UCLA graduate students rallied Wednesday in solidarity with graduate student strikers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The Ucla4Cola organization rallied in the Court of Sciences, with dozens of students and faculty members gathering in solidarity with student strikers at UCSC. Wednesday’s “sick-out” is one of four events Ucla4Cola has planned this week to support the UCSC protests against low wages and a lack of affordable housing.
UCLA students gathered around a blue banner that read “Pay us enough to live here,” with a rallying cry for cost-of-living adjustments, or COLA. The sick-out’s goal was for students to call in sick to work as a show of support for the UCSC student strikers.
Students at UCSC participating in the strike refused to teach, grade or hold office hours beginning Feb. 10. By the third day of the strike, there had been at least 17 arrests following a physical protest on the Santa Cruz campus, according to the Associated Press.
Despite students’ ongoing efforts, the United Auto Workers union, which represents teaching assistants, readers, tutors and other student workers at the UC, has not sanctioned the strike.
The UC will not reopen negotiations or open a separate side letter to provide cost-of-living adjustments, UC President Janet Napolitano said in an open letter to students, faculty and staff at UCSC.
The union most recently ratified its contract with the UC in 2018, effective until June 30, 2022.
Napolitano also condemned the strike and threatened to terminate the contracts of the striking teaching assistants if they do not stop.
“It should not come to this,” Napolitano said in the letter. “We urge the striking TAs to turn in their grades and return to the classroom. The TAs must honor their side of the bargain, just as the University must honor its commitments. The wildcat strike must come to an end.”
However, many faculty members have stood by their striking students. About 100 professors at UCLA have signed a letter of nonretaliation, pledging that they will not punish TAs if they withhold grades, said Hannah Appel, an assistant professor of anthropology who spoke at the rally at UCLA.
“Undergraduates will not suffer if their grades are withheld,” Appel said. “They’re only withheld in the computer system. If the undergraduate actually wants to see their grades, or needs their grades for an application, you can go to your TA, you can go to your professor and you can see your grades.”
Zak Fisher, president of the Graduate Students Association and a law student at UCLA, denounced Napolitano’s response as “thuggish.”
“Why is it that we spend $30 million on a police force, yet we just spend less than $500,000 making sure graduate students have roofs over their head?” Fisher said. “I don’t know who Janet Napolitano thinks she is. She is the president, but she is not a queen of this University.”
Saad Shaukat, an Islamic studies doctoral candidate from Pakistan, said he spends more than half of his stipend on rent. He said international students like him are especially affected by low wages because of visa limitations.
“We simply don’t have that access to … student loans,” Shaukat said. “I can only work 20 hours, which is my TA-ship. I cannot work beyond that at all. I cannot work off campus. I cannot do any extra work to basically supplement … the stipend that I get from TA-ing.”
Shaukat said while scholarships and grants would help relieve some financial pressure, they would not address the underlying problem of insufficient wages.
“That wouldn’t solve the problem because scholarships, … it varies. Who gets it, who doesn’t get it?” Shaukat said. “It’s good to have (scholarships), but, eventually, we need the cost-of-living adjustment for grad workers to survive.”
John Abughattas, who graduated from UCLA in spring 2019, currently works as a TA in the philosophy department, despite not being enrolled in a graduate program. Abughattas said the department hires recent graduates to TA courses since there are not enough TAs to teach all the sections.
Abughattas said he attended the rally because graduate students are not being paid enough to survive on.
“I’m here standing with them the same way that I would stand with any worker who is not paid a living wage to survive on,” he said.
As an undergraduate student, Abughattas said he noticed how supportive the graduate students who TA-ed his classes were.
“I know how hard they work and how deserving they are of being able to afford to live where they work and go to school,” he said.
Lawrence Maminta, a graduate student in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, said he thinks a cost-of-living adjustment is not a lot to ask for, particularly in a city like Los Angeles.
Abughattas said he thinks the problem is part of a larger issue of a lack of funding in public education.
“Just covering this one problem does not actually solve the bigger crisis, which is public education not being supported,” he said.