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UC Santa Cruz Fires Over 70 Striking Graduate Teaching Assistants


Students at all 10 University of California campuses are rallying today in support of higher pay for graduate student workers.


SHAPIRO: Those are protesters at UC Santa Barbara today. The labor action started at UC Santa Cruz when teaching assistants there began striking about 2 1/2 months ago. Now more than 70 have lost their spring teaching assistant jobs. From member station KAZU, Erika Mahoney reports.

ERIKA MAHONEY, BYLINE: Among the group of fired teaching assistants is Natalie Ng, a PhD student in cultural anthropology. Being a TA holds a number of benefits, including health care and tuition remission. Still, she opted to put that on the line for this strike.

NATALIE NG: This is about investing in students and workers.

MAHONEY: She used a megaphone to address a group that gathered near the main entrance at UC Santa Cruz.

NG: The whole world is watching us. We are showing other universities what is possible.

MAHONEY: For weeks, students and faculty members have been marching and chanting with colorful signs at the entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Up, up, up with the people. Down, down, down with the UC. Up, up, up...

MAHONEY: UC Santa Cruz officials say they have about 750 TAs each quarter. Last December, hundreds of them went on a grading strike. The university recently set an ultimatum - turn in fall grades or risk your spring job. About 10% held out and were fired. UC Santa Cruz leaders declined to speak on tape. In a written statement, interim campus provost Lori Kletzer said the school is disappointed it had to take such a drastic step but said ultimately, the university can't retain TAs who don't fulfill their responsibilities.

One of the strike leaders is Veronica Hamilton.

VERONICA HAMILTON: The strike is a result of a crisis.

MAHONEY: Hamilton says it's an economic crisis.

HAMILTON: It's a result of graduate students autonomously fighting back against precarious conditions.

MAHONEY: Hamilton says the TAs are fighting for a cost-of-living adjustment - an extra $1,400 a month for each TA. Some took that fight to the next level four weeks ago when their grading strike turned into a teaching strike. Hamilton says as a TA, she makes about $21,000 a year. But she says that doesn't go far in Santa Cruz, a coastal city just south of Silicon Valley. According to Zillow, the median rent in Santa Cruz is currently over $3,000 a month.

Faculty members like Steve McKay support the strike.

STEVE MCKAY: We know it's untenable to really survive in Santa Cruz on such low wages - for everyone - and our graduate students are just making that more apparent.

MAHONEY: There have been disruptions and inconveniences, such as canceled classes for undergrads like Dylan Zender (ph).

DYLAN ZENDER: Like, there was a few times where I thought class was happening, but it wasn't, or the other way around.

MAHONEY: Still, he thinks the TAs are right to strike.

ZENDER: I'm in full support because, like, my TAs are the only reason I pulled the grade I did in my chem class. Like, I was actually terrified I'd fail it.

MAHONEY: The TAs are currently working under a systemwide contract negotiated by their union that's supposed to hold until 2022. Union representatives say they're trying to renegotiate that contract, but they have not officially authorized this strike yet. UC Santa Cruz says it can't afford the pay hike TAs are striking for. Instead, it's offered, among other things, an annual housing supplement of $2,500.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Spread the strike. Spread the strike.

MAHONEY: But the striking students say it's not enough. Students at UC Santa Barbara and Davis are on strike, too, with other campuses poised to join.

For NPR News, I'm Erika Mahoney in Santa Cruz Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.
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