What started as a small campaign and an exchange of disgruntled emails among rent-burdened graduate student employees late last year at a university in California is turning into an entrenched labor strike. At a time when many are raising the alarm about the detrimental effects of neoliberalism on education, this promising student-led movement is questioning hierarchies between administrators, faculty, and students, distribution of funds and academic budgeting, and the very status of the public university in the US.

On Friday, the administration of the University of California in Santa Cruz (UCSC) announced that fifty-four graduate students will lose their academic student employee appointments for the spring quarter as a disciplinary measure for a grade strike (the number of those affected is believed to be closer to eighty by the students, since a number of students who had not yet received appointments for the spring have been told that they will not have jobs).

This punitive action in response to a teaching strike asking for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) means for many losing their only source of income and housing, being deprived of medical insurance, not being able to support their children and families, and dropping out of college. For international students, the consequences could be even direr as they risk losing their spot at the university and, subsequently, getting deported from the country.

What is at stake is not only the livelihood of individual students but the very future of collective and organized action for labor rights, as administrators have linked the eligibility for appointments to a “clean” record (which effectively means no striking) to be re-assessed every term. At the heart of the administration’s hard line is a refusal to see fundamentally the contribution of graduate students as labor, as workers who tutor undergrads, grade exams, and lead discussion sections, as well as conducting research and participating in conferences.

[Image by Woody Carroll.]

I joined UCSC in September 2017 as an international PhD student in Film and Digital Media. It was one of the country’s most inhospitable moments of its recent history towards incomers from Muslim countries, what is infamously known as the Muslim ban. Even though my country, Lebanon, was not on the list of nationals barred from entering the States, and I have had multiple visas to the US in the past, I was still worried that my visa application would be rejected. Even when I got my visa, I knew that every time I leave and re-enter the country, I run the risk of being denied entry depending on the tendency of foreign policy towards the Middle East and the level of anti-immigration rhetoric. More than once over the past three years, I was subjected to extra security checks or sent to the secondary office for an additional screening of my documents at the border.

The disproportionate response of the University’s administration to the strike and the presence of riot police armed with batons at the entrance of campus exacerbated my anxiety as a Middle Eastern man living in the US, sentiments that many other international students share. I will expand on those fears later in this essay, but first I want to rewind to the beginnings of the strike.

In December 2019, I, along with hundreds of graduate students who work as teaching assistants at UCSC, decided to withhold the fall grades of our undergraduate students. This wildcat strike called for a COLA, or cost of living adjustment, that would get us out of being heavily rent burdened. After more than two years of living in Santa Cruz, my resources, as those of many other graduate students, were drying out. The salary I was receiving as a teacher assistant was, simply put, not enough. The monthly salary of a teacher’s assistant is $2434 (before tax) paid over a period of nine months. Due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and the scarcity of housing, Santa Cruz is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Students at UCSC, whose numbers have increased significantly in the past years due to the administration’s call for growth, struggle to afford living in this small but prohibitively expensive coastal town.

The movement insisted that the demanded COLA increase should not come from tuition, to be suffered by undergraduates already crippled by substantive student loans. Some undergraduates routinely sleep in their cars because they cannot afford housing here. The median rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz is $2242 (according to Zillow Rental Index for the period between April 2018 and Aug 2019). On campus, rooms available for graduate students are limited and above market price.

[Image by Woody Carroll.]

The administration, stalling to find solutions to the housing crisis, refused to negotiate with students and called the strike “illegal” and an “unauthorized work stoppage.” Even though our labor is represented by a union, UAW Local 2865, that negotiates salaries and other benefits with the administration, it includes thousands of graduate students with disparate work conditions and funding packages across the UC system, a conglomerate of ten universities that include UC Berkley and UCLA. The last negotiations between the union and the university in 2018 led to a meager 3% increase in salaries, a very low percentage considering the surge in rents. Around 85% of graduate student/workers at UCSC, one of the least funded UCs, voted against that deal. While for months administrators insisted they could not settle the strike without the UAW-2865, the President of the union stated that they welcomed negotiations over “cost of living, including matters specific to Santa Cruz” on 11 February. Nevertheless, UC President Janet Napolitano has maintained that “the University will not re-open the agreement or negotiate a separate side-letter,” effectively rejecting any direct negotiation with the union or strikers.

Due to a lack of response from the administration and a number of letters of threats and student conduct summons, a decision to escalate and move into a full teaching strike was made. An ongoing picket line was erected and has been the site of social justice slogans and chants, teach-ins about the history of student movements, and a heartwarming scene of solidarity and shared food and drink. But two months into the strike, the university’s administration threatened to fire student workers if they didn’t end their strike.

This sparked a wave of indignation nationally and across the UC system, especially as the administration continues to stifle the right of students to protest their poor living conditions. Other UCs are joining the strike. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted on Friday in indignation against the dismissals, calling on Napolitano to “stop this outrageous union-busting and negotiate in good faith” and added: “All workers deserve the right to bargain and strike for better wages and benefits.”

Even though I am aware of my privilege as a Lebanese student receiving higher education in the United States, I joined the strike movement, as did hundreds of other graduate students, because I believed that our crucial contribution to academic knowledge production was not properly valued in today’s neoliberal economy. But as threats from the administration poured into my inbox and that of many striking students, I felt intimidated and coerced to yield. I received an email from the International Student Office reminding me of my status in the country and implying that I could be deported if I continued to strike. I felt both disheartened that I am being forced under psychological duress to stop supporting my peers and incensed that my fundamental human right to protest is taken away from me. I was not aware of the emotional damage caused by these threats until I had a particularly dark nightmare that I was being deported in a metal cylindrical case filled with a transparent chemical that knocks one unconscious.

Now that the deadline set by the administration for submitting fall grades—referred to by students as “doomsday”—has passed and many refused to cave in, the administration acted on its threats and sent letters to 54 striking students firing them from their spring teaching appointments. This action will severely affect many departments in the arts, humanities, and the social sciences, where most of the strikers come from, pointing to the disparities of funding between engineering and STEM sciences and other fields. Students and faculty alike have been seriously concerned with the administration’s disregard for the arts and humanities and some have suspected that the UC is ready to sacrifice “troublesome” departments and focus on turning UCSC into a “tech” campus.

[Image by Woody Carroll.]

As the administration continues to refuse to negotiate and only offers concessions and incentives deemed insufficient by strikers, it has used disturbing surveillance tactics: monitoring interactions between faculty and students, and encouraging undergraduates and lecturers to inform on graduates striking, in a total disregard for academic freedom. On 12 February, riot policemen injured some of the protesting students as they peacefully stood at the entrance of the university and arrested seventeen students. In the face of what many consider to be tyranny, some faculty members and undergraduate students have organized in support of the student movement. If a small circle of administrators can break the will of hundreds (if not thousands) of students and educators, how should we think of the university as a body of people governed by systems and rules? Is the university an oligarchy? How can we talk about shared governance when chairs of departments and professors are told that they would not be able to give their graduate students positions as teacher assistants and instructors?

The history of UCSC as a radical, leftist, and feminist campus where the likes of Angela Davis and Donna Haraway have served as educators, and where progressive programs like the History of Consciousness have made a mark in critical theory and prison abolition, the movement is reviving the spirit of dissent of the 60s and 70s. What the strike has produced is a level of organizing, solidarity, and community building unprecedented in recent years. While the administration continues to describe the movement as a disruption of the educational process, many are focusing on the numerous real-life valuable lessons in standing up for injustice as a collectivity and insisting on the pivotal role of student movements all over the world in creating change across the history of the twentieth century.

Following the unjust dismissals, students and faculty are uniting to collect funds and find alternative research positions for fired students. Furthermore, hundreds have pledged not to take up positions vacated by those fired or to even refuse their own appointments. For many, this is a crucial moment in which to turn years of theoretical teaching of radical battles against social injustice into REAL action. Some see the strike as a spark for a utopian anti-systemic movement that aims to “put an end to the neo-liberal university and rebuild a new university from its ashes.”

When the strike started in December and students carried signs calling for free education and the end of neoliberal policies, the streets of Lebanon, and particularly my hometown, Tripoli, were also coincidentally filled with protestors. They were revolting against corrupt politicians but also the dictates of neoliberal banks and financial institutions that are making life for the poor and the middle class increasingly difficult. I remember feeling exhilarated to witness the high energy of both fights against unjust systems spreading at the same time. For many around the world protesting social injustice, the struggle is fundamentally the same.

At UCSC, graduate students have announced that they will continue to strike despite the harsh dismissals by the administration. On Monday, we will all wear red for the future of higher education.