With finals looming, UCSC students face unknowns as academic worker strike likely to continue through quarter

Second-year students Lola Quiroga (left) and Nazalin Dickerson (right) stand in front of McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Though a Tuesday deal for University of California academic researchers and postdoctoral scholars marks progress on the bargaining front, undergraduates and professors alike still feel the weight of the largest academic worker action in history as UC Santa Cruz heads into final exam season.

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Not so much has changed for UC Santa Cruz second-year student Nazalin Dickerson since the beginning of the University of California academic worker strikes two weeks ago. Her three in-person classes have moved online, but 2½ years of remote schooling have prepared her for that.

“In the past, having to push classes online was a major disruption,” said Dickerson, who studies literature and lives in a campus apartment. “But now it’s not, really. Everyone’s used to doing Zoom. So it kind of seems like things have mostly been business as usual.”

It’s been hard to miss the images of the thousands of striking UC academic employees at campus picket lines the past few weeks, as negotiations continue between the university and the United Auto Workers (UAW), the union that represents the some 48,000 teaching assistants, readers, tutors, researchers, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars striking systemwide.

But in UC Santa Cruz’s corner of the largest academic worker action in history, the scene has been comparatively quiet. While picketing at the base of the UCSC campus continues — with hundreds of undergraduate students and faculty marched down the hill Nov. 18 in solidarity with the strikers — disruptions haven’t been as pronounced as they were during wildcat graduate student demonstrations in late 2019. Traffic continues to flow through the campus entrances, while Santa Cruz Metro buses stop at campus entrances during active picketing hours.

That’s made for a mixed bag of teaching solutions, as professors scramble to figure out how to tie off their courses for the fall quarter, which ends Dec. 9. Some professors have opted to teach their courses online, while others have stayed in person. Some have begun hosting classes off-campus.

In Dickerson’s case, her classes largely revolve around essay assignments that can be submitted online, meaning they’ve largely gone on as normal. But she said that for some of her peers — especially those taking large STEM courses — the consequences have been significant.

Almost 50,000 researchers, teaching assistants and graders across 10 campuses, including UC Santa Cruz, finished their...

“I would say that the majority of people are in a bit of a 50-50 situation, where they really support the ideals of the strike, but they’re also really frustrated with what this has meant for them,” Dickerson said. “My partner’s a computer science major, and he’s really suffered from not having TAs [teaching assistants] there to hold lab sections.”

Second-year computer science student Lola Quiroga, whose classes also moved online, said communication has been a problem throughout the strikes. Sitting on the committee of the UCSC Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), she said the messaging from the UAW and affiliated groups has been mixed, with some groups saying that going to classes — even ones over Zoom — constitutes crossing the picket line.

Quiroga said she's received mixed messages about where negotiations are and what constitutes crossing the picket line.
Lola Quiroga, while supporting the strikers, said she’s received mixed messages about where negotiations are and what constitutes crossing the picket line.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I think that’s a big flaw in how the strike is being organized,” Quiroga said. “There’s not one place where you can get verified information.”

On Tuesday, the UC announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with UAW 5810, the bargaining unit which represents UC postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers. Postdoctoral scholars will receive average one-time raises of 8%, followed by 7% in the first year and 3.5% per year until the contract’s expiration in September 2027, plus a $2,500 per year child care reimbursement, two-year initial appointments, eight weeks of paid family leave per year and transportation benefits.

Academic researchers will receive a 4.5% raise in the first year the contract is active, 3.5% raises in Years 2 through 4 and a 4% raise in Year 5, along with transportation benefits and end to exceptions for minimum reappointment terms, which vary by position. Union leaders say UAW 5810 will continue striking until the other academic worker groups reach deals with the UC.

UAW 2865 head steward Rebecca Gross said the new deal isn’t a strong indication of contract progress for the other two bargaining units on strike — UAW 2865, which represents academic student employees, teaching assistants and graduate student instructors; and SRU-UAW, which represents student researchers. Gross said the strikes will very likely continue through the rest of the quarter.

“Personally, I’m a little bit disappointed to see that 5810 went ahead and did that,” Gross said. “The longer we stay on strike, the closer we get to certain deadlines — like grading deadlines and research deadlines for things like grants, which affect a lot of postdocs.”

Gross said criticism that the union hasn’t been clear with its outreach to undergraduate students is fair, but that graduate students plan to host a town hall on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the picket line to answer undergraduate questions — especially with the end of the quarter looming. She emphasized, though, that the union’s stance on whether students are crossing the picket line by going to class is clear: They are not, and that they should continue going to class if they’re still required to.

“I see where these undergrads are coming from and I don’t fault them for feeling out of the loop at all,” Gross said. “That’s definitely on us in terms of trying to keep them in the loop. But I will say that they shouldn’t worry about whether or not they’re crossing the picket line, because they’re not withholding their labor.”

Kalina Kassadjikova (left) and Kristen Nelson picket at UCSC's western entrance Tuesday afternoon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But the strike’s impacts on undergraduate students extend beyond the lecture hall. A lack of TA labor means no grading for classes with TAs. Jeb Purucker, a field representative for the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) — the union that represents non-tenured UC lecturers — said that compared to winter 2019, when wildcat striking teaching assistants voluntarily withheld undergraduate grades, the situation with undergraduate grades is more complicated this time around.

“Two-and-a-half years ago, it was just TAs withholding the actual grade itself,” Purucker said. “They had done all of the grading, they just weren’t turning it in. And now you’ve got TAs who have not been grading multiple assignments for a few weeks now. So even if the strike were to end today, in a lot of classes there’s gonna be more work than the TAs can do in the time remaining in their contracts.”

“I think that the result is going to be a lot of students without grades, which the lecturers just don’t have the materials to do and don’t want a scab on their striking TAs to produce.”

Lecturer Joy Hagen, who teaches an introductory writing seminar for first-year students each fall, said she’s canceled her in-person classes after students voiced their wish to not cross the picket line, opting instead to host a series of evening “homework cafes” for them to complete their group projects. A co-chair of UC-AFT, Hagen said her union’s contract has a strict no-strike clause that prevents her from withholding her labor.

“One of the hard things about our position is that students look to us to solve these problems, but we have no power to solve them,” Hagen said.

That leaves students with more questions than answers about how the quarter will shape up. Dickerson said that while she supports the striking academic workers, it’s been difficult to plan ahead. Some of her friends who went home for the Thanksgiving holiday have opted to stay away from campus through the end of the quarter, at the risk of their instructors resuming in-person classes and exams.

“TAs who I talked to before the strike even commenced were saying, ‘Yeah, it’s probably gonna be the whole quarter because we doubt the UC is gonna give us what we want,’” Dickerson said. “And then, one of my professors sent me an email on Sunday saying, ‘We’ll have class on Zoom tomorrow but hopefully the strike will end tomorrow and we’ll go back to in-person on Wednesday.’ So I think no one really knows.”

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