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Why Graduate Students at U.C. Santa Cruz Are Striking

Why Graduate Students at U.C. Santa Cruz Are Striking

Credit…John Crowe/Alamy

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Veronica Hamilton’s days as a third-year social psychology Ph.D. student and graduate student teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Cruz, often last more than 12 hours.

From roughly 8:30 a.m. until 8 p.m., she crams in department-level meetings and prep work for her two sections, where she has a total of 60 students. Added to that are office hours with some of those students about their papers, followed by her own research, about the dehumanization of fast-food workers. The day caps off with lectures from 5:20 p.m. to 8 p.m.

It’s a long day for any worker. But this past Monday was different. Ms. Hamilton, who is the U.C. Santa Cruz unit union chair, was on strike, along with hundreds of her graduate student colleagues.

They picketed and marched, joined by some faculty members and undergrads, blocking traffic near the famously forested campus about an hour southwest of downtown San Jose.

[Read more about Monday’s protest from The Santa Cruz Sentinel.]

The action — known as a wildcat strike, because it’s taking place without the backing of the union that represents the university’s graduate student academic employees at campuses across the state — follows months of back and forth between administrators and graduate student educators who have demanded a cost of living adjustment of $1,412 per month.

That amount, graduate students have said, would help pull student educators — many of whom are spending the majority of their income on rent — from the brink of homelessness.

“We shouldn’t have to live this way,” said Ms. Hamilton, 28.

Campus administrators have said it would be illegal for them to negotiate with strikers because the protest is unauthorized by the broader union, and their contract prohibits such work stoppages.

Cynthia Larive, the chancellor of U.C. Santa Cruz, was unavailable for an interview, a spokesman told me in emails.

In a message to the campus community late last month, she acknowledged the university’s “proud history of activism,” but condemned the strike.

“While I commend our students for drawing attention to a very real problem,” she said in a statement, “I am extremely disappointed that some graduate students chose to do so in a way that was unsanctioned by their union and is harmful to our undergraduate students, many of whom are struggling themselves.”

The strike is the result of long building frustrations.

Housing costs have made academic careers increasingly untenable in a state whose public universities are its crown jewels, its economic engines and most highly touted vehicles for upward mobility.

Graduate students I talked with described a kind of Catch 22: They are often recruited for their potential contributions to the work of a top-tier research university. A half-time job working as a teaching assistant is supposed to subsidize their study, so graduate student employees are discouraged from getting additional jobs.

The problem is that while graduate students’ overall compensation includes tuition remission and some other benefits, like health care, students say that the money they take home to use for rent ends up being more in line with a 20-hour-per-week job than a full-time position.

Ms. Hamilton, for example, estimated that she makes about $2,100 per month.

And in a place like Santa Cruz, which is well within a long-but-not-outrageous commute to Silicon Valley, that doesn’t go far.

[Read more about who got into the University of California last year.]

Ms. Hamilton and her husband’s rent is $1,900 per month — and she said she was set to move to a place that’s half the size. They’ll still be paying $1,800 each month.

Santa Cruz, students say, is an unaffordable market, which is why they started the unauthorized strike.

Their contract sets pay across the University of California statewide. So, a graduate student teaching assistant in Santa Cruz or Berkeley is paid about the same as graduate students in Riverside or Merced, which have much lower housing costs.

In Santa Cruz County, the median rent is $1,685, according to the most recent data from the American Community Survey. That’s compared to $1,374 in Riverside County.

Of course, those are rough comparisons. In Santa Cruz, a tourist destination, the crisis is compounded by a particularly tight supply.

And Santa Cruz, unlike, say, Berkeley, has rejected efforts to implement rent control.

Yulia Gilich, a 31-year-old international student from Russia who is co-president of the graduate student union, said they’ve moved four times since they came to Santa Cruz; it’s been cheaper for them to fly home than to stay in California during the summers. They added their visa doesn’t allow them to get another job while they’re a graduate student.

So what’s next?

Administrators have said they may discipline protesters. But organizers said the strike would go on indefinitely.

Sarah Mason, 33, said she saw the strike as part of a broader struggle for public education.

“It involves teachers and students at every level,” Ms. Mason said. “We are all in this together.”

Ms. Hamilton said in a text message that students were set to picket again today.

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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