UC Berkeley Graduate Students Contemplate Solidarity Strike With UC Santa Cruz

1 min
Students rally at Sproul Plaza on UC Berkeley campus in support of striking UC Santa Cruz graduate students and to demand a cost of living adjustment for UC Berkeley graduate students. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated 7:50 p.m.

The fight for better wages for graduate students is gaining momentum across the state.

On Friday, students at several University of California campuses rallied to warn administrators from retaliating against striking students at UC Santa Cruz and to demand cost of living increases at their respective campuses.

Graduate student leaders at UC Berkeley said they’re seriously considering a strike of their own.

At a rally of a couple hundred people at Sproul Plaza, students read aloud a letter to administration officials demanding their own cost of living adjustment, or COLA, of $2,103 per month.

Students rally at Sproul Plaza on UC Berkeley campus in support of striking UC Santa Cruz graduate students and to demand their own cost of living adjustment.
Students rally at Sproul Plaza on UC Berkeley campus in support of striking UC Santa Cruz graduate students and to demand their own cost of living adjustment. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Chemical engineering Ph.D. student Adrian Davey held a sign that said, "Fuck U Pay Me."

"I think protest needs to be radical," he said. "I think this [sign] very radically says what we want, very directly."

The students raised the high cost of housing as a primary reason for demanding a wage adjustment on top of the 3% annual wage increase that's in the current contract.

"I believe that the housing burden across California is crazy," Davey said. "As graduate students, as lecturers, we're literally running this institution. It's absolutely ridiculous that we're not being provided and subsidized with the amount of wage that we're owed to even dwell here in California."

After about an hour, students left Sproul Plaza and made their way to a nearby campus dining hall, where a group led primarily by undergraduate students staged a takeover. Calling it a "peaceful occupation," students took and distributed food for free.

"This action is in solidarity with the students of UC Santa Cruz who were able to effectively shut down a dining commons and feed their students for a day," said Alecia Harger, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. "We are saying that today the food is free because we as students pay for this food and graduate students are not paid enough to eat."

A spokesperson with Student Affairs Communications, Adam Ratliff, said the action was unanticipated. "Some protesters may have entered the dining premises during their protest without properly paying upon entry and taken food," he said in an email. "We are still looking into the matter."

The current push for a cost of living adjustment began in December, when UC Santa Cruz graduate students withheld grades for classes they were teaching in a bid for higher wages.

Last week, students launched the current "wildcat" strike, so called because it's not sanctioned by the statewide union that represents graduate students. Students refused to teach, hold office hours or conduct research, and their supporters began picketing on campus.

On Feb. 12, police arrested 17 demonstrators for obstructing a roadway. Students and faculty decried the use of force.

Two days later, UC President Janet Napolitano issued a statement that "participation in the wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University."

Democratic Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders responded in a tweet that UC officials should stop threatening students, especially immigrant students.

Meanwhile, UC Santa Cruz administrators doubled down and sent notices that students who don't turn in grades by midnight Friday would not be able to work next quarter.

The movement has only grown, however, said Tara Phillips, a comparative literature Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley.

"People are excited," she said. "They're motivated ... my sense is if people get fired at UCSC, that's just going to fire people up here."

UC Berkeley PhD student Tara Phillips read aloud a demand letter to university administrators during a rally at Sproul Plaza on Feb. 21, 2020.
UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Tara Phillips read aloud a demand letter to university administrators during a rally at Sproul Plaza on Feb. 21, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Phillips attended an open forum Thursday hosted by student representatives on the UC Board of Regents, the governing body of the UC. Students expressed concern about the police presence in Santa Cruz and the future of international graduate students, whose visa status would be at threatened if they lose their positions.

Tensions ran high at some points as students asked repeatedly for student Regent Hayley Weddle, and her co-designee, Jamaal Muwwakkil, to make a public statement denouncing police presence and supporting the COLA demands. Weddle and Muwwakkil said they would consider it.

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Meanwhile, Phillips said Berkeley students of all disciplines are feeling the burden of earning so little in a place where costs are high. She said it’s been socially isolating and stressful.

“I have to move out of my apartment in the summer and sublet in order to survive,” she said. “I am constantly counting pennies to figure out how to make it to the end of the month.”

The strike has received national media attention, and a GoFundMe for the Santa Cruz students raised more than $90,000.

Phillips said that among the 100 Berkeley students her group surveyed, 83% said they were willing to go on strike.

If university administrators fail to respond formally to their demand letter by March 6, Phillips and other student leaders say they are prepared to launch their own strike.

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