Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) Strikes and The Targeting of International Students

By Kimberly Johnson

In December 2019 graduate student teaching assistants at University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) went on a wildcat strike, a strike without union authorization, calling for a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to their stipend. Many of the students say they are spending 50% or more of their ~$25,000/year stipend on rent monthly, meaning they are severely rent burdened. The graduate students started with a grade strike, withholding grades from the courses they taught in the fall quarter, but they are now on a full teaching strike. The COLA strikes have spread throughout the University of California school system as well! UC Hastings’ AFSCME 3299 vote to authorize a strike with 89% support last week, representing the UC Hastings School of Law students. Graduate students at UC Los Angeles striked for one day this past Thursday. Some graduate students at UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara are striking, and graduate students at UC Berkeley have said they are strike ready upon the support of other departments. UC San Diego graduate students are set to begin a grading strike on this upcoming Monday. Thursday, March 5th there was a COLA day of action across the UC system schools during which UCSC strikers and their supporters blocked the entrances to UCSC and in-person classes were cancelled.

[Image description: a tweet from Twitter account COLA Agitation Committee that reads “SPREAD THE STRIKE” and then mentions all the COLA accounts across the University of California system. There is an attached image of UCSC strikers blocking an entrance into University of California Santa Cruz.]

During the course of the UCSC wildcat strike the university has threatened the graduate students with firings twice and followed through with this threats, firing about 54 graduate students and telling dozens more they would not be hired for the spring quarter on February 28th. This has not deterred the strikes, but it has been particularly alarming for international students. International students on student visas are not able to get non-university jobs, and without university jobs international students will be forced to pay tuition and/or living expenses out of pocket to maintain full-time student status. Without full-time student status their visas will be revoked. In early February the university reminded international students of this, a clear intimidation tactic.

 

Intimidating workers with threats to their residency/immigration status is not new or unique to the university, it is extremely pervasive in the US. It is particularly utilized in workplaces that employ undocumented workers. It is not always explicit or aggressive, often employers just rely on fear of speaking out and subsequent retaliation to get away with treating workers unjustly. Polly in The Leavers experiences this when she works at the nail salon that does not pay her for the first 3 months she was there and expects her to pay to be trained. This is clearly illegal, but her boss knew it was unlikely Polly would say anything or be able to do anything about it.

Read more:

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-07/graduate-student-movement-at-uc-gains-momentum-with-faculty-support-demonstrations-and-pledges-to-strike

https://labornotes.org/blogs/2020/02/university-california-intimidating-international-students-defeat-wildcat-strike

https://dailybruin.com/2020/02/28/uc-santa-cruz-dismisses-54-striking-graduate-student-workers-over-withheld-grades/

UC Hastings Workers Vote Overwhelmingly to Authorize Strike

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