Recording the Complexity of Struggle: An Interview with the COLA Agitation Committee

Editorial Introduction

The wildcat grading strike for a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) waged by graduate student workers at UC-Santa Cruz since December 2019 came to an effective close at the end of last month. In an email to senior administration and fellow grads, strikers declared that they had collectively decided to submit outstanding grades from the Fall and Winter quarters to organize for an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike through UAW 2865, the academic student employees union. This decision did not come lightly; it was, as the COLA strikers state, forced by a “heavy hand from above…an employer that will take every latitude to rebalance power in its favor.”1 On cue, a few days following the announced end of the grade strike, the UCSC Student Conduct and Community Standards Office sent out a fresh round of charges against graduate students, and continued to pursue open processes against grads and undergrads who participated in the labor dispute – a reliable move UCSC Labor Relations has wielded over the last five months.

While the Santa Cruz strikers may be on the defensive right now, the COLA struggle is not over. The struggle’s trajectory, as detailed below, has been extraordinary: it encompasses the grading strike, the nearly month-long full teaching stoppage and picket line at the base of campus, the terminations of 80 graduate student workers from teaching positions, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of the UCSC campus, and the transfer to online education for the foreseeable future. The ULP strike, a tactic that has been successful for UAW 2865 union activists in the past, has become a top priority for many COLA organizers, and the outcome of the strike preparations could alter the ground once again. As the UC anticipates harsh budget cuts in the months to come (from a state government that has put a who’s who list of billionaire CEOs in charge of its “Economic Recovery Task Force”), the power of the COLA demand, as a focused yet expansive articulation of the exploitative material conditions grad workers – and working people more generally – face.

Viewpoint had a wide-ranging conversation with members of the COLA Agitation Committee, a group of grad students who have written many of the daily news sheets and flyers that appeared during the strike, about the significance of the COLA struggle in the midst of the economic crisis induced by COVID-19 and changed university landscape; the important role that propaganda work and militant research can play in concrete situations; the organizational forms and political intelligences which emerged during the strike; the repressive responses and contradictory features of the UC administration; and the correspondences between ongoing contestations by graduate students in higher education and the present wave of wildcat labor conflicts.

In the past, Viewpoint has drawn attention to the powerful practices of solidarity that were built at UCSC over the past decade between campus workers (especially service workers, skilled craft workers, and healthcare workers in AFSCME 3299), graduate students (in UAW 2865, and particularly the reform caucus, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union), contingent faculty, lecturers, and library workers in the American Federation of Teachers, and undergraduates who organized support meetings, study groups, and actions against austerity policies in education. This militant ecosystem remapped the “City on a Hill” as a site of contestation. We see the COLA struggle as sustaining the most important dimensions of that political sequence into the present.


Viewpoint: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many variables of the strike at UCSC for a cost of living adjustment, which we’ll discuss. But it’s essential to take a step back and assess what has happened over the past five months. What began as a wildcat grading strike morphed into a full-picket teaching strike, and now seems to be in a temporary if urgent lull as the ULP strike vote proceeds. At a broad level, how do you think the COLA struggle contributed to our understanding of the university system and learning conditions in the US? 

COLA Agitation Committee: COVID-19 is clearly reshaping the conditions of academic labor in the U.S. But the specter of widespread strikes among academic workers is recasting our understanding of a complex set of relationships beneath that labor as well as giving rise to a militancy that can intervene in the pandemic-induced fallout in higher education. 

While the COLA struggle at UCSC has helped to spur an extensive public conversation about working conditions in higher education, it’s not our view that this is because the strike has revealed any hidden dynamics that people were previously unfamiliar with. Graduate and undergraduate students and workers were already enraged; indignation was palpable, bubbling under the surface. The almost instantaneous outpouring of support from across our university, and from other workers elsewhere speaks volumes about how aware and fed up people were, and still are with these conditions. We were astonished at how easy it was to have these conversations – with undergraduates, adjunct faculty, alumni, students’ parents, and workers of all stamps. So while the university has provided one point of contact with this struggle, its scope and implications are certainly broader. What is significant, we would venture, is not that a novel grasp of conditions prompted displays of sympathy, but that the renewed impact of an old story – workers fighting for collective control over their lives – has had more profoundly solidaristic reverberations than we could have imagined early on. 

Our actions forced a series of open confrontations – from administrative management of the “disruption” to the police and their cronies in the student conduct office – that might be considered as unusual in an academic setting, but connect more directly with the upsurge in labor conflicts over the last few years. Our strike and other recent wildcat strikes anticipated what has become even more generalized in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: as struggles over the essential and the non-essential, worker safety, the scope of aid, the supposed balance of community welfare and economic productivity, etc. have brought existing social fault lines into ever starker relief. The violence and authoritarianism that underpins the status quo have been made explicit alongside a growing refusal to accept it. Never has the administrative class appeared less fit for rule. 

Still, in retrospect it is striking that the upheaval began with a seemingly narrower demand by grad workers for a COLA, as essentially a demand for an alteration to the structure of funding for graduate education, backed by the strategic withholding of one small part of graduate student labor: the submission of undergraduate grades at the conclusion of the Fall 2019 term. Grades have marked an interesting terrain of struggle, and withholding them a unique weapon. However vexed the process may have been for many of us, leveraging grades in this way provided a powerful indictment of a university which cares excessively about this abstract sign of learning outcomes, but scarcely about any of the qualitative labors of education (none of which were initially withdrawn by strikers). This has been clear to many for a long time, especially to adjunct faculty who, along with graduate students, provide the bulk of the educational labor that directly interfaces with undergraduate students. 

On the other hand, grades serve as an integral accounting mechanism in the contemporary student debt-financed university where their allocation serves a peculiar evidentiary role, signaling nothing more than that education has indeed taken place. In this capacity, they are more akin to receipts, both for the individual students who can expect one day to present them to potential employers (who are not obliged to pay for them) and for the administrators who must ensure that they are swiftly furnished in order to justify their exorbitant tuition rates. And yet teaching assistants and instructors are the ones who produce grades, importantly, through a relationship with students in the classroom. Withholding grades, then, while still continuing to teach (as we did in January and then again in March), presents an interesting conundrum to an administration that must claim some form of injury, or dereliction of duty, in relation to an activity that it fundamentally has no insight into nor control over. Withholding grades contested what could normally be taken for granted in the circulatory processes of university operations. This action focused attention on the actual relationships and processes of education that are obscured by the investor/developer logic they ultimately fund.

As has been the case in past struggles over graduate student labor, the equivocation about where exactly the line between being a student and a worker is drawn has been endlessly exploited by the administration, which manipulates this distinction as a mode of rule. The administration’s messaging (especially the erroneous idea that graduate tuition remission constitutes income) is typical of the contemporary academy. It suggests that having to take on debt to close the gap between one’s income and the cost of living represents an investment in a good that the university bestows, to be rewarded at some later date. But this same university system (and here the UC represents the avant-garde) is constantly undermining the future prospects of graduate students everywhere by aggressively casualizing academic labor. In many ways, the situation of adjuncts is an exaggeration of the same – still faced with a gap between wages and the costs of social reproduction, on top of paying back their graduate education. In the context of the pandemic, unless a real alternative is put forward from below, it is likely that the mechanisms of casualization will converge with even more corrosive austerity measures, now offered by management as the only way forward. 

VP: So what is the current state of the strike, now that grades have been submitted, the campus is closed, and classes are being held online? What has the UC’s response to COVID-19 revealed? 

CAC: As with the class struggle more generally, the outbreak of COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted the terrain of our strike, while adding numerous layers of ambiguity. On one level we were outpaced by the university in calling for class cancellations back in March, although they only went halfway: they immediately transferred curriculum and classroom participation to an exclusively online setting (particularly “Zoom”). But they refused to cancel classes altogether and insisted that final exams proceed during a week of extreme anxiety for most students. With so many facing housing and financial insecurity, difficulty returning home, inadequate access to appropriate technology, and a host of other issues, the university once again proved that securing grades was the priority that trumped all other concerns, especially those that touched on substantive issues of student welfare and education (it is easy to wonder what educational significance exams administered under such conditions might hold). Some continue to insist that the university call a halt to all coursework for the coming months, while providing paid leave and health care to all in the meantime. This has parallels with the renewed calls that we’re seeing, in other contexts, being made for universal guarantees by so-called “essential” workers all over the country, workers who are now, despite the stark reality of mass unemployment, in a stronger position to make demands and whose demands are stronger because of their positions. As was the case in other periods of economic crisis, we should not discount the possibility of mass rank and file action among the unemployed. What are the conditions in which the roughly 80 fired graduate workers at UCSC, along with the scores of lecturers being laid off nationwide, could organize, with workers from other sectors, from the vantage point of unemployment? 

Many arguments have been made for why the shift to online education is a fundamental feature of management’s strategy (and not only at UC), and for why COVID-19 simply provides a convenient pretext for pursuing this course of action. But these arguments more or less write out in advance the capacity to resist, thus adopting the point of view of management at the outset. It’s true, it seems these days every academic wants to make sure you know they’ve read The Shock Doctrine. At UCSC, however, and we can only imagine elsewhere, the tenure ranks gave in almost immediately (to be fair, this is a well-worn page in their playbook), adjusting to this “new reality” with a scarcely concealed zeal for online pedagogy committees and the like. Adjuncts and many other workers put up more of a fight, making the special working conditions of the pandemic into a site of negotiation, if not struggle. But the prevailing paradigm has mostly been one of reaction to what is perceived as an inexorable process. 

Needless to say, austerity is on the table, now as ever; not simply austerity but mass infections and death as well as the strategic manipulation of this widespread deprivation by the state and capital. University administrations, and indeed employers everywhere, will no doubt try to wrest from this crisis a firmer footing for their authority and to establish a renewed basis for exploitation. But rather than resigning ourselves to this perceived inevitability, it is likely that universities, given existing fault-lines over questions of wages and rents, tuition, and citizenship, will become sites of struggle for those who cannot simply “go home” or take sick leave, or for those who are maladjusted to the wonders of online education. University administrations themselves are scrambling to gain control over the situation, with many contradictory directives being issued with great frequency. Among their concerns is the huge dropoff in revenue from international enrollment expected next year, the consequence of a public school in California increasingly catering to the international bourgeoisie (revenues which have also taken a hit over the course of Trump’s restrictive border measures). Likewise, in-state enrollments are projected to suffer, contributing to the hemorrhaging of cash streams the university could otherwise count on. It’s unclear how they will continue to manage this situation, especially in the event of further mass pressure, but thus far they are doing whatever they can to exempt themselves from liability over it and any responsibility for addressing it. The only responsibility they seem to claim is in shepherding a bloated bureaucratic apparatus into the next uninspired phase of extraction. 

This kind of tepid managerialism can be seen across the system of higher education in this country. Our administrators are always perfectly capable of acknowledging the dismal conditions of housing, work, study, and debt among the “university community” – they study and lament these conditions, along with the lack of state funding and affordable housing. They recognize these “realities,” with regret, and then regretfully hike tuition, increase enrollment, and propose capital investment projects like Student Housing West.2 These are the best options in an imperfect world, so they say: the choice any rational actor would make under the circumstances. This University discourse at once occludes any specific responsibility of past and present UC administrators and regents in actively fostering the underlying rot of public education, and justifies the further privatization and financialization of UC operations. This is all to say that our administrators will earnestly agree when we point out the precarity of our living conditions, up until the moment we hold them responsible or damage their credit rating by taking action into our own hands.3 Then, they are no longer able to conceal the repressive face behind their “humanitarian” responses to crisis. We are of course witnessing the same repression in the UC administration’s response to the pandemic, which for them includes massive layoffs, eviction of precarious, international students from dorms and on-campus housing, and hoarding of medical equipment. 

In line with our approach throughout the strike of understanding the present configuration of forces through their tensions and with a view to their possibilities, we see COVID-19, with all its attendant dangers, as a potential opening. All over the world, we are seeing that the recognition of the profound limits of the existing social order must coincide with an emergent demand for alternatives. We cannot surrender these to the right-wing or to the technocratic pietism of the Gavin Newsoms of the world. The eruption of labor and rent strikes further reminds us that general crises always have differential effects on social classes, and that as such they represent opportunities for all parties. From the perspective of the working class, these are moments where concentrated collective pushback presents new possibilities precisely because of its urgency, an urgency that renders farcical the temporary quiescence we are typically urged to embrace while “more important” issues are worked through. The idea that working conditions and public health, for instance, are somehow isolatable issues reflects a contemptible effort to use one crisis to contain the other. While the pandemic emerged and was diffused through the same circuits of global capital it subsequently arrested, the immediate crisis of public health reveals in the healthcare system exactly the same dynamics of profitability that degrade working conditions everywhere else. The denial of this systemic connection attempts to frame the crisis of public health as something that threatens from the outside, whether as nature (an anarchic excess of life), migration, or virology labs in Wuhan.

VP: Let’s return to the several distinct phases of the strike: grade withholding, a full-on picket, and others. Has the end of the grading strike provided a moment of rest to engage in reflection on the way these phases were navigated, and perhaps self-criticism? 

CAC: For us here in Santa Cruz, this moment of self-quarantine presents a unique opportunity for critical reflection over the origins of the movement and the paths it has taken. There is no doubt that the initial grading strike, a tactic which is not fundamentally impractical under our current pandemic conditions, nevertheless developed into a multifaceted movement that has been stymied on various levels by the onset of COVID-19 and internal tensions, and these developments require sober analysis as we move forward.

The decision to go on a full labor strike in early February, with a physical picket line, was a definitive moment in the expansion of the strike; its unfolding also highlighted important limitations in our efforts to mobilize and sustain energy locally at UCSC. The visibility, the physical space for organizing, the police presence and the arrests, the press coverage, etc. all created conditions for expanding the movement into other sectors of the university (undergraduates, faculty, staff, campus workers) as well as across further campuses. The picket at the base of campus played host to numerous assemblies, regular meals and meetings, teach-ins, and the integral, if less formal, organizing work of encountering and conversing with newcomers and fellow travelers alike. Undergraduates, harboring many profound grievances of their own, comprised the majority of participants on any given day of the picket, a fact that highlights both the opening to build shared organizational capacity and the difficulty of continuously mobilizing the relatively small body of graduate students at UCSC. The taxing activity of daily picketing, coupled with the disruption to campus affairs more generally, highlighted latent rifts among these very sectors of the university. 

Faculty, even some who had been supportive of the grading strike, perceived their work to be more severely interrupted than they felt they could accept and began to hold classes again, a move that both angered and confused many undergraduates, especially when access to campus was impaired by daily picketing. Many faculty, long acclimated to the austerity mentality, continued to hold classes regardless, claiming the funds needed for a COLA simply don’t exist in a cash-strapped institution like UCSC – mirroring the logic of their superiors. Despite the solidarity demonstrated by the Faculty Organizing Group (FOG) – a body who saw its active membership increase exponentially over the course of the strike – this maneuvering took place even among supportive faculty in the tenured ranks, who, facing mounting pressure to return to work from the administration and department chairs (enlisted by administrators to exert coercion more directly), witnessed their prior solidarity recongeal into hostility. Indeed, many such faculty see no contradiction in this, and that they contributed to breaking the strike well in advance of COVID-19 is a fact that will probably forever elude them. So, notwithstanding the genuinely inspiring organizing and solidarity of certain exceptional members of faculty, the occurrence of militant labor actions in the university raises a fundamental question, it would seem, about alliances between tenured faculty and those without such guarantees: is it possible for faculty to act collectively in ways that don’t ultimately amount to strikebreaking?4 

No doubt, the ethos of professionalization runs deep here, and also implicates the many graduate students who consider themselves, aspirationally, as career-academics. Adequately tackling the problem of organizing academic workers, who are inclined to view their current plight as one rung in the ladder to individual professional development (rather than a degrading process of exploitation that calls for collective defiance), has been challenging, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that this ladder runs out and only secures a greater height from which to fall. At the same time, it was always clear that the grades withheld by those TAs at UCSC who initially committed to the strike were responsible for the most significant pressure that was being exerted on the administration. This courageous action undertaken by over 300 graduate student workers at the end of Fall quarter 2019, organized and executed on a dramatically brief timescale, is what counts most in wildcat actions, and what most needs to be explained. Clearly there are undercurrents within the graduate worker experience, particularly at UCSC, though also more generally, that make actions like these feasible. Viewed in light of the increasingly fractured routes to obtaining stable careers in the academy, perhaps even these professional aspirations, if properly cast into a collective context, can serve as resources from which to draw into struggle. 

The reasons for this rather initial stunning success – stunning at least in the sense that none of the original group of COLA organizers saw it happening so soon, if at all – are difficult to account for with any precision or sense of surety. It is possible that the COLA demand uniquely and directly addressed the material conditions of graduate workers, its singularity and universality concentrating political energy in ways that analogous campaigns had not. Moreover, the emergence of the single, focused COLA demand bypassed the pitfalls of recent histories of UC graduate organizing. It was not a Graduate Student Association initiative, did not seek an audience with administration, and was unavoidably antagonistic to the UAW 2865 leadership and the 2018 contract. In fact, the organizers who set out an 18-month strategy were overwhelmingly in their first few years at UCSC and quite deliberately did not involve graduates with longer institutional histories, though many were soon drawn in. What is most certain, however, is that the wildcat grading strike itself concentrated political will. This was not another march, protest, demonstration, or angry discussion with the graduate division. Although these all occurred and were all important, the prospect of a wildcat strike created a different urgency. It was more serious, more capable of disruption, and more genuinely capable of winning something of lasting significance.

VP: But that momentum, however remarkable and inspiring, is always difficult to maintain, right? 

CAC: Initially, the concern was how to preserve this momentum over Winter break and into the next quarter; how to keep strikers mobilized over the duration of this downtime. This was accomplished largely by the sheer weight and resonance of our demands, which began to amass attention within the university community. As a consequence, we actually came back from that break with more energy and with the grades still in hand. As the administration rolled out its slow war of attrition, the crucial shifts in momentum were certainly tied to the decision to escalate the fall grading strike into a full teaching strike in Winter quarter, and the organizing around the deadline for grade submission (upon threat of dismissal) set by ex-chief of Homeland Security and outgoing UC President, Janet Napolitano. The former appears like an upswing in momentum, and we experienced it that way. We had thousands attend our picket line, with Metro bus drivers and UPS workers refusing to cross, showdowns with police, enormous press attention, tweets from presidential nominees, and formed an independent strike fund to cover our short and long term costs as well as donate to other striking workers.

In hindsight, however, there was a way that this strike action may have worked to undermine the underlying momentum of the labor stoppage. The decision to picket was reached in such a way that grad workers – who, given their highly varied working conditions, work as teaching assistants, instructors of record, research assistants, or are temporarily on fellowship – had ultimately to decide what a “full strike” meant for them. That so many grads had such different interpretations led some to dub this, “choose your own strike adventure,” for the way it individualized the activity of striking and spread the burden of striking unevenly. There is no doubt that we needed to respond to administrative threats, and to the long arc of their tactics to slowly pick off grades, but it is difficult to imagine how else we might have escalated.

There is a way that the organizing around Napolitano’s deadline to turn in Fall Quarter grades (two months outstanding), dubbed “Doomsday,” resembles these dynamics. 

Although the Doomsday rally of February 21 was the peak of our physical demonstration, when around 1000 people comfortably closed campus, the threat of firing hurt the strike on another level: the number of grad workers withholding their labor decreased. Still our organizing efforts yielded an uncanny number of workers willing to continue their strike through Doomsday. It was neither obviously enough to win nor obviously too few to back down. At the same time, another dynamic imperceptibly took hold in our organizing. With the number of strikers fewer, and with inevitable affective splits between those who submitted grades and those who did not, we became reactive to administrative strategy, no longer pressing forward offensively, pre-empting their messaging, surprising them with the pace and intensity of our organization. Our physical presence became steadily smaller and increasingly dispersed (notwithstanding a full campus closure on March 5 in line with a UC-wide day of action). We were waiting on the picket, simply waiting for admin to fold, while urging other campuses to head out on strike, a gesture that betrayed a diminution of movement.

In the final weeks of Winter quarter, we started to “roll” the picket through other spaces on campus, where we could work more directly toward the goal (ultimately ill-fated) of withholding grades for a second time and also reaffirm our solidarity with other student struggles. We began the rolling picket with an occupation of the Academic Resource Center in support of the UndocuCollective – a group of undocumented students currently under disciplinary investigation for occupying this same building earlier in the quarter – and their demands for dignity and space for undocumented students. These actions were of course abruptly interrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19. Reflecting on the phases of the strike, it remains difficult to know whether we misrecognized our position, failing to address a dwindling number of strikers in spite of large-scale demonstrations at Santa Cruz and elsewhere. But it is equally possible that we were unforeseeably robbed of an opportunity to regroup, or that the full teaching strike at UC Berkeley would have carried the COLA movement to new heights, had its first day not coincided with that campus’ first day of transition to online instruction.

Strategic assessments of this nature are never easy, even in hindsight.

What are the prospects for intercampus activity right now? Are COLA participants at UCSC and other UCs seeking other pathways for action after the end of the grading strike? 

CAC: The current statewide organizational effort is complicated. It depends in part on the immediacy of the situation for fired UCSC strikers, with many of the actions on other campuses being originally precipitated by the terminations. Back in February and March, solidarity rallies, marches, grade witholdings, and occupations had created more visibility and organizational opportunities for the COLA demands of each individual campus. But there is also the question of the wildcat strike in relation to the statewide UAW Local 2865. At UCSC, there was a clear reason for pursuing this rank and file line, considering that 83% of the campus voted against the current union contract, while the vast majority of graduate student workers throughout the UC did not vote at all. Some attribute this inactivity to the fact that the vote occurred over the Summer, when most workers were away from campus, but it also points to a deep disengagement with union affairs, a disengagement that is only beginning to be lifted with the real prospect of remaking the union in light of the wildcat strike

Our nascent campaign to oppose the contract at UCSC, in other words, had already created a precedent for worker self-organization. In December, the UAW stewards at UCSC resigned so that they could more effectively organize the wildcat strike without unlawfully implicating the local. There was a close relationship, as it were, between our union reps – who, while critical of the union did not disavow the UAW as such – and the militant trajectory of the wildcat strike. On other campuses, this relationship has proved more fraught, even with the UAW now on track to call a membership vote on an Unfair Labor Practice strike, demanding to open negotiations over cost of living. Many seem to think the union cannot be organized by the rank and file, that it cannot be an organ of the rank and file, and hence deflect attempts to push it in this critical direction. We think this is a mistake. Not only has the union leadership itself split over this question, it has more generally already been pushed in this very direction (with the ULP strike vote as one example), but only through this active, leveraged process is union cooptation less assured. Moreover, the necessity of writing any wins into our decrepit contract, which unavoidably implicates our union, was recently brought home by UCLA, where their administration backflipped on a promise to fund its graduates through the summer quarter, a promise of $2500 per month offered months ago as a bribe to preempt a strike activity on that campus. 

We argue that without the wildcat strike, we would have none of these concrete possibilities to secure and improve our conditions. Without the continuing pressures and threat of mass action exerted by the wildcat strike, there would never be sufficient pressure on the University to agree to reopen negotiations with the union, nor would there be sufficient power behind the union to successfully negotiate with a behemoth institution like the UC. This runs contrary to the “analysis” put forward by Curtis Rumrill who, in an oft-cited piece, purportedly shared with glowing praise by campus deans and faculty, argued that unless there is a preconditional “super-majority” in favor of a strike action, there should be no strike actions at all because they would be doomed to ineffectiveness. Put somewhat paradoxically, the wildcat strike has pushed the union leadership to fight to regain its legitimacy in light of the expectations altered by the wildcat strike. This is to say that the wildcat has presented the UAW with a major opportunity, for which we can all be thankful. It is the result, once again, of a major uptick in rank and file activity, and the question of militant organizational leadership itself will no doubt be settled on the terrain opened up by this activity. 

The “Permanent Task” of Propaganda and Agitation in the Strike

VP: Let’s talk about the role the COLA Agitation Committee has played during the strike. Many people both on and off campus have read the daily news sheets (most are available online here) but might not have a sense of the process that led to the final form. Why is there a continuous need for propaganda and grounded political analysis? What is the process of writing flyers and leaflets? How have you navigated different audiences?

CAC: We recognized a need for some type of written material the day after the grading strike was called on December 8. The initial audience was mainly undergraduate students, who we aimed to reach both with a concerted flyering campaign and with opportunities for conversation and dialogue that in-person flyering opened up. The initial idea behind the committee was to produce frequent news sheets that coherently presented current developments, countered misinformation from admin and faculty (as well as reactionary students), and tied both into structural conditions and the historical dynamics underpinning our situation. Furthermore, the idiocy of the UCSC administration needed to be emphasized in a way that was not possible over email (we did not at the time have mass email lists for undergrads or grads) or social media. Luckily for us, there was no shortage of pent up frustration, or even hatred, among the student body towards the circumstances of their studies (including our unacceptable living conditions on or off campus), connections that were easily made with the experience of graduate student workers at UCSC. Consequently, we printed and distributed anywhere between 500-1000 flyers on the days they were written, distributing them across campus, outside of dorms and lecture halls, and at various marches and demonstrations. In this respect, the subsequent dining hall takeovers led by the COLA4all group also provided a key line of communication, enabling us to reach many students in one place. This initial legwork, coupled with the efforts of hundreds of graduate workers who temporarily turned their classrooms into sites for the diffusion of propaganda, created a baseline level of awareness on campus that something big was happening. In lieu of alternatives to official university announcements (then as now, these read more like liability-dodging statements ghostwritten by well-heeled lawyers than genuine communications), there seemed to be a real hunger among undergraduates for this type of clear-eyed yet combative layout of the strikers’ viewpoint on why we need a COLA. 

In short, we were attempting to find other ways to exert pressure, formulate our positions, and establish face-to-face contact with different strata of the university. The news sheets were an organizational mechanism, a bridge between the ebbs and flows of activity – to borrow language from John Watson – which exist even in the midst of a wildcat strike. We then began to recognize that producing propaganda was not only a communicative effort but also an endeavor of theoretical and practical self-clarification, especially as the strike itself gained more momentum. 

Consequently, even as our pamphlets began by addressing the student body specifically, many flyers began to address strikers and their supporters more generally, as well as other audiences like the K7 unit of skilled craft workers in AFSCME 3299, who went out on an open-ended strike for two weeks at the beginning of the year and won a new contract. That we forged links with these workers was one of the more impressive moments to date – our call to “spread the strike” began with the concrete ambition to fashion a deeper relationship across sectors of labor at our university before it took on the more universalized tones of a movement. Successful propaganda should aim to implicate the different social layers occupying a given political site. In the university system, where at any time the administration has a more or less direct line of communication to everyone working or studying there, it was important to establish a counter-weight that set out to address the various fissures that exist among workers, students, and even faculty (though we’ve often assumed their perspective to be more or less aligned with the administration, we have also highlighted important conflicts between faculty and senior admin and within the more heterogeneous body of faculty themselves). In this context, coherent agitation needed to proceed truthfully, that is, with a view toward shoring up collective affinities toward strategic intervention against an institution like the UC, whose capacity for reaction must not be underestimated.

Within this context, joint authorship can be challenging, especially when trying to adopt a particular tone vis-a-vis an audience, but we increasingly settled into a collaborative practice. One of us would share a draft in the evening after the day’s strike actions had wrapped up, usually on a pressing topic or important turn of events that caught our attention and spurred our initiative. This draft would then go through a round of comments and suggestions to smooth out the language and finer points – late into the night if need be – before being sent out for formatting (COLA’s visual practice has been just as crucial as its written one). This set routine, however monotonous, became a source of comradeship and intellectual rapport.

One thing that has driven the rhetorical framing of our analysis is the idea that propaganda should not only advance an argumentative line but also open onto a prospect of politicization for the reader, by thrusting them into relation with the events being analyzed. In our earlier fliers, we consciously strove to integrate discussions of undergraduate issues – crowded dormitories, ballooning class sizes, the disconnect between higher student fees and the deterioration of support services and public accommodations on campus, among other symptoms of mismanagement and neglect – with the strategic aims of winning a COLA.

At the same time, as with all movement texts, one cannot simply claim authorship, as the pertinent questions and themes all, in some sense, emerge from and inform the movement itself. So, in a real sense, we’ve tried to put to work CLR James’ notion (that he liked to cite from a perhaps more apocryphal Lenin) that the task of theory is to “recognize and record.” This maxim opens up how we understand collective thinking and writing as practices of critical intervention, practices that are steered by mass struggles. The question is not just whether the analysis is true in a disinterested sense, like mainstream models of social science, but whether its truth is inextricably connected to one’s political subjectivity, their partisanship. As a record, these sheets also help us, as does this interview, to avoid the temptation to reduce the past months of organizing activity to generalizations or easy summary. They attest to the messiness and complexity of a struggle from within. 

VP: Are there any particular flyers or statements that stand out to you and would like to discuss? Reading through them provides a powerful chronicle of the strike’s development.

CAC: Almost all of the flyers, although offering a general critique of the university, were tied to a particular moment and often to a place as well. This makes them strange to look back on – they bear the marks of often frenzied late-night co-authorship by exhausted strikers, from the occasional odd grammatical construction to embarrassing typos. We take this as a small sign of the kind of truth they were meant to articulate, one that is politically situated. Probably the first to do this in a very direct sense was produced for one of the first large rallies that were held at Kerr Hall (the main administrative building at UCSC) on January 9. Overall, the aim was to paint a picture of the university that could allow people to locate administrative maneuvering in terms of the institution’s history and structure. But it did this by invoking the namesake of the building where we were gathered, Clark Kerr, who was also in some sense responsible for the long term direction of the University of California, beginning in the 1960s. On the one hand, this was designed to make visible seemingly innocuous features of the institution, like buildings and name plaques, as ossified forms of power. On the other hand, it also connected the rally itself to a rich history of student activism and protest, gesturing to Hal Draper’s classic “The Mind of Clark Kerr,” anti-war protests and the function of the UC within the arms economy, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, police repression, etc. We had to be a little harsh on Kerr, who today is celebrated for this ‘progressive’ mode of administration (ultimately ousted by Ronald Reagan for not going far enough), because we wanted to present UCSCs veneer of progressivism similarly, as concealing a deeper affinity with the suppression of movements led by students and workers. 

This strategy crept back up in further flyers. Notably, the one for January 22 was composed for the occasion of the UC Regents’ meeting at the UCSF campus, which was originally convened to discuss highly controversial 5-year annual tuition hikes but had these removed from the agenda at the last minute, after it became clear there was mounting resistance. This flyer, entitled “Meet the Regents” (in reference to “eat the regents,” a common protest refrain), highlighted various aspects of the overall organization and structure of authority within the university system, and directly attacked the governing institution of the Board of Regents. One of the strikers read a portion of it aloud to the venerable Regents themselves during a “public” comment period in a closed room, after hours of wading through long lines and metal detectors. Unfortunately, the likely responses muttered by this body of real-estate developer billionaires, landlords, CEOs, hedge fund managers, politicians, and their attorneys, was not recorded for posterity. 

The sheet written on March 10 is a bit different, coming as it does directly after the physical picket on the university entrance was abandoned for organizing toward grade withholding in the final week of Winter quarter, along with the impacts of COVID-19. The concern was that no longer having a particular place, or center of visible activity, would allow the university’s administrative response to continue operating below the radar and unopposed. This had been unfolding ever since the overt police violence and repression of the picket’s first week, with the repressive tactics carefully transitioning to a very opaque and bureaucratic disciplinary process. 

We chose to focus on our comrade, Carlos Cruz – a longtime leader in UCSC campus activism dating back to his time as a member of the anti-capitalist undergraduate organization Autonomous Studentswho was being singled out with a particularly sinister use of the student conduct process. But this also allowed us to attack the duplicitous use of diversity marketing by the university, which simultaneously denies resources to its undocumented students and targets the children of immigrants for vicious punitive attacks. That the UC increasingly promoted the diversity of its student body at the same time as it hiked tuition and enlarged its enrollments is lost on no-one, and particularly not on the very students whose “inclusion” is premised on the condition of life-long indebtedness. 

Our flyering campaign consistently highlighted the career trajectory of UC President Janet Napolitano, an enemy to immigrants everywhere, and we’ve always argued that her involvement with public education is a scandal of the highest order (that many among us did not seem to know these details was something we tried to rectify in one of our earliest flyers). The law and order strike responses, the heightening of campus surveillance through UCSC’s shadowy “Demonstrations Operations Team” (DOT) in close collaboration with law enforcement agencies, the weaponization of citizenship, the obscure use of student discipline to repress dissent – all of these bear witness to an institution that has more in common with the Department of Homeland Security than to the aspirations of public education. Then again, as we detail in another flyer, the UC has almost always been at the forefront of the most insidious processes of accumulation, whose sordid business dealings they’d prefer kept secret. But, as it turns out, when you shine some light on them, the rats begin to scurry.

VP: One novel part of your theoretical practice has been producing a sophisticated analysis of the UC administration – its strategies to break the strike and broader function within the educational apparatus. Your discussion of grades above is another aspect of this line of political inquiry. How has this analysis come about and what has been its efficacy? 

CAC: We should give credit where credit is due: A lot of this began as a gift from the administration. At first, we had to do some research around the history of the university and the structure of its management and governance, but as events started to escalate, the administration repeatedly had to play their hand. For example, the active role of campus policing and the use of the “student conduct” process to suppress dissent have done more to expose the university’s position and priorities than we could have done with any analysis. None of this is new, nor is the effort to expose and oppose it, but the scale and tempo of the strike allowed us to stress it relentlessly and in a fundamental relation to the university’s business model. Much of our work since the beginning of the physical picket has been merely to articulate the university’s own positions, to set them in context, and to clarify their implications. Likewise, what the strike is and stands for is something that has been continually articulated in practical terms by those involved, and we see our role as being to synthesize and orient this activity, rather than to provide it with some sort of external direction.

One aspect of university organization that has come up over and over again is how opaque it is to everyone involved. We all know about the fragmentation of disciplines and divisions, and the absolute lack of budgetary transparency. It has been fascinating to witness the degree to which organizing has necessarily had to overcome these limitations, to organize students between STEM, Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts in ways that university structures have always discouraged, and to investigate the actual fiscal mechanisms and imperatives that drive the university. It is quite clear that most faculty and even most administrators have only vague ideas about how these things actually work, and the chaos that has ensued from their attempts to respond to our actions only underscores this fact. 

On the other hand, there are certain positions that are continually voiced in the context of student-led organizing which demand internal criticism, precisely because they are mystifying, and in a roundabout way, play into administration’s hand, or in this case, undermine more militant strike activity. The willingness to fall back on “symbolic” modes of protest in place of the exercise of material leverage, surely a holdover from the last decade of embittered activism, often creeps back in, as a result. The impulse toward the most totalizing critique of the university system, of its ostensibly infinite violence, and the call for its repudiation – to put it somewhat crassly – is often coupled with incredibly depoliticizing political conclusions, even fatalism. Holding fast to vague slogans like “Fuck the UC” can produce dispositions that leave people unable to strategically navigate a fluid situation like a strike and respond to real shifts like the firings or student conduct proceedings. For one, its assumption of a homogenous and exclusionary bureaucratic power cannot account for the real conflictual processes that emerge when its institutional structures are challenged from below, by a broad base of workers employed and struggling within them. It also overstates the degree to which the administrative line is itself consistent, rather than riven with cleavages, not unlike broader ruling class paradigms of order. 

The entirely flattening mainstream academic critique of “neoliberalism” is a variant of this. One cannot hope to mount a mass movement against its political forms with an analysis that imbues them with a monolithic power, and that, in the most reactionary articulations of this position, accepts them as historically inevitable. This is a position that fetishizes defeat, and while it resonates with many faculty who seem to have wounded attachments to their diminished standing in the institution (or who are all too content to trade academic freedom for political subservience), it more often translates into moralism than strategic vision. The nearly incessant declaration that we cannot hope to act boldly because we are “powerless” in the face of tightening purse strings is the most common version of this refrain. “Where will the money come from?” is a question asked not by people especially concerned about the university’s skewed budgetary priorities, but by those who’ve largely bought into the same austerity politics they otherwise decry. We oppose the anti-politics of melancholy in all its forms, and the forms in which it manifests are many. 

Political Forms, Grassroots Relays

VP: We’d like to get your reflections on the organizational forms that have been constructed – strike committees, general assemblies, Signal groups. What have been some takeaways from this political work? 

CAC: The organizational repertoire that we have operated with has largely been built out of the diverse existing political and technical experience offered by striking graduate students here, though there are, of course, important precedents. We should also not underestimate the spontaneous and unexpected circumstance that precipitated events in the first place: an angry and defiant reply-all email thread before the entire university community.5 This is not to say it came from nowhere, or was not long-prepared, but the palpable collective grievance which this expressed gave rise to an organizational landscape not encountered before on this campus and, despite the repression, one unlikely to be dismantled anytime soon. At first, the primary forms of deliberate organization were the general assembly, online polling, town halls (forums for talking through nascent strategies, often within graduate divisions), and the creation and delegation of a subcommittee structure with corresponding Signal groups. Especially at the beginning, a whole structure of communication and research had to be set in place that roughly paralleled that of the university itself. For every institutional feature it had, people felt the need to produce something roughly analogous. There were committees devoted to understanding the circulation of grades and their potential effects on financial aid, prerequisites, academic probation, etc., and how to mitigate impacts on undergraduates.6 There were people ensuring digital security and scraping email lists to be able to effectively communicate with different sectors of the university, sectors (such as STEM) that were hitherto isolated from each other by administrative and departmental email infrastructure. There were fundraising and fund distribution networks. There were emotional and psychological care networks and childcare at the picket and for general assemblies. Later on, there was legal support and cop-watch to respond to police repression and to support the legal and conduct processes of arrestees. There was, of course, our own committee for producing propaganda that could match that of the infinitely banal Public Affairs office. 

Departmental organizing began very early on as well, not to circumvent the collective decision-making process of the graduate body, but rather to supplement and enlarge it. This organizing was important in building upon existing social and academic professional networks to bring in more graduate student workers, as well as to support nascent departmental organizing in fields with less initial participation. There was a very critical moment early on when STEM departments’ organizing ramped up at a remarkable pace, and this produced a legitimizing effect on the movement as a whole – it demonstrated that what we were confronting was a problem of graduate student labor within the contemporary university as such, and not merely another crisis of the humanities, social sciences, arts, and so on. Over a longer term, this has actually opened up cross-disciplinary collaboration and conversation that goes beyond the usual token “interdisciplinarity” of university programs and their attendant advertising campaigns. Currently, graduate student workers across the UC are building intercampus departmental networks, opening new channels of communication and working to address departmental conditions throughout the state.

But other cultures and techniques of organization also grew out of these initial forms, especially with the beginning of the full teaching strike and the debut of the physical picket line. There were numerous talks and teach-ins, especially on topics relevant to the strike itself: student debt, the marketing of diversity, political strategy and mutual aid, direct action and rights training, etc. Artists and screenprinters have played an important part in the representational and communicative aspects of the strike. A local coffee shop became a pick-up point for flyering runs and a spot for evening organizing committee meetings. Direct actions from the affinity group COLA4All have, from the beginning, been crucial to expanding the political stakes of the strike – especially in dining hall takeovers, which spread as a tactic to UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and UCLA. Their capacity to draw pre-existing currents of anti-racist organizing into the orbit of the strike, make essential linkages with undergraduates from minority backgrounds, and withstand repeated attacks from the administration has provided an important point of reference for the movement more broadly.

Of course, there were certain limits to the internal organization of the strike, and for good reason: events were forced upon us, in a sense, and the tempo of the strike’s momentum was unpredictable. The rapid proliferation of Signal groups at times resulted in confusion over planning and decision-making. While an incredibly practical technology for coordination, the Signal medium also didn’t allow for adequate in-depth debate or deliberation. Messages poured in so rapidly that the application would freeze, and if you missed out one day’s worth of activity the chances of catching up on everything were hopeless. There were also moments, both virtually and on the picket line, when communications became muddled. 

Moreover, the ambiguous legacy of horizontalism (coupled with a general suspicion of those hierarchies that are more directly associated with university administrations and union bureaucracies) sometimes translated into a devolution of decision-making. On the other hand, the ostensibly self-evident elevation of “democratic” procedure, for example, especially in the form of social-scientific polling, is sometimes seen as necessary to legitimate mass action, but its conception of collective action as an aggregate of individually made choices is more often a damper on political will. No doubt, there is a need to assess our numbers realistically with a view to how actions may be carried out, but the image of politics rooted in polling is one of isolated individuals, rather than collective strategy. The question of representation and all of its pitfalls – who speaks for the movement, and what is its authentic voice? – at times suppressed assertions of leadership among the rank and file. Neglected was the fact that movements are composed of dynamic groups in constant tension with one another, and moreover that real collectivity is born in precisely this terrain. Accusations of insularity and non-transparency arose, as a result, during those same moments of necessary self-assertion and decision-making by the rank and file. 

VP: Have there been any notable instances of political subjectivation during this strike? We keep coming back to Carlos Cruz’s words during one GA in February: “I’m not going back to work; I can’t wrap my head around that.” How has this struggle revived visions of a self-managed university that cropped up in the 2009 cycle of protests at the UC?

CAC: We’ve seen a number of waves of participation, and there have been defections as well. But overwhelmingly, it appears that many people have had their relationships to this institution changed in ways that are irreversible and can’t really be walked back. Many students, both graduate and undergraduate, are struggling to understand how to carry on at all after what they’ve seen and heard from this administration, and the various forms of punishment they’ve been subjected to. Even those who could materially afford to continue in the face of firing, or without a COLA, seemed increasingly unwilling to, throughout the struggle over grades. This is something that the administration seems not to have anticipated, and it poses a serious threat to their authority. 

There has been a consistent pattern to the escalations across totally different forms of confrontation. Sitting in the intersection on the day of mass arrests (February 13, 2020), we saw many students who had never faced down state violence do so directly. They were scared, but even more angered to see it so ruthlessly deployed out of all proportion to the situation. When the cops moved in, they were obviously not prepared to arrest hundreds of students – they thought arresting a dozen or so would make everyone else leave (recent police communications released under the Freedom of Information Act appear to corroborate this, along with the use of military-grade surveillance equipment). Instead, hundreds more protesters came out and eventually the police had to back down. Like with the termination threats and then the actual firings, the administration whittled down the number of grade withholders with weeks upon weeks of coordinated threats and cajoling, until they felt like they had a number they could make an example of while minimizing the impact of the lost labor. But at the same time as they carried through with their threats, thousands marched statewide and six campuses declared strikes. This was this precise moment, of course, when COVID-19 dramatically shifted and reshuffled the terrain. 

In the early days of the strike, there were stirring instances of political ferment. As we’ve said, the split between the hard and soft sciences/humanities, the STEM researchers and social studies students has long been evident on campus through both spatial and institutional mechanisms of division. Two major recent political battles at UCSC with grad involvement – the 2014 UAW 2865 Unfair Labor Practice strike and the 2014-15 fight against tuition hikes, were primarily led by the humanities and social science students. But in the early days of the COLA strike, we witnessed a marked shift on campus: the politicization of groups of students who had never participated before. One Friday night in the first week of the grading strike (a Friday during finals week!) made this evident. A group of COLA organizers went into a meeting with 15 physics graduate students to discuss what a COLA meant for both them and to their fellow grad colleagues after skepticism had been expressed. They discussed, for instance, and debated how the $1412 number was calculated from the heavy rent burden that goes hand in hand with living in Santa Cruz. They discussed the nature of the union contract – why people felt it was legitimate to break with that contract. They confronted questions about how strike decisions would be made. In the course of just two hours, these physics students got on board with the ideas and the actions of the strike organizers. These were people who hadn’t engaged in a strike before; a significant rearrangement happens when a demand is able to clearly lay out and capture the direct antagonism between a group you belong to and a major source of your exploitation. Grads needed a COLA to survive their precarious living situations and meager earnings, and the UC (albeit a very complex agent) was a major cause of that precarity for grads. What resulted was a level of mobilization and support among a diverse group of students that had not been seen on this campus for some time. Priscilla Martinez, a graduate student in the History department at UCSC, has been carrying out invaluable archival work by conducting oral history interviews with a number of participants and posting them on the COLA-fornia Dreaming podcast page.

At a broader level, the COLA struggle has also enabled a clearer understanding of the political trajectories and bifurcations of the post-2009 UC (and California State University) student movement, and how that movement was subsequently refracted through the Occupy sequence.7 One observable tendency is concerned with the historical legacies of anti-colonial struggles, and from this viewpoint, questions concerning the autonomy of marginalized subjects as they relate to the UC in its capacity as an enduring emblem of modernity and its violences. This tendency is prefigurative, perhaps similar to some threads that lived through the 2009 struggles and bloomed during Occupy. But this tendency is also responsive to some of the criticisms of Occupy that took place towards its end, specifically on questions of land ownership as a lasting relationship of colonial domination.

The second tendency departs from the former inasmuch as it is interested in power, as opposed to prefiguration and immediate self-management of the university into something else. This tendency takes the criticism of Occupy seriously too, but from a different angle. From this view, the Occupy movement was unable to develop a politics of leverage, and was unwilling to entertain reforms as a viable project for power-making. In a sense, then, this tendency also rejects the “no demands” emphasis that was central to the 2009 student movement. This rejection forms the foundation of the drive towards COLA, which is not simply a wage increase but one that has been politicized by pinning it to systemic contradictions. Rent, for example, is juxtaposed with wages, which together tend to amount to a wider critique of our situation under capitalism. When the university is your employer as well as your landlord, charging market rate for substandard dwellings, the conflict is even more pronounced. There’s also the question here regarding the instrumentalization of campus institutions like the student-workers union or even student government. These formations can and have been – at least in Santa Cruz, but also on other UC campuses – redeployed for the purposes of deepening the movement, building power, and taken up to find new paths for organizing and fighting, with no illusions about the likelihood of failure.8 This strategy can go hand-in-hand with the creation of autonomous political organs in the midst of conflict. The second tendency coming out of recent UC cycles of struggles stresses the need to find material bases for developing a political culture. At stake is not only the “use” of certain spaces for political ends, but an awareness that protest movements come out of concrete situations which contain organizing sites from which you can launch opposition and form tight bonds. 

Another point that separates the COLA movement from the often-invoked parallel of the 2009 student movement and occupation wave is the explicit character of the labor dispute. We are not making demands as students, but as workers whose working conditions profoundly impact our student status and our ability to carry out academic work. This inevitably puts us in closer proximity to struggles over the nature of work in educational settings, particularly over classroom sizes, student workloads, and competitive hiring practices. We saw encouraging examples in California over the past year: in Union City, Oakland, and Los Angeles. On the other side of this dynamic is the tenant quality of our organizing, the insistence that living conditions in Santa Cruz and California more generally are unacceptable. Many UCSC grads participated in the failed 2018 Measure M campaign for rent control policies in the city, for instance, and much of that political energy carried over. 

VP: To pick up that last thread, might COLA be better understood as a tenants’ movement, particularly in the way you have emphasized the near-universal experience of rent burden and housing insecurity among graduate students? 

CAC: As the COLA struggle moves into an uncertain future, this is a crucial dimension to keep in view. The defeat of Measure M, which would have not only set a cap on rent increases but also establish a rent board to give tenants a voice in a town dominated by propertied interests of varying ideological shades, was a bitter loss for renters in Santa Cruz. Remember that this is a 60,000 person municipality that ranks with San Francisco and New York in terms of housing prices (the “least affordable small city in the US”). Students United with Renters, a group of current and former UCSC students heavily involved in local housing activism, was a key organizing force behind the charter amendment. But the perennial enemies of fair housing legislation in the state – the California Apartment Association, the California Realtors’ Association, and their national benefactors – teamed up with property management locals to pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign against a fledgling working-class tenant coalition. Paired with the loss of Proposition 10 at the state level on the same November 2018 ballot, which would have repealed the Costa-Hawkins Act (still untouched by the recently passed state housing bill, AB 1482), UC-Santa Cruz students were left with few viable legislative paths to ease the brutal conditions of the housing market. Grad student testimonies sent out to faculty during the first month of the wildcat strike offered vivid and nightmarish details about the difficulties and barriers baked into the rental experience here. 

UCSC administrators, meanwhile, continually acknowledged the existence of a “housing affordability problem,” without of course acknowledging the UC’s hand in producing this problem, and vaguely handwaved at purported solutions (“working in collaboration with our community, including public and private partners”) that disavowed the real antagonisms that had crystallized, not to mention how heavily the political scales governing those solutions were tipped in the favor of property-owners. One of its only concrete proposals for on-campus housing, Student Housing West, is predictably a partnership with a private management firm and offers no real alleviation of rent burden for those eligible to live there. Moreover, the whole project would rip up the basic land-use philosophy and environmental vision that UCSC was built upon – a fairly stunning example of how rapidly the UC has become a real estate investment machine above all else. But importantly, students themselves started to organize in the face of the UC’s non-action on cost-of-living problems. The Snail Movement, a group of houseless or precariously-housed UCSC students (mainly undergrads), successfully fought against police harassment of students sleeping in their cars on campus overnight. Grads began to seriously investigate the UC’s triple role as an employer, landlord, and educational institution, where the money siphoned from tuition and raised from private sources cycles through a dizzying labyrinth of capital funds and accounts, while its workers and students struggle to live decently both on- and off-campus. They also began to weigh new strategies, new modes of articulating that political link between rent and wages and moving past defensive measures. The seeds of the COLA movement and the fall 2019 series of actions that fed into the wildcat strike, then, can be traced not only to the dismal UAW contract of 2018 but also the realities and lessons of the housing crisis in Santa Cruz. 

So, the framing of our demands had this focus from the beginning because they were very precisely addressed to the cost of living, and the university desperately wants to avoid being held responsible for marketized living expenses. They have everything to gain from the market (which they blame for the crisis insofar as it can be portrayed as an exogenous force) driving up housing costs – even for their “below-market” housing which is nevertheless indexed to it. It is telling that at the very moment when COVID-19 dismantled physical organizing and the picket, there was a pronounced series of calls among participants for a rent strike, in concert with developments in tenant organizing everywhere. And there were good reasons to engage in a rent strike at UCSC, where rents for those living in Family Student Housing actually increased in light of COVID-19.

Nevertheless, to characterize COLA as solely a tenants’ movement would miss the extent to which it highlighted the structural intertwinement of rent and housing with conditions of work and study within the university. The strict separation of these issues is actually the administration’s way of denying its own complicity in the housing crisis, along with its monopolization of many social reproductive and other costs for its community. As others have observed, there are certain parallels between the university and the company town.

VP: Are there concrete comparisons to draw with other university struggles, say the Quebec student syndicalist movement of recent years? Or in public education, like the West Virginia wildcat teachers’ strike (which has been consistently evoked and even resulted in a statement of solidarity)? 

CAC: Strong movements of student syndicalism, like in Quebec of recent years, offer interesting comparisons. Yes, there are key differences between a student strike against tuition hikes (in the Maple Spring case) and a labor strike by academic student employees, but the wildcat factor offered us substantial independence from trade union structures and procedures on this score. In Quebec too, the primary organizational forms have also been the general assembly and the committee with an emphasis on how to translate decisions made into effective actions; and since 2012 activists have increasingly turned their attention to questions around the specific characteristics of academic labor (especially unpaid internships and poorly remunerated teaching positions for undergrads) and the university as traversed by the contradictions of capitalist social relations. But laying down a groundwork of directly democratic bodies is a critical step for organizing capacity, which can simultaneously stave off centralizing tendencies while also allowing for adequate coordination, autonomous initiatives, and collective learning. The assemblies and committees that have existed throughout the UCSC wildcat strike for different functions have operated quite smoothly. The GAs in particular were steadily run and did not wander into aimless debate. But certain areas, for instance department-level committees across the Graduate Studies Divisions, have seen a gradual dimunition of influence and efficacy. This is not to suggest that the establishment of a tighter working network of departmental committees would have been a cure-all – it might have been beyond all our capabilities – but they could have been more widespread across all the departments and in closer communication with one another. But, since this struggle is certainly only a beginning, we can recall how the deliberative structures in Quebec were built up over the course of several years, and they were not playing catch-up with a campaign that exploded into a wildcat strike in the course of a weekend. And to be clear, there did exist an organizational ecology, in many senses dormant, tracing back for over a decade at UCSC (mixing together in different moments campus unions like UAW and AFSCME, housing justice work, left organizations like DSA or solidarity networks, immigrant rights groups, and autonomous student politics) that was very much reactivated by the strike. That ecology was very tenuous in a place like Santa Cruz: beyond the usual facts of turnover and matriculation in a university setting, the tight housing and labor market pushed a lot of comrades out of the area, people who carried with them valuable institutional and political memory. It might be that COLA is only the first transmission in a cascade of university struggles that redraw the boundaries of student-worker politics, emphasizing strategy over debates about structure, and building up activist cores and lively cultures of solidarity. Pulling back a little, the emergence of a cross-campus initiative like the Strike University, which is not only an educational project but also aspires to be a movement training hub, can be seen as linking these concerns with a broader dissident public. 

As for the West Virginia teachers’ strike, it was definitely always in the forefront of our messaging as an inspirational model. In the first week of the wildcat strike, after the political leap had been taken, it was consistently evoked in public emails to the administration to parry their line on the grade strike being an “illegal work stoppage” (before any grades had actually been withheld!). The success the West Virginia teachers had in obtaining their demands, forcing the hand of lawmakers, and organizing powerful mass actions that catalyzed a strikewave, was definitely an example to draw from; it a source of strategic inventiveness and a concrete victory to point toward to assuage fears among our ranks. One significant detail that should not go overlooked is the degree to which both were led by women and queer grads, a fact that would seem to challenge the prevailing tropes in male-dominated labor histories. But perhaps a more critical examination of the conditions of the West Virginia strike was required. 

Significant differences exist in the structure of public K-12 education and higher education in the U.S. – there is an entire bureaucratic-financial apparatus with mediating appendages of actors and offices at the UC that simply does not exist in public primary and secondary schools. In their two-week work stoppage and mass demos at the state capitol in Charleston, West Virginia teachers were able to successfully bombard the headquarters in a way we simply couldn’t. The UC is very nimble in preparing for and quelling protest among its workers and students: senior campus administrators, the UC Office of the President, and the Regents have also learned a lot since that 2009-2015 cycle of struggle against austerity and privatization we discussed above, despite various regime and personnel changes. 

And, to put a fine point on matters, the UC’s annual operating budget is nearly three times that of the entire West Virginia state budget. Arguably, there was a more powerful, more durable relationship of forces to push through (it is worth recalling that the University of California is the constitutionally sanctioned “fourth branch” of California’s government). 

Second, West Virginia had more numbers and broader immediate community support – social aspects that we could not replicate. It’s worth here recalling the LA teachers’ strike, too. Yes the COLA strike fund raised a stunning amount of money, but having funds available is not the same as a consistent number of supporters showing up for mass pickets. There were different microstructures of collective action, intergenerational and cross-sector cultures of solidarity, and legacies of struggle in play. 

Third, both of these wildcat actions were rank-and-file upsurges, but we ran into arguably more powerful barriers in trying to maneuver around or move beyond union/labor relations frames (and even ideological conceptions of what a wildcat strike is). While education strikes are doubtless to keep exploding, since both primary/secondary schools and universities are such dense points of social reproduction and massive, hierarchized workplaces today, we are going to need adequate organizing strategies to orient ourselves within the particular sites of this battlefield. 

VP: So what is the perspective of COLA going forward in a time of protracted crisis, where physical distancing might impede previous approaches to organizing? What are the prospects of new solidarities among those whose exploitation is being even more starkly highlighted in the present?

There is no shortage of lessons to be gleaned from the giant wave of wildcat industrial actions during the second world war, the “crisis” to which so many pundits are now comparing COVID-19. Their sweeping historical generalizations have no clear purpose except to get people to put aside their own aspirations for something else. Suggestions that workers ought to individually shoulder the burden of a health crisis by manufacturing masks for free are very much of this type, and not far off from the demand that graduate students should lay down their demands and return to work in order to secure undergraduate education (i.e., the flow of grades and tuition revenue) under the new normal of online education. Of course, the question of why one should fight for a pseudo-collective goal that doesn’t redound to its fighting members is never touched upon. The only meaningful parallel between war and the present pandemic is that both offer an opportunity for ruling forces to cast the present as an exogenous and existential threat to workers against which they must be willing to sacrifice themselves. That the notion of frontline “heroes” carries over from wartime metaphors to medical, transit, or delivery workers is telling here. Against such cynicism, we would reaffirm with wartime wildcat strikers of a previous era and the Amazon or Instacart workers of our own that threats to our collective social life are best combated by genuine and determined collective action.

Given the specifically multinational character of academic labor in the US, as well as the context of a pandemic whose unequal effects are distributed internationally, this moment could serve as a sort of conveyor belt toward a renewed internationalist politics. When universities like Columbia, CUNY, NYU, MIT, University of Chicago, or Northwestern (to name but a few that have also seen waves of recent graduate student worker unrest, and even cross-strata militancy with adjuncts and tenure track factory) roundly lay off or dismiss service workers and campus staff at the same time as they present international students with eviction notices, the groundwork is laid for a major struggle. If graduate student workers (many of whom are immigrants themselves) can intervene at all in these developments, it is certainly through contesting the imposition of work, whether arbitrary or long-prepared, by university administrations everywhere. In the midst of what will likely be a prolonged crisis, it’s certainly possible to form intercampus groups that can agitate through collective analysis and propaganda, broadcast a more general critique of the university, and militate by sharing political experiences, contacts, and tactics. In countering the forces that seek to reintensify the exploitation of labor in the academy, the movement of graduate student workers can continue to connect to an entire sequence of labor unrest today, one that repudiates the immense viral hecatomb being inflicted by the ruling class. 

References   [ + ]

1. “COLA strikers will collectively submit grades and organize for a ULP strike,” Graduate Student Association email, April 27, 2020.
2. Former Chancellor Blumenthal presented Student Housing West in emails as the UC’s attempt to combat the “extreme lack” and “prohibitively expensive” cost of housing in Santa Cruz; this was an “economically prudent project” to help UC students “struggling to get by in this irrational housing market.” George Blumenthal, “Regents approve Student Housing West, Kresge renewal,” email to UC Santa Cruz campus, April 1, 2019.
3. Investigation into these processes has identified that the UC’s “Risk Services Office,” an office tasked with, among other things, maintaining cordial relations with campus “stakeholders”, deemed the COLA movement a threat to business operations, which includes its renowned S&P rating. The forebodingly vague and vaguely foreboding language in the Office’s mission statement is worth quoting at length: “The Office of Risk Services is responsible for developing and implementing Enterprise Risk Management systemwide, identifying and developing strategies to minimize the impact of risk, developing a center of excellence for managing risk, reducing costs and improving safety by executing new ideas and strategic plans in a rapid manner. By strategically managing risk we can reduce the chances of loss, create greater financial stability and protect our resources in support of UC’s mission.”
4. In their recent social movement history of 1960s Los Angeles, Set the Night on Fire, Mike Davis and Jon Wiener revisit the contemptible attempts by Ronald Reagan and the UC Board of Regents to rescind Angela Davis’s (non-tenured) teaching contract at UCLA, and the courageous organizing efforts by fellow faculty to defend her position and right to political expression. Faculty repeatedly defied Sacramento and the Regents’s arbitrary decrees to try to oust Davis, refused to blink when the board spoke of orders to block her classes by police force, and even went so far as to pay Davis’s salary out of pocket and schedule her courses when it was announced she would not be rehired. See Mike Davis and Jon Wiener, Set the Night on Fire (New York: Verso, 2020), 472-79. Nick Mitchell, an associate professor in the Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies departments and consistent supporter of the COLA strike, contextualized this episode in a February 2020 address to the UCSC Academic Senate, after a dean cited the UC Regents’ June 1970 Policy on Academic Freedom to oppose the wildcat strike. Mitchell explained that this statement intended to provide an immediate pretext to terminate Davis’s employment by painting her political activity (listed was a recent speech denouncing the violent police attack against the People’s Park on the campus of UC-Berkeley) as “unprofessional conduct.” Mitchell further pointed out that the issuing of the statement galvanized organizing among the professoriate. Hayden White, who was one of Davis’s supporters at UCLA and was later her colleague in the UCSC History of Consciousness department, fought the aftereffects of the 1970 Academic Freedom policy in the classroom when he contested Los Angeles Police Department surveillance of student activists and teachers in the 1975 California Supreme Court Case, White v. Davis. It is lamentable that the relevant traces of political memory are often obscured or forgotten, to our detriment.
5. The thread began with an email from Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer, “Grad Students’ Demand for Increased Pay Driven by SC Housing Costs,” December 5, 2019.
6. It should be noted that undergraduate students have been “harmed” as a result of the strike has continuously been the line of the administration, as well as many faculty and graduate students intent on scabbing. See the initial email sent by UCSC Public Affairs after the announcement of the grading strike, which the Agitation Committee addressed in its first flyer: Public Affairs, “Addressing impacts of graduate student grading strike,” email to UC Santa Cruz campus, December 9, 2019. Many undergraduates are now being targeted through the student conduct protocols; meanwhile, these paternalistic critics are nowhere to be found.
7. A history of the UC and CSU student movement in the post-2008 financial crisis years remains to be written. Reclaim UC remains a vital repository of movement writings and analyses, as does the Occupy CA site (see the timeline for 2009-2013 actions). Zachary Levenson has written an excellent overview of the 2009-2011 (and beyond) sequence, “Occupying Education: The Student Fight Against Austerity in California.” The UCSC Humanities 2 occupiers in 2014 also drew connections between these waves and the logics they were responding to: “The University of California was once a tuition-free and public institution. Now the students are facing yet another tuition hike. The most recent attempt to raise tuition in 2009 was successfully frozen by the courageous and necessary action of students, yet this week, the UC Regents have approved a 5% tuition increase each year for the next five years.” The descriptions of university privatization and the experiences of student debt during this moment were impressively lucid. Looking at these archives of struggle now, one may note the explosion of blog projects that emerged during this period – some now long-defunct, but often connected with each other and with material written by undergrads, grads, non-tenured/tenured faculty, and campus workers. Communiqués from an Absent Future collects key texts from some of them (along with an engrossing map juxtaposing occupations, actions, and the California prison system), and was even seen in a few printer trays in the initial days of the COLA wildcat strike. This prior medium of protest dispatch and information-sharing was important to many activists who have come in contact with the UC system, though the political practices and language of this movement, of course, had effects far beyond California.
8. See the comments made on the importance of the role of the Graduate Student Association and the funds that organization receives in the lead-up to the strike in Danielle Carr’s December 2019 interview with COLA organizers: “The Plan is to Win: A Conversation with the UC Santa Cruz Wildcat Strikers,” The File, December 20, 2019.

Author of the article

is a group of academic workers participating in the wildcat grading strike at the University of California, Santa Cruz.