Breaking: UC Santa Cruz terminates contracts for 54 graduate students Action comes after a wildcat grading strike

Student protesters | Photo by Charlotte West

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Update:

UC Santa Cruz officials on Friday announced they are terminating the contracts of 54 graduate students involved in a wildcat strike over housing costs in the region. About 30 other students who had not yet been appointed for the spring semester also received notices that they are blocked from appointments, according to student organizers.

“It is extremely disappointing to us that we have to take such a drastic step, but we ultimately cannot retain graduate students as teaching assistants who will not fulfill their responsibilities,” said Lori Kletzer, interim campus provost and executive vice chancellor at UCSC, in a statement released Friday afternoon.

She added: “While we have been able to successfully get 96 percent of grades submitted for the fall quarter, we cannot again jeopardize our undergraduates’ education or put them in a position where they may not have the teaching resources they need to succeed throughout the spring quarter.

“I want to thank all of you who have had honest and difficult conversations with graduate students about the need to end this unsanctioned strike. Our graduate students are brilliant scholars and, like you, I want to see them succeed at UC Santa Cruz and beyond. No doubt your conversations encouraged some graduate students to return to their important work.”

Voices posted the following story Thursday morning, prior to Kletzer’s announcement:

By Charlotte West

International graduate students are on the front lines of the UC Santa Cruz wildcat strike and they have the most to lose by putting everything at risk.

The students and university officials are at a stalemate, well past university-imposed deadlines. But it is evident that the students are not willing to budge, despite the consequences.

At 11 p.m. on Feb. 21, the group of students gathered at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus were much more subdued than they were hours before, when hundreds of undergraduates took over the intersection at Bay and High streets. Students were sprawled out on the ground, huddled in small groups, blankets draped over their shoulders to stave off the chilly air. A lone news crew set up their equipment for a late night broadcast.

The students were waiting for the clock to run out on the 11:59 pm deadline — which they refer to as “Doomsday” — the university gave to graduate teaching assistants who continued a grading strike that started in December. Graduate students who did not submit grades by the deadline were informed that they would not be rehired for their spring quarter teaching appointments.

As of Wednesday, the teaching assistants have not broken their strike and the university has not formally announced how it would respond.

At the end of fall quarter, UCSC graduate students went on the grading strike, refusing to submit grades until they got a $1,412 cost-of-living adjustment to help offset steep rental prices in Santa Cruz. Then they launched a full-blown teaching strike earlier this month after the university held firm that they were unable to negotiate with the TAs, who are paid according to a systemwide union agreement. The teaching strike is now in its third week.

“We’ve been really insistent about the COLA being for everyone regardless of visa or residency status,” said Jane Komori, a doctoral student from Canada. “Honestly that is the only thing we’ve ever talked about wanting because it would mean so much, and make it possible for us to spend summers here, and actually focus on our research.”

Uncertainty looms as graduate students wait to see how the university will respond. “That deadline was imposed by the administration and it’s their move. We can’t know how they will proceed,” said Jack Davies, a doctoral student from Australia.

But as Yulia Gilichinskaya, a doctoral student from Russia, put it, “We consider ourselves to be fired” until further notice. According to the other graduate students they’ve surveyed, Davies and Gilichinskaya estimate that between 80 and 100 teaching assistants have continued to withhold grades past the Friday deadline, including at least 13 international students.

Unwilling to offer the monthly COLA demanded by the strikers, UCSC administrators have announced a housing fellowship of $2,500 per year and clarified that all full-time doctoral students and master of fine arts students, including international students, are eligible for the program.

On Monday, Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer informed the campus that final grades would be verified today (Feb. 27). Graduate students at several other UC campuses have announced their intent to strike in solidarity today if the UC Santa Cruz TAs are terminated.

Only teaching assistants and graduate student instructors, not graduate student researchers, have thus far been involved in the strike. However, graduate students in many departments have pledged that they won’t accept teaching appointments that become vacant because their colleagues have been fired.

International graduate students like Komori, Davies and Gilichinskaya have been on the front lines of the protest, despite the fact that they face even greater consequences for striking than their domestic counterparts. International students make up 29 percent of the estimated 2,000 graduate students at UCSC.

For international graduate students, participating in the strike is not just a matter of losing their jobs — it could endanger their ability to stay in the United States. “It’s like a chain of events that starts with termination of employment, leads to removal of tuition remission and goes all the way to losing (your) visa and having to leave the country,” said Stefan Yong, a doctoral student from Singapore.

Komori said that there is a differential impact on international students depending on where they come from. “For me that would mean going back to Vancouver,” she said. “For other people with less privileged passports, the impact is a lot more dramatic — especially for people for whom it’s already hard to get in and out of the country. We have Chinese and Iranian students who (already) haven’t been able to come and go.”

She added that even if striking international students are allowed to continue their programs of study, they would also have to pay out-of-state tuition to remain at UCSC if they lose their jobs. Non-resident graduate tuition is just shy of $30,000 per academic year. Visa terms also require them to have health insurance, which they would have to buy out of pocket if they weren’t employed at the university.

Most TAs receive a tuition waiver and are paid just over $2,400 a month for nine months for teaching half-time. Unless they are teaching a summer class, they don’t receive any wages during the summer.

Teaching assistant wages are governed at the system-level by an agreement between the University of California and the United Auto Workers in effect until June 30, 2022. Eighty-three percent of UCSC graduate students voted against the agreement when it went into effect. The UAW has not endorsed the action and a letter from UC president Janet Napolitano on Feb. 14 described the strike as “unauthorized and in direct violation of the existing collective bargaining agreement.”

International graduate students also have fewer options than their domestic counterparts to make ends meet as they aren’t eligible for federal financial aid or state programs like CalFresh, California’s food stamp program. Neither does their visa status allow them to get a second job off campus, as many of their domestic peers do.

According to the UC Santa Cruz financial aid office, the estimated cost of room and board is approximately $21,500 per year, but rent for more than 80 percent of apartments in Santa Cruz exceeds $2,000 per month.

Komori said she pays $600 a month plus her portion of the utilities to share a bedroom with another person — in a house with three other people. “I’m in a relatively good situation, because of how low my rent is, although I live in this really cramped house that has had mold on the windows and in the bathroom,” she says.

Gilichinskaya puts approximately 70 percent of her wages towards rent. (Anyone who spends more than 30 percent of their income on housing is considered to be rent burdened, according to the Housing and Urban Development.)  She’s moved four times since she started her doctoral program, and finally has her own apartment. “But if I lose my employment, I might lose my housing as well,” she said. “The condition of being an international student is a particularly precarious one, but it also just makes [the situation] so much more unbearable.”

Earlier in February, international students received an email from the UCSC International Student and Scholar Services office. “Participation in the wildcat strike is not, in and of itself, a violation of your immigration status,” the email stated. “However, any actions that result in student discipline or arrest may have immigration consequences, both on your current status and on possible future immigration applications you may make in the United States. We urge you to make informed and rational decisions for the actions that you take.”

Davies called the message a “de facto threat of deportation.” He said that the university is not directly attacking his visa, but “they may as well be because it’s effectively impossible to remain.“

According to Scott Hernandez-Jason, UCSC director of news and media relations, the message sent to international students “confirmed their rights to free speech and provided information about possible repercussions if they did not uphold their contractual obligations.”

“The email was well-intentioned and meant to provide fair notice of possible outcomes, though we recognize it may have inadvertently created unnecessarily anxiety in our community. That was not the purpose and we regret any fear it created,” he wrote in an email.

He said that graduate students who are not eligible to work as teaching assistants are eligible to continue their studies at UC Santa Cruz, but added that most international graduate students must maintain full-time enrollment as a requirement for their visa.

For Davies and Gilichinskaya, the rational decision has been to continue to withhold grades. “Doomsday just gave us a lot of perspective on our collective power and how to move forward,” Gilichinskaya said. “Strategically, for us as a collective, it made sense to continue withholding grades.”

The graduate students are hoping that there is strength in numbers. “Firing the TAs … would have a massive negative impact on individual departments and divisions, being able to run programs, the quality of undergraduate education, the research profile of the university, and its public image,” Komori added.

From the university’s perspective, it’s the strike itself that is harming the quality of undergraduate education. “The grading, and now teaching, strike disrupts our educational mission and imposes costs on students, particularly our undergraduate students,” Kletzer wrote in a statement.

According to Gilichinskaya, the graduate students have done everything they can to minimize harm to undergraduate students who have had their grades withheld. They posted grades for any students who needed them to maintain their immigration status or for scholarships or other financial aid purposes.

The strike also speaks to the larger issues surrounding working conditions for international graduate students, who are required to show that they are able to cover the full cost of attendance before they are issued an I-20, the document that allows them to apply for a visa to come to the United States. “The financial aid package sounds really good when you’re coming from another country, when you don’t realize how much rent costs in Santa Cruz,” Komori said.

Many graduate students turned down offers at other universities to come to UCSC. Gilichinskaya, for instance, was recruited to do her doctorate in UCSC’s film and digital media program. “I’m a scholar, I’m a researcher, I’ve been told that this is going to be my job,” she said. “By the terms of my visa, the job at the university is the only employment that I’m allowed to have. So by the logic of this condition, clearly this payment must be enough for me to live where I work.”

She said that for many international students, $21,000 a year might be the most money they’ve ever made. “It is inconceivable that it’s not going to be enough to survive, but that is absolutely the case in Santa Cruz,” Gilichinskaya added.

Other international doctoral students point to the fact that funding for graduate students is tenuous to begin with, particularly in the arts and humanities. Funding might be guaranteed for the first three years of a program, but then students may not know whether or not their teaching assistantship will continue.

Uncertain funding can also hamper the core of their work — research. Because international graduate students often need to travel abroad to do their field work, they may have difficulties returning to the United States if they can’t demonstrate their ability to cover the cost of their education. “You can’t come back unless the department issues you a letter to say you have guaranteed funding,” said Sintia Issa, a doctoral student from Lebanon. “International students have always been in a way more precarious situation and the challenges that they face towards completing (their) program are much more complicated than everybody else’s.”

UCSC has also pledged five-year funding packages for new and continuing doctoral students (two years for masters of fine arts students) with a minimum level of support equivalent to that of a 50 percent teaching assistantship starting in Fall 2020. Issa said that this effectively guarantees two more years of a “salary you can’t live on.”

“It is a shame that a university that prides itself for ‘diversity’ has so far been unwilling to pay its diverse student body enough money to live, teach, and research here,” she said. “It feels as if international students are welcome, provided they bury their head in the sand and don’t speak up, even if they are broke midway through the month. This goes against the university’s values. But it still has a chance to step up and deliver on its promises.”

For Gilichinskaya, the strike is not only about her ability to complete her doctoral  program and earn a living wage. It’s also about who comes next. “One thing that’s important to understand is that we are not a bunch of spoiled radicals who are striking for the sake of striking,” she said.

“This is a fight for future international students … (and about) who gets to have access to higher education and how the conditions we live in and labor under right now precludes people who are not independently wealthy from pursuing a career in academia … For international students, undocumented students, and students of color, we understand the risks and yet it’s worth trying to change our situation than just continuing to live in it.”

Editor’s note: Charlotte West is a freshman admissions reader at UC Santa Cruz. It is a temporary and seasonal position.

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Voices of Monterey Bay is a nonprofit online news source serving California's Central Coast.