No COLA, No Contract:
On the Ground at the UC Strike
My name is Zach Hicks. I am a PhD candidate and instructor at University of California Berkeley and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States, if not the world. I currently make 30,000 dollars per year and I pay about 55 percent of that directly to my landlord. On top of that, I am a parent to a young child. The exorbitant cost of childcare—including in the UC’s own childcare facilities, some of which charge as much as 2,750 dollars per month—exacerbates my rent burden to the point where I have often had to choose between healthcare, childcare, groceries, utilities, and rent. My situation is not uncommon at the UC, and in fact I am far from the lowest paid worker in our union: our base pay is 24,000 dollars per year—and many workers only make that much.
I’m one of these workers. My name is Rebecca Gross and I'm a PhD student and teaching assistant (TA) at UC Santa Cruz. I live in Santa Cruz, where rents have risen 67 percent since 2018. My partner and I spend 2,990 dollars on a two-bedroom duplex each month. Shockingly, we’re told that our exorbitantly high rent is a “good deal,” likely because the average cost of a two bedroom house/duplex in Santa Cruz is 3,852.50 dollars according to the UC Santa Cruz Community Rental Statistics. But I still spend 60 percent of my monthly wages on rent, and would be completely unable to afford other essential expenses in Santa Cruz if my partner and I didn’t pool our dual incomes and savings.
These are our working conditions. This is why workers in our union have experienced houselessness while employed by the UC, have stayed in abusive relationships because they could not afford to move out, have depended on food pantries to survive, and have foregone medical care in order to afford rent. Many of us go into debt simply in order to survive.
This is the case at most other UC campuses. The Bay Area, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles have some of the most expensive rental markets in the country.
On November 14, following the largest Strike Authorization Vote in the history of higher-education unionism, some 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system went out on strike. UAW 2865 (academic student employees) and UAW 5810 (postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers) are negotiating their next contracts with the University of California, which typically happens every four years. Student Researchers United, a newly formed local of student researchers, is negotiating its first contract with the UC. We are negotiating over dozens of proposals, and our core joint demands are these: a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to eliminate rent burden, adequate childcare reimbursements, better accessibility for disabled workers, and an end to Non-Resident Supplemental Tuition (NRST), which the University of California charges to non-residents of the state and disproportionately affects international students. The UC has refused to bargain with us in good faith over these demands, prompting a slew of Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges, which have provided the legal grounds for our strike.
These are historically ambitious demands, with the potential to shift the terrain of labor organizing in American higher education. The COLA demand, in particular, would raise salaries of graduate student workers to a minimum of 54,000 dollars per year and raise postdoctoral scholar salaries to 70,000 dollars per year; after this, each additional year of the contract would see a raise tailored to the actual median cost of housing in the cities where UC campuses are located. These numbers are based on our union’s extensive research into the cost of living where we work. For graduate workers at many UC campuses, 54,000 dollars per year is the bare minimum required to relieve our rent burden, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as paying 30 percent or more of one’s salary toward rent. The vast majority of workers in our union are rent burdened, or even severely rent burdened, with at least 50 percent (and sometimes up to 90 percent) of each paycheck eaten up by the cost of housing.
In connecting our wages demand to the actual cost of living where we work, we are not simply demanding a certain percentage raise—standard fare in nearly all union contract negotiations. Instead, we are demanding a fundamental change to our conditions of life. This is the significance of the COLA.
The demand for a COLA has such wide resonance among workers at the UC because the housing situation in California is dismal. The UC itself is one of the largest landlords in the state, has a vested interest in ever-rising rents, and plays a not-insignificant role in driving them up. In Santa Cruz, where a housing shortage leaves the entire community scrambling, UC Santa Cruz graduate workers face long waitlists for grim options. A few of these are provided by the UC itself: approximately 225 units at Family Student Housing, 82 spots in Graduate Student Housing, or 60 spots in three-month contracts at the local Best Western hotel with substandard internet and no kitchen. Family Student Housing costs a total of 21,946.20 dollars per year—nearly as much as a graduate teaching assistant’s annual salary of 22,569.00 dollars. Graduate Student Housing and the Best Western might seem like a deal in comparison, coming out to a total of 15,480 dollars—but the UC is still charging graduate students 69 percent of their paychecks for these options. As a result, workers remain severely rent-burdened even in UC-supplied housing. In Berkeley, which has pushed to increase revenues by enrolling thousands more undergraduates than it can house, UC Berkeley has been in a protracted fight with the surrounding community. Often partnering with private developers, in recent years the university has attempted to solve its worsening undergraduate housing issues by demolishing older, rent-controlled apartment buildings and replacing them with luxury dorms, encroaching on the little remaining public space in the area. This same crush of undergraduates was the stated reason behind an attempted work speedup: Berkeley’s administration attempted to raise course caps in its required composition classes from seventeen to twenty, only rolling them back after pushback from workers. There is a fundamental contradiction at play here between the university’s role as a public institution—its stated mission of teaching, research, and service—and its revenue-seeking behavior.
For this reason, our strike can be seen as one way to demand that the university adequately fund its non-profit-seeking operations, teaching in particular. Though nominally public, the UC is effectively privatized in that it relies more on undergraduate tuition and fees than on state money for its “core funds” that support the university’s mission of teaching, research, and service. Undergraduate tuition at the UC has more than doubled since 2000, which in turn requires skyrocketing student debt. The UC’s “core funds,” however, make up only a small portion (about 21 percent, according to UCOP) of its overall budget. Like other universities, the UC operates tendentially more like a corporation, putting its resources into financial assets, real estate and other revenue-generating endeavors. Not only does the university benefit from the rise in median rents in the state, and arguably drive them higher, its capital projects are predicated on keeping wages low. This combines with the problem of administrative bloat. As of 2015, the UC employs more administrators than tenurable faculty, a number which has also nearly doubled since 2000. When subject to a state audit in 2017, not only were both UC campus administrations and the Office of the President (UCOP) were found to spend significantly more on administrative staffing than comparable institutions, UCOP was found to be operating with millions in undisclosed funds. With an endowment that grew by 38 billion dollars in 2021, the UC doles out austerity only selectively.
The university is rarely called to account for this, couched as it is in the language of “fiscal responsibility.” Because we are dealing with one of the state’s biggest landlords, a COLA will take us some distance in forcing the system to slow the rapid increase of median rents in UC localities. A COLA would force the UC to take money away from its capital programs and give it to its workers. In focusing on the university’s roles as both landlord and employer, our strike is a struggle as much over production as social reproduction.
The social contradictions driving the COLA demand are the same ones that drove the wave of student militancy just after the 2008 financial crisis and the student-worker wildcat strikes of 2019–20 that began at UC Santa Cruz and spread to many other UC campuses. Our strike is another moment in this line of struggle, but what should attract special attention from the broader Left is that it is a legally-protected strike, with official sanction by a major labor union. The legality and scale of a UAW-sanctioned strike has expanded our numbers far beyond the wildcat strike—a sign of the number of workers who see the material value of the COLA demand to their daily lives. At the same time, because our primary focus is on building power on the ground with other workers, the contract fight is becoming a vehicle for larger class struggle.
Opposition to the privatization of the university, with its increasing reliance on student debt and an increasingly immiserated workforce (around 75 percent of total academic labor is now performed by graduate students and non-tenurable faculty) is part of the general struggle of labor against capital. What is unique in this situation is that in demanding a COLA, we are not asking for a slightly better accommodation within an increasingly austere university model, nor are we demanding a return to some postwar Golden Age buoyed by rising profitability. We are tying our demand to market values rather than the consumer price index, with the aim of ending rent burden for thousands of workers. Given the UC’s role as one of the largest landlords in the state, our strike has bearing on the daily lives of workers beyond our own workplace. COLA is a political demand, not simply a wage demand.
The COLA demand began as a rank and file demand during the wildcat strikes of 2019–20, and department and campus-level rank-and- file organizing since then has made COLA an official bargaining demand. The wildcat strike demonstrated that even a small contingent of workers withholding labor could force the entire system to respond to their power. In addition to advancing the COLA demand, the wildcat strike in 2019-2020 showed workers that they could alter the balance of power in the workplace and within the union. The wildcats broadened the field of what is possible within a labor movement that has often been more focused on not losing ground than on making ambitious demands. And our current efforts can take us much further. The reasons for this are twofold: first, rent burden and precarity are widely-felt issues among thousands of workers in the UC system. Second, many of us in the rank and file have organized consistently since the wildcat strike to get this demand on the table. These organizing efforts have included politicizing rent burden and working at the department level to achieve housing and utilities stipends during the pandemic, and sharing these successes with other departments across the UC campuses. Support for this demand has only grown since the strike began. The rank and file have been the driving force of this contract fight, with hundreds of workers making their presence known in bargaining sessions and on the ground. Our organizing these past few years has not only made our strike militant and sustainable, it also has directly shaped our union’s central demands.
Our efforts have shown us what a relatively small but clear-eyed and tightly organized group of workers can do to spread a militant demand. From the beginning, we have prioritized nuts-and-bolts organizing by starting with our immediate coworkers, forming relationships in-person and online, sharing knowledge and experience to build each other up as organizers, and then branching out. This has allowed us to put to work a great deal of union capacity. It has been important for us to ensure that the rank and file maintains ownership of the strike action and its goals, so we have continuously centered our demands and the potentially decisive power of withholding our labor from the university through political education and strategic actions.
This has at times put us at odds with plans handed down by UAW’s staff who, often unconvinced of our power and often with little understanding of what a militant labor strategy can do, are often suspicious of rank and file efforts. While we have found it productive to use standard union infrastructure for our organizing, we have also taken an experimental, open approach, building out our own rank-and-file channels of communication. What has worked for us, and what we see as an advantage over organizing models that either stress total opposition to the union or focus their energy on the critique of existing union leadership, is a stubborn insistence that the rank and file is the union—something that has borne fruit since the beginning of the strike with large numbers of rank and file workers claiming ownership of the demands and the strike’s direction.
Since last spring in particular, the two of us have worked in tandem at Berkeley and Santa Cruz to form networks with our coworkers at our campuses and statewide that operate independently but in parallel with UAW’s field organizing. Broader UAW efforts have afforded us excellent opportunities to grow this network; for instance, a rally last spring brought us together with grads from departments we might not usually see as we go about our day-to-day work. At Berkeley, the call for a COLA became the core message of this rally largely through the intervention of the rank and file. Our networks are campus- and state-wide, but also job-specific: one of our strategies was to bring together grads who teach the same types of courses to discuss our working and living conditions and to build solidarity. We paid special attention to graduate instructors who teach “general education” courses that are required for undergraduate degrees, alongside the most prestigious and valuable labs in the sciences. As we near the end of the year, workers are prepared to withhold high-value grades and vital data as leverage to force the university to bargain seriously.
The picket line is another structure that has connected the politicized rank and file with more of our coworkers. Some see the picket line as the crucial demonstration of worker power that is identical with the strike (or an accurate measure of its power). We see the withholding of labor as the crucial exercise of power and the true locus of conflict with the UC. For us at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, the picket line has not only been a tool for disruption, but also a site of mutual aid and organizing. Rank-and-file organizers have worked hard to make the picket sustainable and welcoming. We have collectively-written newsletters at Berkeley and Daily Sheets at Santa Cruz that publicize a militant, rank and file perspective on our strike’s unfolding. We’ve made our own signs and banners that put forward the demands that matter most to workers and our neighbors; we’ve arranged food distribution at many of our picket locations; we’ve created an “accessibility station” where people distribute masks, ear plugs, and other aids; we have daily art-builds, dance classes, rock band performances, wing-chun lessons, karaoke, pole-dancing, teach-ins — all kinds of things that make the picket line an attractive place and a useful space for further organizing. While these demonstrations of goodwill at the picket go a long way to keep morale high, the picket line is perhaps most useful as a space where rank-and-file workers communicate with one another to organize with other workers in their departments and beyond. At Santa Cruz, department stewards meetings occur frequently for us to check-in about how to maintain a strong, sustained strike: that is, how to ensure that all workers at UC Santa Cruz continue to withhold labor for as long as it takes to win.
Teamsters and workers from other unions in solidarity with our strike have stopped their own work—lots of garbage isn’t being collected, some construction has stopped, and many deliveries are being turned away. Santa Cruz Metro bus drivers and AT&T workers have agreed not to cross our picket lines, costing the UC money and disrupting business as usual. We’ve also seen a wider network of solidarity starting to form: unions such as Oakland Association of Educators (OAE), Santa Cruz Faculty Association (SCFA), and Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) have had a strong presence at our picket, and we’ve gotten a lot of public support from unions in higher ed and beyond across the country. Left organizations of very different stripes, like DSA, Black Rose/Rosa Negra, La Voz, PSL, and Socialist Alternative, have also been out with us.
At our campuses, all departments are represented in the strike. Some departments are withholding more labor than others, but we have a very solid majority of workers out on strike. Conversations on the picket have been very hopeful. Most people agree on what is at stake and that it will take a long time to win what we are demanding. Of course, people working as researchers in STEM have different working conditions and possibilities for withholding labor than, say, those of us in the humanities, who can refuse to teach or submit grades while on strike. STEM funding is often tied to large research grants that faculty Principal Investigators acquire to pay graduate workers. Many STEM workers also run studies and experiments that are difficult to pause or restart. This means that withholding labor looks a little different in these contexts, but, more importantly, they also provide different avenues to exert pressure on the UC.
Strikes in higher education take longer to build pressure than, for example, a traditional factory setting where stopping the production line even for a day or two immediately hurts the boss. For us, it takes weeks to build that kind of pressure—the UC simply does not care if we stop teaching or researching for a short time—and it is tied to certain pressure points in the academic calendar (e.g. final examinations, grading deadlines, end of year grant reviews in STEM). Years of organizing in the UC attest to this. We also have the recent historic strike at Columbia University to draw from: they struck for ten weeks to win all of their major demands and demonstrated how disrupting the rhythm of the academic year in many ways determines when and by how much the university will be forced to concede. The theory of power borne out by Columbia’s experience—that a longer, even “minoritarian” strike can win—challenges much of what has become a kind of “common sense” based on ideal-type situations within a labor movement long on the defensive. With a majority participation strike across the entire state of California, we stand to push even farther.
At the time of writing, just having entered the fourth week of our strike, our organizing is being put to the test. UAW 5810 recently accepted a tentative agreement (TA) from the university. The postdoctoral scholars’ and academic researchers’ TA gives some small gains in wages and other areas, but falls very far short of the COLA demand. The significance of this move, clearly an attempt by management to peel off a layer of striking workers so as to put pressure on the rest to concede quickly, has not been lost on rank-and-file members in the other two units.
More galvanizing, however, has been the behavior of a very slim majority on the UAW 2865 bargaining team. This section of the bargaining team has managed to push through proposals that conform ever more to the status quo, first dropping aspects of the COLA demand, and then offering the UC a massive reduction in our proposed base wage alongside gutting the childcare, disability access, and NRST fee remission articles. The line of thinking prompting these concessions asserts that now is the time to make major moves toward management in order to encourage, in turn, greater concessions from them. In practice, however, this has been proven false: the UC did not make any major concessions, and in fact demanded that our union offer more. Playing on the management’s terms is becoming a race to the bottom. The UC’s negotiation team passed a comprehensive proposal just after midnight on December 3rd that was only marginally better than their original offer. Thus far the UC has outmaneuvered the slim majority on our bargaining team who, faced with the apparent intransigence of management, has been duped into bargaining against itself and the members it represents.
But nothing is decided yet. The SRU and UAW 2865 bargaining teams were not able to reach a TA on the university’s offer in light of widespread disapproval from rank-and-file workers. The balance of power has shifted within our union in the face of concerted, bottom-up pressure. We do not know yet what our final contract will look like, but the top-down, status quo approach to unionism is finding itself on the defensive. This is an expression of rank-and-file worker power, and one that raises the stakes of our contract fight and for unionism more broadly.
The challenge for us, then, is to keep morale up and keep our strike strong, and to do so while retaining and spreading our clarity of purpose. We have heard from some that the strike is faltering by the day, but this does not seem to be a widely held view. As a small conservative section of our union struggles to put the genie back in the bottle, the rank and file is increasingly determined. Recently, our pre-bargaining caucus Zoom meeting reached its five-hundred-person capacity within minutes and hundreds more workers joined an overflow meeting room. Hearing that the UAW bargaining team might be ready to concede aspects of the COLA demand without so much as a serious proposal from the UC, hundreds of workers expressed their desire to keep striking and their intent not to ratify any contract that does not contain a real cost of living adjustment. This demand is a commitment to changing the status quo by centering social reproduction in the sphere of higher education—and work, more generally. As the strike continues, workers continue to show their commitment to this change. Much remains to play out, but “NO COLA, NO CONTRACT” has become a rallying cry across the UC system.