#COLA4ALL (Cost of Living Adjustment) and Classism in Higher Education

Kimberly Johnson and Amanda Nall – #COLA4ALL (Cost of Living Adjustment) and Classism in Higher Education

Transcript below:

[Amanda Nall]: Hi everyone, my name is Amanda Nall.


[Kimberly Johnson]: And my name is Kimberly Johnson. And we are broadcasting from Columbus, Ohio. Today’s topic is on classism within the university setting and what some coalitions like COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) are doing to help graduate students survive rising rent burden and meeting the demands of graduate education.


[Kimberly Johnson]: Our conversation will focus on events occurring at the University of California Santa Cruz and our analysis of the battle between the university and the striking graduate students.


[Amanda Nall]: Last November, graduate students at the University of California Santa Cruz delivered demands for a Cost of Living Adjustment to the administration. These demands centered around a $1,412 supplement to the wages they are currently being paid. This $1,412 was calculated based upon the average cost of housing in Santa Cruz County. The COLA organizer’s focus on rent comes out of most of the graduate students being rent burdened, meaning they pay over 30% of their income on housing. In fact, a lot of these graduate students are extremely rent burdened, paying closer to 50-60% of their wages on housing.


[Kimberly Johnson]: A $1,412 cost of living adjustment would bring these graduate students out of being rent burdened, assuming that they are splitting a 3 bedroom apartment and only paying rent for the 9 months of the school year. So a rather conservative estimate, but their demand nonetheless. While some graduate students struggle with being rent burdened, others have familial support to fall back on to help with financials. This creates an inequality between those students who do not have to worry about how they’re going to pay rent and students who have to get second and third jobs to afford rent or make sacrifices on, say, buying groceries to save money for housing. This makes it so graduate students without that familial support either struggle more to fulfill the demands of graduate school, or never make it there in the first place. During our conversations today, we want listeners to consider with us if this is an intentional classist effort to exclude low income students by universities.


[Kimberly Johnson]: So, let’s begin. We’ll tell you the details of this campaign, and you can decide for yourself.


[Indiscernible chatter]

[Piano introductory music]

[Clip of unidentified striking graduate student]: Seeing what this movement has become, it’s really about equal access to higher education. It’s about equal access to the vocation of research and teaching.


[Amanda Nall]: So nearly a month after the demands were brought to administration, University of California administration still refused to engage with graduate students calling for a Cost of Living Adjustment. So on December 6th, COLA organizers polled graduate students about escalating their campaign to a strike. And 285 graduate students responded that they were ready to strike right then, with another 100 not working at the moment, but responding in support.


[Kimberly Johnson]: With the poll coming back with a lot of support, the COLA organizers held a strike assembly to formally vote on the strike two days later, on December 8th. The results came in, and a vast majority of the attending graduate students voted to strike immediately and withhold final grades for the fall quarter! The next day, December 9th, the strike began with a rally outside University of California Santa Cruz campus library where they announced the strike, and offered solidarity to other campaigns on campus.


[Clip of unidentified striking graduate student]: Today we gather in support of graduate students on the wildcat grading strike, we gather in effort to support the previous strike efforts of workers around this campus who are still out of contract, we are gathering in support of lecturers who are currently at the negotiation table. We stand with undocumented student whose demands for accountability and economic support from the administration are still not met. We are here for disabled students who face the reality and financial strain of this campus’s inaccessibility every single day. We are here as graduate student to support undergraduate students who are underpaid, overworked, and placed in unforgiving debt. We see you, we are building strength together as members of this university, we cannot do this alone.


[Amanda Nall]: On December 18th, the awaited grade submission deadline for Fall semester came and went, with striking graduate students refusing to submit grades. Over a month later, on January 20th, graduate students vote to withhold grades not just from the Fall quarter, but also the Winter quarter.


[Kimberly Johnson]: With this decision, on February 5th, the first disciplinary warnings were sent to striking graduate students who withheld their grades from the University of California administration. 5 days later, on February 10th, the graduate students escalated their campaign into a full teaching strike. Now not only withholding grades, but also all teaching responsibilities. On the first day of rallying there is was arrest, one citation, and police violence against the protesters. Two days into the strike, 16 student protesters had been arrested.


[Amanda Nall]: Another two days later, University of California President threatened striking graduate students with disciplinary actions and dismissal unless they stop striking by February 21st. Then, on February 19th, the Faculty Senate at University of California Santa Cruz voted in support of higher wages for graduate students and against disciplinary measures against striking graduate students. This was a big win for COLA!


[Kimberly Johnson]: Now with faculty support, on February 21st, the first “Doomsday,” as it had begun to be called, University of California Santa Cruz graduate students voted to continue striking even with the UC President’s deadline looming at midnight. A few days later, UC President announced an extension to the the grade submission deadline, now to February 27th. But when Doomsday 2.0 comes, instead of an end to the strike, UAW 2865, the union representing graduate students at UC system schools, filed an Unfair Labor Practices charge against the university for refusing to meet with the union to negotiate a cost of living adjustment and instead attempting to unlawfully negotiate directly with individual students.


[Amanda Nall]: The next day, on February 28th the dismissal of 82 Teacher’s Assiastants, 54 of whom has already received appointments, was announced for withholding Fall quarter grades. Several fired graduate students were international students at the University of California Santa Cruz on a student visa, which do not allow international students to work off campus. This means that without their positions at the universities and unable to get jobs outside the universities, these international graduate students would be forced to pay out of pocket for tuition and living expenses to maintain full time status. Without full time status their visas would be nullified and they would have to leave the United States. This again is another way that University of California Santa Cruz targeted students in precarious situations, leaving only those with the familial support and money to pay out of pocket for their expenses a way to remain at the university.


[Kimberly Johnson]: On March 5th, graduate students escalated their campaign yet again, setting up blockades around the entrances of the university, and UC Santa Cruz was forced to cancel classes for the rest of the day. By March 9th the strike was spreading with incredible intensity at other UC system schools, where they were beginning their own strike votes and engaging in collective actions at their campuses. UAW 2865 also announced the results of a poll gauging interest in an Unfair Labor Practices strike, with 97% of respondents voting in favor of the strike.


[Amanda Nall]: On March 10th UC system schools announced their move to online-only classes, and the striking graduate students were forced to reorient their organizing strategies. On March 29th, UC offers the graduate students who were fired and/or denied spring appointments due to withholding Fall grades a “Last Chance Agreement” to reappoint them if they agree to submit grades and promise to never ever participate in a wildcat strike again. They reject, and respond with a counter offer that reaffirms their commitment to a Cost of Living Adjustment for all graduate students.


[Kimberly Johnson]: On March 30th COLA organizers launch Strike University, a website aimed at free and accessible public education for all.


[Amanda Nall]: With online classes and in-person direct actions now being unsafe, the striking graduate students are turning their efforts to phone banking in support of the proposed Unfair Labor Practices Strike in order to fully utilize the resources and legal protections of their union. With the spring quarter beginning just last week, it is unclear how or when this strike will end.


[Kimberly Johnson]: So far though, we can see that the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened and exposed the precarious situation that many graduate students at UCSC are in, especially those fired graduate students now without their healthcare benefits. While many people are staying home, graduate students who are forced into the gig economy to supplement the low wages UCSC pays them do not have the privilege to stay home. Graduate students who are living paycheck to pay check because of their low wages don’t have the resources to prepare safely and adequately for social distancing measures or isolation if they become sick.


[Amanda Nall]: So, what do you think? Are the actions of UCSC classist? Are they intentionally excluding low income students from accessing higher education? Kimberly, what do you think?


[Kimberly Johnson]: You know, I think that this COLA campaign is yet another way that universities have historically engaged in exclusionary measures, including against low income students. Refusing to provide students with adequate support sets those students without generational wealth and familial support to fall back on up to fail from the very beginning. Graduate school should not come at such a huge price tag that only upper middle class and upper class students are able to afford. This perpetuation of unjust classism in the higher education system, of excluding low income students from graduate school, sets up this discrimination to occur for generations to come as only those with the financial means to do so move into professor positions, and later administration positions that give them the opportunity to continue this discrimination. How about you, Amanda?


[Amanda Nall]: I have similar thoughts on that. I think the University’s actions are an example of some type of discrimination against a specific group of people, the graduate students.Whether it’s an example of classism or not, I think that is up to every subjective person. And, like in all inequitable situations, the suffering is uneven and international students, or students who do not have financial support to rely on in this case, might be suffering more that those that do have financial support. Whether or not the university is responsible for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the students, well that is debatable because they cannot control that. They are responsible though for something they can control — and that is a cost of living wage adjustment, so that students can meet minimum requirements for rent and basic needs.


[Kimberly Johnson]: So listeners, if you disagree and think UCSC isn’t aiming to hurt or exclude or target low income students, then why is the university so opposed to supporting students in an equitable way by paying living wages that would allow ALL students access to the university setting?


[Kimberly Johnson]: In an essay posted on their website, “What Does The Pandemic Change About Our Strike?”, COLA organizers say, “In the present moment, workers around the world are taking strike action and demanding what they need from their employers to live. They are striking not in spite of the pandemic but because of it. Their demands—our demands—for economic justice are demands to end the intolerable inequality that both exacerbates and is exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak. The University has the ability to negotiate with us and to resolve this matter immediately. Now, more than ever, we (and all low-wage workers) need a living wage!” signed, “Solidarity forever, striking graduate students.”

[Clip of unidentified striking graduate student]: If there’s any place in the world that should be accessible to all people form all identity categories and all socioeconomic statuses, it should be a public university

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