hundreds of people in a crowd, some with protest signs. Big college building in background
Graduate students and supporters rallied March 5 (several days before there were reports of community spread of COVID-19 and before UC Berkeley suspended in-person classes). Some are beginning a work stoppage Monday in over demands for cost-of-living-adjustment pay increases. Photo: Tracey Taylor

UC Berkeley will become familiar with term “digital picket” this week, as graduate students, who are already working from home because of the coronavirus, begin a work stoppage Monday.

The student workers are going on a “wildcat” strike — meaning it hasn’t been authorized by UAW 2865, the UC graduate student union representing some 19,000 workers — to demand cost-of-living pay adjustments and the rehiring of dozens of their counterparts who have been fired from UC Santa Cruz.

“In the Bay Area and across California, wages are stagnating compared to the cost of living,” said Helen, a Ph.D. student in engineering and an organizer of the wildcat strike. She said the organizers are not revealing their last names publicly over a fear of retaliation.

UC Berkeley has switched over to online classes for the rest of the semester to try to stop the spread of COVID-19, and Monday announced it would curtail lab operations and send most employees home in response to new shelter-in-place orders. The striking students will stop holding digital lectures and are planning to withhold grades at the end of the semester — forming a “digital picket” line. According to Helen, about 150 people voted to pursue the work stoppage, and a majority of students from 15 different academic departments are participating.

“As one of the premier education institutions in the world, we think it’s ridiculous that the University of California, which has a multibillion-dollar budget, can’t provide a living wage,” Helen said. “There are a number of students and workers across the university struggling every day to make ends meet.”

The Cal students say a COLA, or cost of living adjustment, would amount to $2,103 more per month per graduate student. They say they calculated the figure based on rent prices in Berkeley and the federal definition of cost-burdened as paying more than 30% of your income on housing. Students in UC Santa Cruz are demanding $1,412 more per month. Some other campuses are holding their own COLA wildcat strikes too.

According to UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore, the average Cal Ph.D. student “receives more than $33,000 per year in total support for housing, food, and living expenses.” That amount includes teaching and research stipends along with fellowships and other sources, she said. Gilmore said the campus remission of the student workers’ tuition and fees can amount to $18,110 per year too.  

“The work of our graduate students is critical to the university,” said Gilmore in an emailed statement. “We agree that the university needs to continue its work to find strategies to ensure that members of the graduate student community can meet their basic human needs of food and shelter. We are committed to that effort as is indicated, for example, in pending affordable housing development  plans.”

In 2017, a survey conducted by the chancellor’s Housing Task Force found that 10% of Cal students had experienced homelessness since arriving at school. The rate was higher for graduate students and postdoctoral students than for undergraduates. The university houses a smaller portion of its students than any other campus across the UC system.

The current contract agreement between UAW and UC does not expire until 2022, and Gilmore said UC Berkeley is committed to carrying out the annual pay increases provided by it. She did not respond to a question about whether Cal would fire the wildcat strikers, as UC Santa Cruz did in February and March.

young women protesting
Graduate students at UC Berkeley are asking for $2,103 more per month. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The COLA strike organizers are also demanding the reinstatement of those Santa Cruz workers, and have a somewhat nebulous set of other demands, currently including the “demilitarization” of the UC police force and the more job stability for single-semester lecturers in other unions.

Helen said their demands are “ever-evolving,” and said the end of the work stoppage could depend on a vote among organizers or the response from campus officials.

“We are asking the university to come to the table and sit down and negotiate all of these demands,” she said.

Gilmore said the campus “will continue to seek opportunities to engage with our graduate student population in order to develop feasible solutions to support their basic needs in a way that respects the collective-bargaining process.”

While UAW did not authorize the Santa Cruz strike, the UC Office of the President filed an unfair-labor-practice charge against the union for failing to stop the wildcat strike. UAW has a “no strike” clause in its contract. In return, UAW filed unfair-labor-practice charges against the university, alleging UC tried to circumvent the bargaining process by dealing directly with university-sponsored groups and individual students instead of the union — and over the firing of the UCSC students.

The union itself is organizing a potential system-wide, union-approved strike in the coming weeks, over the alleged unfair labor practices and the university’s “refusal to bargain” over a COLA.

“In general, our goal is to get the university to bargain with our union in good faith,” said Gerard Ramm, an English Ph.D. student and a UAW unit chair representing UC Berkeley.

Ramm said no union resources have been used to organize the Cal wildcat strike that started Monday.

However, he said, “We’re 100% behind defending those workers’ rights. Absolutely for graduate workers, cost of living is way too high and rent burden is rampant. It’s kind of more urgent than ever that student workers have access to a COLA. Given that the university is [switching to online instruction], our living conditions are literally becoming our students’ learning conditions.”

Some other members of the union have spoken out against the wildcat strikes, urging the UC Berkeley students to organize more and garner more support throughout all academic departments before risking their and others’ jobs.

Most of these plans were germinating before a novel coronavirus swept through the globe and shut down workplaces everywhere.

“It’s an interesting change from what the traditional strike tactics would be,” Helen acknowledged. The organizers have permitted graduate student instructors to conduct “social welfare” checks on students this week, even while not holding academic classes. The UC Berkeley student who has tested positive for COVID-19 was also reportedly at a wildcat strike organizing meeting last week.

Helen said COVID-10 has only made the students’ demands more urgent.

“Right now we’re in a housing crisis and a public health crisis,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...