UCLA graduate students consider striking without union support
UCLA graduate students are exploring options for a potential strike. A union that represents graduate student workers is set to vote on the matter in early April. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)
By Stephen Wyer
March 29, 2020 6:48 pm
This post was updated March 30 at 5:48 p.m.
UCLA graduate students are considering going on strike over what they see as unfair working conditions and inadequate compensation from the university.
Academic student employees, or ASEs, who are part of the United Auto Workers Local 2865 union said they are going to vote in early April on whether to hold an unfair labor practice strike that would be backed by the union. Strike organizers said they have gathered approximately 3,000 signatures from graduate students throughout the UC system pledging to participate in a ULP strike.
Such a strike would aim to pressure the University of California into reinstating dozens of graduate students who were fired for striking at UC Santa Cruz in early March. It would also push the UC to negotiate directly with the union over cost-of-living issues.
However, hundreds of graduate students have said they intend to strike regardless of whether they are backed by the union. Many of these students are part of an organization called Ucla4Cola, which has previously protested the firing of UCSC student workers and what they perceive as unfair working conditions for ASEs in the UC system.
Ucla4Cola students voted to go on a strike not backed by UAW 2865 in early March pending the approval of 10 academic departments. However, student organizers ultimately decided to delay the demonstrations after UCLA closed due to concerns over the novel coronavirus, said UCLA graduate student and protest organizer Sucharita Kanjilal in an emailed statement.
Chief among the demands of Ucla4Cola is that UCLA implement a cost-of-living-adjustment, also known as COLA for ASEs so that graduate students can afford to live locally. Los Angeles is one of the U.S.’s most expensive cities, and Westwood specifically was recently ranked as being in the fourth-most pricey zip code for renters in the country.
Labor activism planned by both the COLA activists and the union leadership has been largely overshadowed recently by the outbreak of the coronavirus. As a result of the pandemic, UCLA’s administration announced earlier this month that classes during the spring quarter would be taught remotely.
Michael Dean, a UCLA representative of UAW 2865, said despite the events surrounding the outbreak, union leadership is still planning on voting in the first week of April on whether to conduct a strike across UC campuses.
He also said the legal restrictions implemented since the pandemic began, such as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on large gatherings, would likely inhibit some aspects of a labor demonstration.
“It’ll be impossible for us to organize the kinds of rallies we’ve seen on other types of campuses,” he said. “It’ll be impossible to organize a picket line with which to dramatize our actions.”
Zak Fisher, UCLA Graduate Students Association president and a leader of the Ucla4Cola movement, said that far from inhibiting efforts to organize a strike, remote instruction could have the opposite effect by insulating ASEs from university retaliation.
“I think that the COLA movement will really thrive online. … There’s tremendous momentum online for a new movement like this,” he said. “It could make it easier to strike; the idea that they can punish you for not working from home during a global pandemic is ridiculous.”
Fisher and others are planning to launch a “wildcat” strike, or a labor demonstration outside of the union framework and not covered under an official labor contract, similar to the strike that took place at UCSC. UCSC’s administration swiftly cracked down on these student protests, firing 74 graduate student teaching assistants who refused to turn in grades as part of the strike.
Fisher added that the COLA movement’s goals go beyond the scope of the ULP strike being organized by the labor union, which he said would largely benefit union members who only comprise a minority of UCLA’s graduate student workers.
“There’s no guarantee that there’s a COLA at the end of that negotiation,” Fisher said, referring to potential labor negotiations between the union and the university after the strike.
Fisher also criticized the goals of the union as falling short of addressing the most crucial needs of student workers.
“The goal of a ULP (strike) is to resolve unfair labor practices but not to bring about a COLA specifically,” Fisher said. “They’re trying to pull a fast one on their members. In the best case scenario this brings us back to the status quo.”
Participants in union-sanctioned strikes enjoy protections under California law that they would not receive under a wildcat strike, Dean said.
“In the context of a union authorized strike, the university can’t fire workers who participate,” Dean said. “They can’t discipline workers for participating in strike activity because it’s a strike protected by California law. The workers in a wildcat strike are at considerably greater risk than if they were to participate in a union authorized strike because we have a right to strike.”
Both COLA activists and UAW labor members expressed concern over how the university might respond to a strike, particularly in relation to international students who may participate in the strike.
At UCSC, the legal status of many international students who participated in the wildcat strike was threatened after some lost their teaching assistant jobs and subsequently risked losing their visas.
Michael Stenovec, a UCLA graduate student studying political science, said he believes that UCLA’s administration could likely threaten the status of striking graduate students using tactics similar to those employed by UCSC officials.
“I can’t imagine (UCLA’s administration) behaving differently here,” he said.
Fisher said that international students participating in any kind of labor protest would have to take the prospect of university retaliation into account, but added that this dynamic underscored the importance of securing more equitable working conditions for ASEs.
“International students should take these considerations seriously,” he said. “They often take the brunt of this situation and they have the greatest need for a COLA, which is why we have a lot of international students involved in our movement.”