UC Santa Cruz students protesting at UC Santa Barbara in February (photo courtesy payusmoreucsc.com)

Since last December, hundreds of graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) have been on strike. Specifically, they’re demanding a cost of living adjustment (COLA) from the administration for “every graduate student, regardless of residence, visa, documentation, employment or funding status,” to bring their salaries in line with the high cost of living in the area. They’ve calculated this to be an extra $1,412 a month, based on the median monthly rents for a three-bedroom — split three ways — in Santa Cruz.

Things came to a head last month when the university fired 82 of the striking graduate teaching assistants after they refused to turn in grades for the fall term. The union that represents the students — the United Auto Workers Local 2685 — negotiated a 2018 contract that included a no-strike clause, so this current strike is unsanctioned, or “wildcat.”

“We are committed to working with our students and the community on a sustainable housing solution to resolve the underlying issues at hand,” Scott Hernandez-Jason, the director of News and Media Relations at UCSC, told Hyperallergic via email. “It is extremely disappointing to us that we have to take such a drastic step, but we ultimately cannot retain graduate students as employees who will not fulfill their responsibilities. While we have been able to successfully get 97 percent of grades submitted for the fall quarter, we cannot jeopardize our undergraduates’ education or put them in a position where they may not have the teaching resources they need to succeed throughout the spring semester.”

Meanwhile, the COLA struggle has spread to other UC schools — including Davis, San Diego, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. Earlier this month, the union’s bargaining team “announced it would hold a vote in early April on whether to authorize a statewide unfair labor practice strike over the disciplining of the Santa Cruz workers and other issues,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The alarming emergence of COVID-19 has made the situation more complicated as the campus has shuttered, and classes have moved online; however, strike organizers have pledged to continue a digital picket online.

University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) strikes in February (photo by Ali Fuat Yuvali)

The financial burdens facing the graduate students cuts across departments, though students in the arts divisions have a unique situation, according to arts graduate students who spoke with Hyperallergic.

Although all graduate students across the UC system are paid at the same rate for TA-ships — $2,434 monthly before taxes — the rates for research positions at UCSC can vary according to discipline. While working on a grant, Chessa Adsit-Morris, a PhD candidate in the History of Art and Visual Culture (HAVC) at UCSC, obtained figures from the university outlining these tiers. According to her, graduate students in the arts are paid at tier four or five — about $2,200 a month — while STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) students are generally paid at tier eight or nine — about $2,550 month.

“It’s a different funding model,” said Kara Stone, a PhD candidate in film and digital media who was recently fired, of the difference between graduate students in the arts and STEM. “When a STEM professor gets a grant, some will go to students. That’s not necessarily the case in the arts.”

Stone is receiving a grant from Canada, where she is from, and was also able to secure a Graduate Student Research position working for a professor on an augmented reality project. She still hopes that she and the other fired strikers are able to be reinstated. “I have a Canadian grant, but there are people from countries, not just across the border, who are pregnant, risking healthcare,” she said. “I’m hoping we get reinstated, not just for me.”

Film professor and archivist Rick Prelinger has been supportive of the striking students.“In STEM there’s just more money. They’re able to get more lucrative fellowships,” he explained. “In some ways, it’s about the undervaluing of art in general.”

It’s been sobering to see what’s happening with grad students,” Prelinger continued. “They’re completely indispensable. This isn’t just a case of losing TA’s who grade papers. It’s people who are actively engaged in pursuing their own research, and contributing to our research.”

PhD candidate Yulia Gilichinskaya was slated to teach a core class for the program, Introduction to Production Technique, next term, but she was also recently fired, so the class will most likely be cut, according to Prelinger.

To make enough money to survive in Santa Cruz, some grad students have picked up other work. “On paper we get $2,400, but after taxes I get $2,100 a month for one class of 85 students,” said Dorothy Santos, another PhD student in Film and Digital Media who has contributed to Hyperallergic. “This is why I work part-time at a nonprofit and work freelance.” Although she initially withheld her grades for last term, with the support of Prelinger whom she was a TA for, she decided to turn them in before February 21 — “doomsday” — the date by which the administration declared that grades had to be posted.

University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) strikes in February (photo by Ali Fuat Yuvali)

Some sources Hyperallegic spoke to felt the firings of the graduate students and the loss of TA’s can have ripple effects throughout the department. If classes are cut, undergraduate enrollment in the department can go down, which would negatively affect graduate funding.

“We continue to be underfunded due to the coronavirus,” said Alexandra Macheski, a PhD candidate in the History of Art and Visual Culture at UC Santa Cruz. “Some classes can’t be translated online. Everything you need a tangible skill for has been cut. It’s made the precariousness of the arts visible.”

Despite the challenges that COVID-19 and a shuttered campus have brought, strikers are hopeful that they will prevail as their movement grows. “There’s no campus to shut down, but we’re not silenced,” Macheski said. “Over 80 of my friends and comrades have been fired and more will be fired. We’re angry and we’re gonna win this.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.