to the high cost of housing, said they feel an urgency to maintain their efforts as part of a broader systemwide movement going as the economy tanks. But as the reality of the pandemic set in, the students realized they would not be able to proceed how they initially planned.

When university administrators declined to respond to requests to come to the negotiating table, the strikers – many of whom are employed as teaching assistants – initially vowed not to submit student grades and described grade entry into the UC system as a “digital picket line.”

Though the rallies are no longer physically taking place on the La Jolla campus, which was closed in mid-March, organizers told VOSD that their demands are more relevant than ever, as the economic fallout of the pandemic started to weigh down on students. The number of grad student workers still willing to strike, however, is shrinking.

The withholding of grades began on March 24 but ended last week after the group’s numbers got sliced in half.

Grad student workers began to mobilize in force in February after their counterparts at UC Santa Cruz were abruptly fired for making similar demands for a cost-of-living adjustment and rejecting an offer from administrators.

Davide Carpano, a UCSD grad student organizer, said getting those workers rehired in Santa Cruz was a major motivation for him and others locally. But when the pandemic hit, it disrupted the group’s efforts and made an ongoing strike seem daunting.

Carpano said the timing of the coronavirus was significant, because if it had arrived on campus a few weeks earlier, the workers may not have voted to strike; if it had arrived a few weeks later, the group’s number might be much bigger. What began as about 150 people was down to about 70, he said.

The local effort is now changing tactics.

All student workers throughout the UC system are technically represented by the United Automobile Workers 2865, but there’s been tension between the two for years. In 2018, the union agreed to a contract for the grad student workers that many found to be weak. The strike on UCSD’s campus was considered a wildcat strike, meaning it was not sanctioned by the union, and Carpano said he thinks a union-supported movement would be more effective for championing a raise.

He said he hopes the movement can move toward an unfair labor practice strike, meaning one that is supported by the union, in the coming months.

The support of the union would be key. Individual UC campuses do not have the authority to adjust student workers’ labor contracts, a matter that is negotiated at the systemwide level with the union, said UCSD Associate Director of University Communications Leslie Sepuka.

The union has already filed two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board relating to the firing of the 54 student workers at UC Santa Cruz, according its webpage, and the bargaining team is calling for a vote this month to move forward with a union-supported strike. Approval of the strike would require a two-thirds vote from all voting union members and support from the bargaining team.

There appears to be some disagreement within the grad student movement about where they should be focusing their efforts while the pandemic brings all aspects of life to a halt.

But organizers said the health crisis has presented them with a new sense of urgency, as grad student workers are forced to learn and go about their jobs in spaces entirely determined by their financial standing.

UCSD has also vowed not to evict any student residents through at least June, but most undergraduates and some graduate students have already terminated their housing contracts.

“We can’t afford to live and work (in La Jolla),” said Bobby Edwards, a graduate student organizer. “With COVID, now that we’re teaching online, our living conditions are our working conditions more literally than they were before.”

Edwards said in his four years as a graduate student at UCSD, he’s always struggled to afford housing and even had to live out of his car for five months, parking behind local grocery stores and taking showers in the campus gym. He now lives in a studio apartment near UCSD, where he pays $1,175 in monthly rent.

Working as a teaching assistant on campus, Edwards makes $2,364 monthly, and he is not paid during the summers. That means he spends about 65 percent of his monthly, pre-tax income on rent, which increases to about 75 percent when additional expenses such as internet are included.

The federal government considers anyone spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing as rent burdened. If the UC system comes to the table, strikers in San Diego say they’d likely request around an additional $1,200 a month each.

Kerry Keith, another graduate student organizer, said being able to afford rent doesn’t mean that space will be conducive to living and working. She currently lives in a home with five people, three of whom are working from home during California’s stay-at-home order.

“We are all using the same internet, which constantly cuts out … the bandwidth of our internet is just not great because it’s cheap and we’re all poor,” Keith said. “My face is going to freeze (on Zoom), it’s just going to affect the way I teach.”

Organizers say a large part of the reason their movement has resonated with students at UCSD is because of the school’s location.

According to RENTcafe, an apartment listing service, the average rent for an apartment in La Jolla is $2,692, making it about $400 more per month than the average apartment in the city of San Diego as a whole.

“To agree to be a graduate student at a school that is located in one of the most expensive areas to live in all of California, if not all of the nation, is immediately an issue,” Keith said. “It’s an issue of ‘How am I going to make my financial situation work?’”

Pay and rent are sources of tension at many UC campuses, some of which are located in expensive metropolitan areas. In 2018, the Westwood neighborhood surrounding UCLA ranked as having the most expensive rental costs in all of California, with apartments costing an average of $4,883 per month.

At UC Santa Cruz, where the movement started, housing is so scarce and unaffordable that campus administrators have previously sent emails to faculty pleading for them to rent space to students. At that point, hundreds of students remained on the waitlist for campus housing, a number that far exceeded the number of community rentals available, which are mostly single-family homes.

Organizers say that although the housing situation in San Diego is dire, part of the intention of the movement is to inspire an understanding across all universities that the way they support graduate students is unsustainable.

“The movement is challenging the way higher education is structured, specifically public education, so it would be hard to say that a [cost of living adjustment] is a particular need at [UC San Diego] and only San Diego,” Keith said. “I think that we’re asking for it here with an understanding that it’s a need across universities.”

Overall, the movement is looking to shed light on financial inequities organizers say have long been embedded in the UC graduate student experience, allowing more privileged students to perform better than their financially burdened counterparts.

“I see people who come in from more privileged backgrounds who don’t have dependents or chronic illness and they’ve published three papers and they wrote their dissertation in six years and everyone congratulates them,” Carpano said. “Obviously they did a good job, but it kind of removes the broader context of struggle that so many people have.”

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