UPDATED 1/9/20 4:30PM: The housing affordability crisis is sparking strikes at Santa Cruz County’s largest employer, UC Santa Cruz. On Thursday, around 200 people joined together in a rally to support those who are striking. The work stoppages began with graduate students and now some university workers are striking as well.
Tony Boardman is a PhD student in literature at UC Santa Cruz. He also works as a teaching assistant, or TA for short. Boardman says the pay isn’t enough. He’s an international student from the United Kingdom and says people warned him about this high cost of living.
“But I thought there would be a way. I thought the university would take care of me. And that's not how it turned out,” Boardman said.
A recent study by Apartment List found nearly 60 percent of people living in Santa Cruz are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their paycheck on rent. That’s a higher rate than in San Francisco and in San Jose.
“UCSC needs to pay its workers a living wage. And there's a ton of workers on campus who need this and who aren't getting the deal that they need,” Boardman said.
Teaching assistants across the UC system are all paid the same rate, regardless of their community’s cost of living. They make roughly $2,400 dollars a month before taxes. Their 20-hour work week includes instructing labs, holding office hours and grading.
About a month ago, just before finals week of the fall quarter, hundreds of grad students at UC Santa Cruz went on strike, a grading strike. They decided to not submit grades for undergrad courses until the university provides a cost of living adjustment for all grad students. They are asking for an additional $1,400 a month.
“This isn’t like holding the grades hostage or something like that. It's saying that we can't do the labor that we're expected to do if the university won't pay us the money that we need to live and work here,” said Boardman.
Boardman says nearly 9,000 undergraduate students were impacted. As the new quarter gets underway, TAs have reached out to students and submitted grades for those who urgently need them. According to the university, about 80 percent of all grades are in, but that includes grades not handled by TAs.
Undergraduate Sara Valenzuela was still missing one grade during the first week back at school.
“Well, it's been very, I don't want to say stressful but at the same time a little. Just because over the winter break, it's kind of like nerve wracking not knowing what you got for the class and, you know, how that builds anxiety,” Valenzuela said.
The union that represents over 19,000 student employees at UC schools hasn’t authorized the strike, making it a wildcat strike. The union, UAW 2865, is currently under a four-year contract. The agreement, which took effect in 2018, includes a wage increase of 3 percent each year.
But Veronica Hamilton says graduate students were never satisfied with the agreement and can’t wait two more years for further negotiations. She’s the Santa Cruz unit chair for UAW 2865 and a UC Santa Cruz TA.
“People can't pay their rent now. People are dropping out of their graduate programs now. And it is too long to wait until the next contract campaign,” Hamilton said.
UC Santa Cruz Spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said the administration is willing to meet with students if they call off the strike.
“So this strike goes against their contract and the very nature of it makes it impossible for us to sit down and discuss ways to support them as employees,” Hernandez-Jason said.
He says the long-term solution is more housing.
“The high cost of housing is something that impacts everyone in our campus community, the Santa Cruz community and really the large swaths of California,” Hernandez-Jason said.
It’s not only graduate students who feel they deserve more. This week, UC Santa Cruz skilled craft workers, who the university says make roughly between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, also began an open-ended strike over pay and staffing. These workers, which include electricians, carpenters and plumbers, have been without a contract for a couple of years. They’re part of the union AFSCME Local 3299.
On Tuesday, Joe Baxter, an electrician, gathered with about a dozen other workers in front of the entrance to UC Santa Cruz. He's been with the school for 15 years and says he lives in a mobile home with his family.
“We're striking because we're understaffed and we're trying to get more staffing. They don't replace people who retire,” Baxter said.
Solidarity rallies in support of the graduate students have also taken place at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara.