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UC workers continue COLA movement virtually on International Workers’ Day

University of California graduate students have been demanding a cost of living adjustment since December, when graduate students at UC Santa Cruz went on strike and withheld fall quarter grades. Graduate students at other campuses, including UCLA, have since held rallies and strikes to demand COLA. (Jintak Han/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Kalysa To

May 4, 2020 4:59 p.m.

University of California graduate and union workers held strikes and panels Friday for International Workers’ Day to demand increased wages to match rising living costs.

Graduate students across the UC held a general strike to demand a cost of living adjustment to their wages. As part of the strike, graduate students did not answer emails, hold lectures or sections, host office hours or grade assignments.

The demand for cost of living adjustments, or COLA, began at UC Santa Cruz in December, when graduate students went on strike and withheld fall quarter grades. Since then, graduate students across the UC campuses, including UCLA, have made similar demands.

Zak Fisher, a UCLA School of Law student and an organizer of Ucla4Cola, said his position as president of the Graduate Students Association for the 2019-2020 year allowed him to see how many students were affected by these issues.

“Maybe a little people recognize that some people are suffering more than others,” Fisher said. “(But) everyone has that (metaphorical) boot on their neck, where while we’re trying to deal with the tremendously stressful prospect of getting a PhD or law degree or an MBA or whatever, we can’t afford housing, you know, we can’t afford to eat.”

Sucharita Kanjilal, a graduate student in UCLA’s anthropology department, said that as an international student, she has been deeply affected by UCLA’s low wages. Her visa places a limit on the number of hours she can work per week and restricts her from working outside campus, she said.

“For people like me, you’re basically kind of stuck here on the salary that UCLA pays you, and there’s no room to sort of work outside that or make a little bit more to get by,” Kanjilal said. “So, what it does is it leaves you really precarious for the time that you’re here.”

Kanjilal added that working from home in the midst of the pandemic has caused teaching assistants to have more responsibilities.

“It ended up being a significant amount of work, to actually design the courses to make them run but also to do all the emotional support for faculty who were freaking out because they didn’t know how to do this online and undergrads who were freaking out because they’re experiencing so many challenges,” Kanjilal said.

Fisher said Ucla4Cola will follow the law and university policies but will push it to the limit to fight for cost of living adjustments.

“Now it is time to fight for changes to that reality with everything that we have, as if our lives depended on, because in many cases they really do,” Fisher said.

United Auto Workers Local 2865, a union that represents over 19,000 UC student workers also held an all-day series of teach-ins, actions and panels Friday. The union has also been organizing for COLA adjustments for UC workers.

Rafael Jaime is a graduate student in the UCLA English department and the southern vice president of UAW Local 2865. He said he believes a cost of living adjustment is necessary for graduate students because they bear a lot of work and are the backbone of the University.

“We have a saying in our union that our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions, and if the University wants to prioritize education, diversity and fulfill its goals to provide a world class education, then it also needs to prioritize our own conditions,” Jaime said.

Jaime added that the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders have made organizing a little more difficult because the traditional aspects of a strike, such as rallies and pickets, are no longer viable.

However, he said, UAW Local 2865 has continued to hold weekly phone banking drives, in which UAW Local 2865 workers joined a Zoom meeting to call and ask other university workers to sign the Unfair Labor Practice Strike Pledge, which would authorize a strike to withhold labor if COLA demands are not met and if unfair labor practices persist.

Jaime moderated one of the union’s panels on Friday, in which he spoke with UCLA professors and leaders of various UC unions about the UC’s anticipated responses to the pandemic and to the recession.

Mia McIver, a lecturer at UCLA’s writing programs and president of the University Council – American Federation of Teachers, a union representing librarians and non-Senate faculty working at the UC, said at the panel that she anticipates there will be higher enrollment of out-of-state students, more crowded classes, less feedback on work and a reduction in student support services because of the potential recession.

McIver said she believes it will take students longer to graduate, which might cause the UC administration to lower the requirements for undergraduate graduation.

“Some students might see (lowered graduation requirements) as lessening the burden,” McIver said. “From my perspective it … will diminish the quality of the UC education.”

McIver said she also predicts a dramatic loss of teaching faculty jobs, causing tenured faculty who are more accustomed to doing research to have to teach more.

Claudia Preparata is the research director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, which represents service and patient care technical workers and is the UC’s largest employee union. She said at the panel that it is important to think of the UC system as both an educator and as a billion dollar enterprise.

As the third-largest employer in California, she said, the UC is in a position to influence the outcome of the economic recession.

“So, first and foremost, the University needs to maintain full employment, as well as ensure that the education is both quality education, as well as affordable,” Preparata said. “Whatever decisions they make today will have a long-lasting impact.”

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