Graduate Students End Grade Strike

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A torn image of COLA protestors.
Arlene Banuelos / The Triton

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Graduate students with the Cost of Living Pay Adjustment (COLA) movement at UC San Diego voted on April 8 to end the grading strike and submit Winter Quarter 2020 grades due to the changing circumstances brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to university faculty and staff, COLA4UCSD said that graduate students will submit grades on April 12 to avoid blocking undergraduates from enrolling in summer session courses due to missing grades. COLA4UCSD plans to continue advocating for education and labor reform, but will instead prioritize actions that do not produce additional work for faculty and staff.

“We recognize that the grading strike had the effect of creating stress, anxiety, and extra work for faculty and staff,” said COLA4UCSD in a letter announcing the release of grades. “Not only does this complicate the goals of the strike, it also raises contradictions insofar as we were striking to bring attention to our poor working conditions with a demand for reform.”

COLA4UCSD voted to withhold grades starting on March 9 at the COLA Walkout and General Assembly. UCSD was the third campus to join the ongoing strike for better working conditions and wage increases started by graduate students at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC). The movement has also spread to UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and UC Irvine.

According to COLA4UCSD, 160 UCSD graduate student workers were on strike as of March 18 and at least 80 of those graduate students withheld grades for Winter Quarter 2020.

More graduate students had originally intended to withhold grades but did not out of fear of being fired, leading to the loss of their income and access to healthcare. Although graduate students shared at a General Assembly on March 31 that the University would likely not fire graduate student workers without prior notice, others at the assembly felt unprepared to risk their income and health coverage during an ongoing pandemic.

In February, graduate students at UCSC were terminated from their teaching assistant positions, effective April 10. The graduate students on strike were set to lose their healthcare benefits until the university shared that terminated students would retain their benefits following pressure from COLA activists.

“Together we also galvanized a UC-wide social movement supported by faculty, students, staff, U.S. presidential candidates, and laborers and activists around the world,” wrote COLA4UCSD. “Concurrently, we recognize that many of you bore the immediate consequences of our decision here on campus.”

Graduate student workers fighting for COLA argued that the pandemic has emphasized the need for a cost of living pay adjustment: The same student workers who cannot afford rent or basic living expenses are now expected to continue their work from home.

“The fact that our homes are very much our workplace now, equipped with poor WiFi, housemates, no desk, old furniture, etc. highlights how our living conditions are commensurate with our wage and not conducive to providing teaching conditions that match undergraduate tuition expectations,” said Communication doctoral student Kerry Keith in an email to The Triton.

United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865, the union representing graduate student workers, is circulating an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike pledge to continue strike activities. During a ULP strike, graduate student workers would withhold their labor in protest of unfair labor practices by the University.

Since January, UAW 2865 has filed various ULP charges against the UC system. These charges include the termination of graduate students at UCSC, the UC system’s attempt to bypass negotiations with the union, and unilateral changes made to both the disciplinary process and working conditions.

A two-thirds vote by UAW 2865 members is required to authorize the strike, and unlike previous UC-wide COLA strikes, a ULP strike would be sanctioned by the graduate student union.

Julianna Domingo is a Staff Writer for The Triton. You can follow her @coolyannaa.