Graduate Student Labor Organizing Is Rising — and So Is Retaliation

Carlos Cruz was paying $1,550 per month to live in a 750-square-foot garage-studio without insulation in Santa Cruz while earning a salary of $18,000 per year as a graduate student teaching assistant at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). He was barely scraping by and was going into debt. Accordingly, in November, he became involved in the burgeoning Cost of Living Adjustment campaign on the UCSC campus.

Cruz, an outspoken first-generation Chicano Ph.D. student in the History Department, is now the only graduate student out of thousands of participants in the Cost of Living Adjustment campaign facing a suspension from the university. The university and police reports treat him as a “ring leader,” Cruz tells Truthout, “as if the people don’t have autonomy. As if the people are just waiting for a person to tell them what to do.”

As crises pile on, he says he is “between places” — with no secure housing — during the pandemic.

On November 23, Associate Vice Chancellor Sue Matthews relied on police surveillance and reports to uphold Cruz’s two-year suspension. Matthews’s decision went against the recommendation of the Campus Conduct Board, which relied on 11 hours of testimony from graduate students and faculty. Allegations against Cruz included disorderly conduct, obstruction and participation in an unlawful assembly. In Matthews’s decision, she wrote to Cruz, “In many instances the [student] hearing board found that you were not solely responsible for the violations in which you were involved and therefore found you not responsible. The Student Handbook does not provide that responsibility for the allegations for which you have been charged hinge on a determination as to whether you were solely responsible for the events in which you were involved.”

UC Student-Workers Union, UAW 2865 responded to Matthews’s decision in an email, claiming that it “removed any possible doubt that the student conduct code is nothing more than a weapon in the administration’s repressive arsenal.” The university has dropped charges against a white organizer who faced similar allegations.

When contacted for comment by Truthout, Matthews said, “I am unable to comment or answer any questions related to this matter because FERPA [The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974] precludes me from disclosing information about a student absent certain circumstances.” Matthews referred Truthout to the university’s media relation office, which offered this comment: “Anyone who believes they have experienced unequal treatment can file a report with our hate/bias response team, Office of Equity and Equal Protection, or through a student grievance. Our campus works hard to support students in exercising their rights to free speech. Most student protests and labor demonstrations on our campus do not result in any violations of the Student Code of Conduct. The Student Conduct process begins only when an allegation of a violation is made, at which time we are obligated to investigate and follow our process in order to support the rights of everyone in our UCSC community.”

In response to the decision to uphold Cruz’s two-year suspension, supporters organizing under the hashtag #HandsoffCarlos held a noise demonstration at Chancellor Cynthia K. Larive’s house at 8 am on Wednesday. Cruz, who is appealing the ruling, says about 45 people were present. They made noise, listened to speakers and music, and chalked the sidewalk. Demonstrators also hung a banner that said “Cindy = Racist” on the gate to Chancellor Larive’s home.

Truthout contacted Chancellor Larive, but she did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

In a May flyer in support of Cruz, Pay Us More UCSC, the group of graduate student workers organizing for a Cost of Living Adjustment, wrote, “University administrators apparently see no duplicity in recruiting these children of immigrant parents as tokens of ‘diversity’ to shore up their progressive credentials, while simultaneously reproducing racialized codes of criminality by piling all the weight of their punitive apparatus upon them.”

Larive has the power to drop Cruz’s charges at any time.

Cruz says this campaign isn’t just about him; it’s about the criminalization of student activism and political dissent. And it’s about paving the way for future disadvantaged Black, Brown and Indigenous people to participate in the struggle for access to affordable education.

This particular graduate student labor controversy arose in November, when the UCSC Graduate Student Association lobbied the administration for a Cost of Living Adjustment of an additional $1,412 per month, calculated based on Santa Cruz’s notoriously expensive housing market. By December, without having achieved any concessions, graduate student-workers went on a grading strike. They withheld 12,000 undergraduate grades, yet the administration still refused to meet. Although the UAW union contract contains a “no strike” clause, students went on a “wildcat strike”(an action carried out by workers without authorization from their union leadership) on February 10, after Chancellor Larive sent an email threatening disciplinary measures on January 27.

For weeks, picketing strikers were met with police brutality, according to graduate students. In addition they faced at least 17 violent arrests, and were surveilled with military-grade equipment, Vice reported. Cruz told Salon he was targeted by police, explaining he was approached at the picket line by an officer who identified him by his first, middle and last name, and date of birth. Strikers organized alongside dining staff to take over dining halls and blocked roadways.

Inspired by UCSC, all 10 UC campuses had launched their own Cost of Living Adjustment campaigns by February.

On February 28, UCSC announced the termination of 54 student-workers. Eventually, a total of 82 student-workers were fired or barred for withholding grades. The strike ended in late April, when other students “scabbed” (took jobs from formerly fired strikers) and — fearing career jeopardization — some of the strikers abandoned the struggle, according to Cruz.

Throughout the coming months, the university held disciplinary hearings that a group of faculty at the UCSC described as using “racialized language” and “employing terms such as ‘aggressive’ or ‘threatening’ to describe people of color.”

In August, UCSC settled a lawsuit with UAW 2865 that included the reinstatement of teaching assistants. Cruz says he is able to work while the review of his suspension is pending.

The battles playing out at UCSC are emblematic of a larger struggle. In response to neoliberal university policies and increasingly unaffordable housing, graduate student-worker labor organizing has exploded over the past several years. Despite oftentimes aggressive pushback from university administrators, graduate student unions have formed at Brown University, New York University, Harvard University and elsewhere over the past several years.

Student-workers at several other universities beyond UCSC have also gone on strike. Last December at Harvard, graduate student-workers in the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers went on strike for nearly four weeks demanding fair compensation, adequate health care, and an independent third-party grievance procedure for adjudicating sexual harassment and discrimination complaints, which eventually led to a union contract with most of their demands met this June.

On September 8, University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees’ Organization went on strike with the unique demand of disarming and partially defunding campus police, among calls for more transparent COVID-19 testing protocols and remote teaching. The union, however, voted to end the strike in favor of mild concessions on September 16 after the university threatened legal retaliation.

UCSC has perhaps responded the most aggressively in part because of the strike’s wildcat status. But, following the most recent noise demonstration, the UCSC Cost of Living Adjustment campaign isn’t forgetting about their repressed comrade. Members are actively encouraging people to contact UCSC administrators to demonstrate their collective support for Cruz.

For Cruz’s part, if his appeal is unsuccessful, he isn’t sure whether he will return to UCSC. He’s interested in forms of knowledge production outside of the university system.

“This whole issue of ‘you can’t get a job, if you don’t have this type of degree’… caters to capitalism,” he tells Truthout. For that reason, he says, he is now dreaming of an educational system that doesn’t cater to capitalism, asking, “What would it look like? What would that mean for us?”