UCSC academic workers focus on ‘long-haul strike’ as job action shifts to withholding grades, exams

The strikers' picket line at the campus entrance at High Street and Bay Drive.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As the quarter comes to a close, UC Santa Cruz union leaders say there are new opportunities to boost their leverage in the ongoing labor action as pressure mounts to provide grades and conduct research. They held a virtual meeting Tuesday night attended by 500 participants across the UC system.

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UC Santa Cruz union leaders are doubling down on their central strategy of withholding their labor and calling on striking academic workers across the University of California system to follow suit, arguing that disruptive tactics and demonstrations led by other campuses this week are “doomed to fail.”

Some workers occupied headquarters of the UC Office of the President in Sacramento and in Oakland to make their demands for living wages louder.

At UCSC, members of the United Auto Workers — the union representing the academic workers — say that while those actions might sometimes be effective, it doesn’t appear they’ll make a significant impact at this point.

“At UCLA, UC Riverside and in Sacramento today, there’s been big demonstrations,” said UCSC’s UAW 2865 head steward, Rebecca Gross, on Monday. “While we respect those tactics, I think a lot of us organizers here are trying to conserve energy and really put it into having these one-on-one or small conversations in groups to talk to workers about how the strike is going for them.”

Instead, UCSC union leaders say that the looming end of the quarter offers new opportunities to boost their leverage in the ongoing labor action as pressure mounts to provide grades and conduct research.

UCSC’s UAW 2865 unit chair, Jack Davies, said that striking is now shifting from withholding instruction to withholding giving exams and, soon, withholding grades.

“[Withholding grades] poses all kinds of organizing challenges,” he said. “How do we talk to faculty? How do we talk to students? How do we talk to lecturers? But of course, I think we all recognize it also poses us leverage.”

That’s why UCSC UAW leaders hosted a UC systemwide meeting Tuesday night focused on how to effectively use energy to win the strike. Gross says it’s particularly important right now as grading deadlines, contract deadlines and the holidays are approaching in the coming weeks — pressure is mounting on workers and picket lines are thinning as people go home for break.

UAW represents four different units and counts about 48,000 teaching assistants, readers, tutors, researchers, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars striking across the UC system’s 10 campuses, including more than 2,000 at UCSC. They teach course sections, grade assignments and run labs.

Two of the units — postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers — reached tentative agreements with the UC last week, while the other two appear to be far from a deal. Gross said bargaining has entered a “stalemate” for the UAW 2865, which represents teaching assistants, readers and tutors.

A 10-9 majority of bargaining-team members for UAW 2865 last week voted to lower their base pay demand from $54,000 to $43,000, dropped the demand for dependent health care coverage and lowered their demand for child care reimbursement from $6,000 to $3,300 per quarter. All the UCSC representatives voted against these concessions.

If the negotiations continue without movement, it’s likely that the strike will continue past the end of the quarter Friday and past the grading deadline of Dec. 14 at UCSC. Contracts for many of the academic workers also end on Dec. 14, and when that contract ends, Gross said, workers aren’t required to do any of the labor tied to that contract.

With assignments from the past few weeks not getting graded and exams upcoming, it’s still unclear what will happen to the majority of students’ grades.

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said UCSC is not considering extending its grading deadline (as UC Berkeley did) in light of the strike. It’s also not clear how most classes will be resolving grades.

“Individual instructors are responsible for the grading of their enrolled students. If a grade is not yet assigned, then the transcript will list the course but not any grade,” he said via email Tuesday. “The Academic Senate is continuing to consider issues related to grades and grading.”

UCSC organizers’ strategy meeting

On Tuesday evening, 500 participants tuned in virtually from UC campuses statewide to hear UCSC union leadership discuss the overall strategy for the strike.

UAW 2865 unit chair Davies and several organizers said while it’s taking longer than most thought to get results from the strike, it’s not a reason to panic.

“As the strike is entering the fourth week, it’s proven beyond doubt that we cannot make the UC fold in quick time by the sheer threat of our numbers,” he said. “But this is not something to despair about. It’s just a simple consequence of the peculiarities of our workplace. So we think what is needed right now is resolve, and steadiness and deepening of the long-haul strike — not panic.”

Rather than taking actions like demonstrations at legislators’ offices or UC offices, he said workers should continue to focus energy on the withholding of labor and grades. He and several UCSC union leaders emphasized the importance of the strike itself and shared ideas for organizing by departments at other campuses — as UCSC has since the 2019 wildcat strikes.

For example, Gross said, last week UCSC union members from each academic department surveyed workers to see how many were striking to better understand their impact. They found that 18 departments have over 90% of academic student employees on strike (and eight of those have 100% on strike). Other departments they surveyed have varying percentages of striking members, with the lowest having about 30%.

Additional speakers included Jeb Purucker, a field representative for the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) — the union that represents nontenured UC lecturers — and UC San Diego associate professor Simeon Man.

“Lecturers are in a unique position,” said Purucker, in that they have a strict no-strike clause in their contracts. However, he added, where protected, they’re organizing and supporting the strike.

“We send out these templates that lecturers can send to their department chairs, basically saying, ‘I understand I have a no-strike clause, but I’m not waiving my rights under [Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act] HEERA. And I’m not going to do the work of my TAs.’”

He said his inbox has been flooded by dozens of lecturers sending these emails to their department chairs.

“We’re with you and we’re not going to turn in grades that you’re striking,” he said.

UCSD’s Man said that across the UC, at least 400 Senate Faculty members have committed to not crossing the picket line.

“And an even larger number have committed to not taking up struck labor by withholding grades,” he said. “As of tonight we have a tally of the 34,000 grades that are committed to being withheld this quarter. And we know that number is going to continue to go up.”

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