Hundreds of students picketed in front of the UCSC main entrance Tuesday. (Erika Mahoney/KAZU)
UC Santa Cruz graduate students who work as teaching assistants continued their strike Friday, picketing at the entrance to campus for a fifth day in a demand for higher wages.
Arguing they do not make enough to be able to afford the steep cost of living in Santa Cruz, students have refused to teach, hold office hours or conduct research, and have since December, withheld grades for the classes they teach.
On Wednesday, campus police, aided by other law enforcement agencies, forcibly arrested 17 demonstrators who officers said blocked an intersection near campus and ignored multiple orders to disperse.
"I think we are having effects," said James Sirigotis, a graduate student in the sociology department. "The university continued to say that they could not meet with us, [but] they’ve had two meetings with us since we went on strike. Every time they say they can't do something, we continue to stand strong, and they end up doing it."
The labor action, which started Monday, is a so-called wildcat strike, which means it's not endorsed by the union that represents the students: UAW Local 2865.
A Tense Standoff
Sirigotis was among the students who sat, linking arms, in an intersection in front of the main campus entrance on Wednesday, before police removed them.
Sirigotis said he was sitting in a small circle with other students when police surrounded them and began using pain compliance techniques, such as pushing on pressure points on their necks and ears. When students continued to refuse to disperse, police individually dragged them away.
"At one point an officer grabbed me by the back of the head, grabbed me by my hair and threw me face first onto the street," he said. "At that point I felt something very very hard on the back of my head ... basically rubbing my face into the street."
He recalled screaming, "You’re hurting me, why are you doing this? Please stop," until his face was pushed into the ground so he couldn’t scream anymore, he said.
"There was a big push from protesters to let them go," said Stephen Yogi, an undergraduate student studying history, who watched the scene unfold.
Sirigoti said he and the other demonstrators were put in an Alameda County law enforcement van and taken to a processing station at an offsite university property near Natural Bridges State Beach. The students were processed and given an immediate two-week suspension from campus property.
Their charges include unlawful assembly, obstructing a public roadway and disobeying a lawful order, according to UCSC spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason. All but one was cited and released.
In a statement, Hernandez-Jason defended the police response.
"Officers repeatedly tried to deescalate the situation and made clear that blocking this major roadway had to stop or it would lead to arrest," he said. "Demonstrators locked arms, sat in the roadway, and refused to move back onto the university field."
During major disruptions like this, Hernandez-Jason said, campus police call on other law enforcement agencies to provide additional support, and don't know the cost until after after the action has concluded.
"UCSC’s police officers have a critical role in ensuring safety and security to all on campus. They protect everyone’s ability to exercise the constitutionally protected rights of free expression, speech and assembly," he said. "These rights do not extend, however, to disrupting regular and essential operations of the university by occupying offices, blocking roads or infringing on the rights of others."
After his release, Sirigotis tried to get medical care for the swelling and cuts on his face, but the suspension prevented him from going to his primary care doctor at the on-campus health center. Instead, he went to urgent care, where a doctor dressed his wounds and confirmed he suffered blunt-force trauma and might have a slight concussion.
"The university is choosing to spend a tremendous amount of money on police intimidation, police violence, police brutality, against peaceful unarmed students," said Sirigotis, who also has a 2-inch bald patch on the back of his head where police yanked his hair out. "I think it’s a huge indication of the amount of resources at the UC and that it's never a problem of not having money, it’s a problem of how that money is being spent."
One student also sustained a gash to his face and another student sustained a broken finger, according to a press release from the striking students. "The size and brutality of the police response has been stark," the release said.
Hernandez-Jason, though, said many claims of injury have been greatly exaggerated.
"We are aware of many unsubstantiated rumors being spread on social media," he said. "Anyone who has a complaint about police conduct can submit a report online and the department will review following standard procedures."
Deborah Gould, an associate professor of sociology, works with Sirigotis and watched his clash with police on Wednesday.
"It was a very menacing police presence and I think it really escalated the situation unnecessarily, and people got hurt," said Gould, who joined students on the picket line.
"The faculty here realize that this university can not function without the labor of our graduate students, and they need to be paid a living wage for the job they do," she added.
‘This Is a Crisis Situation’
UCSC graduate students started their grading strike in December, refusing to submit fall quarter grades until they receive a $1,400 monthly raise. Teaching assistants, who usually work 20 hours a week, makes an average of $2,400 a month. In contrast, an average one-bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz rents for $2,600 per month, according to RENTCafé.
"The strike is raising really important and fundamental issues in relationship to graduate student economic justice and housing justice in Santa Cruz, one of the most expensive cities to live in in the country," said T.J. Demos, an art history professor at the university.
The university does, however, waive tuition for grad students who work as teaching assistants, and provides benefits like health insurance and reimbursement for child care expenses.
“We need to be out of rent burden,” said Veronica Hamilton, a teaching assistant who is pursuing her Ph.D. in social psychology.
Hamilton said she received a disciplinary warning letter from the university last week.
"There are many people who are ready to drop out of graduate school because they can't afford it," she said. "This is a crisis situation. And what we need is the administration to prioritize graduate students in their budget."
But Hernandez-Jason said the school does not have the authority to change the teaching assistant's labor contract because it was already negotiated by the union representing graduate students throughout the UC system.
Hernandez-Jason said the school has been extremely disappointed about the course of action the students have decided to take. "This can have a profound, and perhaps unexpected impact on our undergraduate students, including loss of financial aid, ability to graduate, declare a major, or apply to other programs including graduate school," he said in an email.