by Quentin Freeman
Santa Cruz, CA-- a beach town that is home to lush, towering redwoods and a groovy surfer vibe-- is the city in which I spent the first 18 years of my life. The same city is now the site of a weeks-long strike by UCSC grad students demanding a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to address the rent levels that are, quite frankly, absurdly high, and leave many students housing and food insecure. Santa Cruz, as idyllic as it is nestled between the redwoods and the ocean, is in the midst of a housing crisis. Between the university continuing to enroll more students than it has room to house (sound familiar, Berkeley?), and affluent Silicon Valley professionals moving in, demand for housing far outweighs supply, and rent prices have skyrocketed. Grad students at UCSC, who are responsible for the majority of face-to-face teaching, are spending on average 50% -- sometimes as high as 70% -- of their income from the university on rent. Students live in cars, or are forced to choose between rent and food, health care, or opportunities for their children. Months of negotiations with the university for a monthly stipend to address the disparity between pay and cost of living in Santa Cruz have turned into an all-out strike; grad students and hundreds of undergrad and faculty supporters have held a picket line since February 10 in the face of threats of police violence, firing, and deportation of international students from the university. The movement for a COLA isn’t contained to UCSC: last week saw solidarity rallies at every single UC campus, including our own.
Berkeley’s grad students find themselves in a similar predicament to UCSC’s: we all know the struggle to find housing- and the far greater struggle to find affordable housing- in Berkeley. Our own COLA is calculated to be $600 per month more than UCSC’s, and grad students on campus are considering their own strike if their demands to the UC aren’t met by March 6. It’s unclear how willing the university will be to negotiate. The rally that took place here on Friday and spread to an occupation of Crossroads was already met by police presence-- there were even police outside Cafe 3, hoping to prevent any further takeovers of the dining halls in the name of food security for our grad students. The police presence really provided a charming ambiance for my already delightful dining hall meal.
Grad students and lecturers are responsible for the vast majority of teaching on our campus; without them, UC Berkeley would not function as an educational institution. Yes, we have professors with Nobel Laureates. But without their GSI, would that professor be able to effectively teach, grade papers or field questions? Seems unlikely. As someone who grew up in Santa Cruz in all its beachy rent-burdened glory, I am now an undergrad at UC Berkeley learning just as much from my GSIs than my professors. Additionally, I’m on my own hunt for affordable housing, so these strikes hit close to home. No student should be sacrificing their quality of life, their safety, or their health for their education or their job. So here’s the question: if grad students are invaluable at our schools, why aren’t we paying them enough to live, teach, and research here? Why are we meeting them with police presence and threatening to fire them? Who does Janet Napolitano expect to teach countless classes and discussion sections if all the grad student teachers are fired? If the UC is theoretically a public institution, shouldn’t it serve everyone, and not just those affluent enough to afford to live in California? It’s not like the university doesn’t have the money-- UC Berkeley spent $290,000 just on security for Ann Coulter to speak on campus. Think of the housing and food for our grad students that could have gone to (perhaps a better cause than protecting hate speech, but that’s just one girl’s opinion). So keep your eye out for a COLA strike of our own, Berkeley, because the fight for better living, working, and learning conditions won’t stop in Santa Cruz. And in the meantime, be nice to your GSI.