California is expensive and as a college student, the costs can become unbearable. In the fall quarter of 2019, UC Santa Cruz graduate student workers grew tired of having low wages and high costs of living. This led to the start of COLA or Cost of Living Adjustments. UCSC graduate student workers repeatedly asked the UCSC administration to raise their wages in order to afford rent and avoid being in a rent burden. However, they did not listen and the graduate students decided to take measures in their own hands by organizing a wildcat strike.
A wildcat strike is a strike where unionized workers participate without the approval of their union. For several months, UCSC students all gathered in solidarity of their TAs to support the COLA movement. The strikes began getting intense which got police involved in attempts to intimidate students but that didn’t stop them to keep going. In doing so, the TAs decided to withhold fall quarter grades in order for the administration to give them a COLA. Unfortunately, around 50 graduate student workers were unjustly fired from their jobs. This injustice sparked outrage across all UC campuses including our school (UC San Diego).
In solidarity with UCSC, UCSD graduate students, faculty, and undergraduates all gathered together to demand for a #COLA4ALL. During the winter quarter, UCSD graduate students started to hold meetings, strikes, and to promote on social media about the movement. Like UCSC, the UCSD administration refused to listen to their students' needs which also led to a grading strike that was voted on March 9th by the participating TAs. Even though not every academic department participated in the grading strike, the hope was to get the message out there. Although the strikes seem a bit extreme, this was the only method that could get their message loud and clear to the administration. Nonetheless, if a student needed their grades for a particular reason the TA would release them no questions asked. Unfortunately with the COVID-19 pandemic, and everything turning virtual, the movement shifted completely online. After a few weeks of the spring quarter, UCSD TAs eventually voted on collectively releasing grades on March 12th. But that doesn't mean the fight for COLA is over yet.
Now that you have an understanding of what is happening throughout all the UC’s, you may be asking yourself, “Why should I care?” First of all, you should care. Secondly, to prove you should, we interviewed an undergraduate student and TA about their experience with COLA and why it’s important.
Michael Murphy is a third year undergraduate Anthropology major at UCSD who has shown solidarity to graduate student TAs throughout the winter quarter.
What has your TAs done to help you? There are a lot of TAs who have done incredible work to help me. They are the face of the 200 plus student classes. I can say with confidence without the TAs really working in sections to make concepts salience, my education all around would be massively dimminished.
What has your TA done compared to your professors? In courses that tend to be 100 or 200 students, the professors lay out the course matter but the TA is someone who you engage with. They work with you in closer capacity which is critical to learning. In addition, they are coaches to improve our skills and in some cases advocates.
What does COLA mean to you as an undergraduate? COLA for undergrads, one of our goals is to show solidarity to graduate students, but ultimately the entire COLA movement is to instruct this commodification of education; where students of every level are seen as a commodity or customer instead of partners in education.
Has COLA affected you in any way? The COLA movement as a student organization has given us the opportunity to combine our voices and to collect our action. COLA in a way has allowed us to unionize across the undergraduate/graduate divide and to also seek solidarity from faculty, staff, and some administration. The whole COLA movement is a network that has become more than its parts- give us solidarity, hope, to voice our goals. It would be impossible to do this alone.
How have you been involved? I started getting involved in the early days of COLA when it was mostly at Santa Cruz. My partner is a graduate student and I started paying attention because it would impact a lot of friends and connections I’ve made and I started being an advocate for the graduate COLA. As soon as that solidarity started spreading throughout undergraduates and faculty, it became a discussion topic in class, lectures, and between students. I started going to teach-ins, seminars, meetings where we could air our concerns and strategize. Since the rally for the grading strike, I’ve been going to the online meetings not just undergrad for COLA, but faculty and graduate students about how to have our voices heard. There’s no positions or communications experts, I bring my individual ideas and discuss them on how to move forward.
What’s your advice to undergraduates to get involved? I would ask if they feel secure. If something happened in a world where COVID hasn’t happened, if they trust the university to make decisions in the interest of their students. I would ask if they’re getting the kind of education that they came here for and what they had to do for it. Most undergrads have to go through an inordinate amount of trouble whether it’s financial, different avenues of work, housing and food insecurity, or a number of different varieties. And then I would ask if they want to change that. This is a platform for undergraduates and graduates to come together and try to change the university's system and the way the university treats students. I would caution them as well to question what the university is saying about the COLA movement because there has been a lot of misinformation and a lot of dissimilates by the university downplaying the COLA movement and making it seem villainous.
Googie Daniels is a second year Ph.D communications student and also a UCSD TA. Here are a few comments she made about the COLA movement.
What does COLA mean to you? COLA means a lot of things. I get to keep doing research with the people that I started doing research with. My peers that are around me were brought to do the things they were supposed to do. It doesn’t make sense that a school will bring you there and not have you stay there and do what they brought you to do. My peers around me get to stay, and maybe one day when a COLA is reached, there is hope that institutions will actually support individuals.
What does COLA mean during COVID-19? It’s showing that our lives as TAs are not bound to just the campus. A lot of people think, “oh you’re getting paid to work right?” But there’s a lot more to being a TA. To be a TA at UCSD, you also have to be enrolled, a student and do research. You can’t walk on and be like “Hey I want to be a TA!” I think what COVID-19 is doing is really highlighting the fact that we as TAs do not just exist on UCSD’s campus to literally teach and leave. It’s really showing the layers that are present in how we live our personal lives and what our home conditions are like, if that’s stable or unstable and if we have enough to eat or not. Are we caring for other people in our lives, we always carry that with us, we always bring that with us when we come to campus to work. And I think that COVID-19 is really uncovering for people. There’s a lot more to being a TA than maybe just not getting paid, or the 30 hours of work as opposed to the 20 hours.
In recent bargaining sessions with UC admin, it was said that TA homes are not their working conditions. How do you respond to that? I’m going to respond with a question to all of the admin. If our homes are not working conditions, where are the admin working right now? Where are the faculty working right now? Where are the staff working right now? Are they not at home because according to the government, you should be at home unless you’re an essential worker. As far as I understand, unless you are one of the amazing people that help with the upkeep for UCSD, everyone that gets looked over. Unless you are one of those people, you’re not going in, you’re not an essential worker, you are privileged enough to be able to work from home. I don’t understand how we in our home would be classified as this not being our work environment when I just can't imagine that Chancellor Kholsa is not working from home. I can’t imagine that President Napolitano (UC president) is not working from home right now. SO, do we get to say that's not your work environment? And if they are not working, why should they be getting paid right now. I don’t see the argument there. You can get fined if you don’t stay at home so how does that make sense. I would love for someone to try to show me the other side of the argument, and try to convince me otherwise. I am trying to wrap my brain about how you could argue our homes are not our work environments.
How has COLA affected you? COLA has affected me in a number of different ways, in terms of the kind of direct action that COLA is calling for. It really opened my eyes to the determination of my fellow students. And I think that when you come together in a collective like this, it's a little bit easier and not quite as scary and it doesn’t feel as shameful to open up about the things that you are struggling with. Whether it's your mental health or whether it's that you’re on food stamps, whether it's that you are having to bounce between housing opportunities, that you don't even have a chance to go home, or you don’t have parents or your families are not good for you to be around. And I think what's opening my eyes is how long people have kept those things in, like we haven’t shared those things with each other because I think there is this mentality in academia that you just push through and that’s it. You push through and do the research and that’s what you're here for and you should be grateful that you're able to come and do research and study things that you like.
There is a hashtag going around (#COLA4ALL) what does that mean? #COLA4ALL, I like that hashtag because I think it’s something a lot of people don't think about when they think about COLA. This iteration of Cost of Living Adjustments has really been focused on TAs but it’s this general idea that it isn’t just for grad students. COLA is an issue that affects undergrads, staff, faculty and it affects people in the world in general. What I like about the COLA movement is saying things like COLA4ALL maybe it’s at this point of time we are looking at the issues and the struggles that grad students that are TAs are having but when this gets resolved maybe that will benefit the lives of undergrads. COLA4ALL means we are all in this together.
Why should undergrads care? I don’t want to speak for undergraduates but as a TA, I’ve actually really enjoyed all the undergrads that I’ve gotten to know by being a TA. To be totally honest, I was terrified of teaching before I ever started. I was like “I’m really nervous, are they gonna listen to me? I don’t know what to do,” but it’s been really nice to make that 1 on 1 connection. I know that a lot of undergrads had said, “I don’t really talk to my professors.” When you're in a class of 300-500 students and you have your section TAs, it’s set up to where you go to your TAs first, and then that TA is the liaison to the professor. Being people that are in charge of not only meeting these section discussions, which are supposed to further learning and understanding for undergrads. We are there for our office hours and our free time, if you want to get the most of your education then caring for how your TAs life is going is going to impact how we perform as a TA.
How can undergrads get involved? Something that has really disrupted the undergrad support that we were garnering before COVID happened was this distancing and move to virtual. That really physically separated a lot of people and added with all the stress of “what does this mean for my education?” I think the best way that undergraduates can do is to reconnect, either through zoom or through chats, social media or something really trying to regrow the foundation and bring people back in that were once really supportive that have reasonably had other things on their minds. We are trying to get people back in and grow our numbers to see undergrad participation.
How would you like things to change? I would obviously like for the TA COLA to be met. Something else that has been frustrating is that if you are a part of the union, there is a no strike policy. It seems counterproductive to having a union, it’s a little strange that in our contracts we have to sign away our right to strike unless the University is found guilty, like breaking a union contract policy, unfair labor practice “ULP.”
As you can see, there is a massive issue not only within the UCSD community but across all of University of California. Michael and Googie are just one of the thousands of UC students that are affected by not obtaining a COLA. There are about 30,000+ undergraduates at UCSD, if we all came together in solidarity, the impact we could make would be astronomical.The movement for COLA isn’t asking for a lot, it’s a basic human necessity that these hard working graduate students deserve. We kindly ask that you stand in solidarity with the ongoing fight for your TAs and the ones across the UC system #COLA4ALL.
If you're interested in being a part of this movement, there are many resources you can join. Check the links below and let's all do our part as undergraduate students!
Instagram: @colaucsd and @undergrads4cola