March 2020

Wildcats against “Instructional Continuity”

Rent, utilities, groceries, loan repayments, shitty housing conditions, shitty landlords: these all continue as normal.

by UCSC Wildcat Strikers

Graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz have been on a wildcat strike for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) since December 2019. Over 80 student-workers—more than 1/10th of UCSC’s Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs)—have been fired from their Spring quarter appointments, as a result of withholding grades in the Fall quarter. What began as a grading strike on December 8, 2019 escalated into a full teaching strike on February 10, 2020. The strike continues, even though the union that represents academic student employees at all 10 University of California campuses, UAW-2865, has not sanctioned it.

On Friday, March 13, UCSC announced that, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would adopt remote instruction for the remainder of Winter quarter, and the entirety of Spring quarter (as of March 26, UCSC still continues to charge the same tuition and fees for Spring quarter). “Sheltering in place,” still without a COLA, and with many of us now lacking jobs for the Spring, graduate student workers continue to strike—online. As of March 22, four other UCs (Santa Barbara, Davis, San Diego and Berkeley) are also on strike, both in solidarity with UCSC workers and for their own COLAs.

Photo by UCSC wildcat strikers.

The university continues

Our labor action is, of course, predicated on the understanding that graduate students’ labor is vital to the functioning of the university. We see how the UC looks to undercut our ability to withhold our labor, and break the strike, in its responses to COVID-19. At UC San Diego (where graduate students voted to go on grading strike on March 6), on February 28, administration asked instructors to ensure that a gradebook on Canvas (a digital grade managing platform) remains updated, on the pretext that course staff may become ill and be unable to process students’ grades, in the name of “educational continuity.” In early March, a communication posted on UC Davis’ homepage around “planning instructional continuity” told instructors that they should “ensure that they have access to their grading records for all of their classes,” and suggested that “the instructor of record [should] consider delegating access to their gradebooks to their department chair” (grads at Davis voted to go on grading strike on February 21th). As such, instructors are asked to circumvent graduate student-workers’ labor—ultimately, they will be asked to pick up this struck labor and scab.

“Instructional/ educational continuity” is posited as the answer to this quarter’s disruptions across the University of California. And the administration looks to make an intentional slippage between the coronavirus’ disruption and the strike’s disruption: both are posed as interrupting the “essential operations” of the university; both “spread;” both, you could say, are “unsanctioned.”

The purpose of the university’s messaging is, of course, to encourage the campus community to forget that there are differences in how COVID-19 and COLA are threats, and how they could be resolved: while COVID-19 directly threatens the health of members of the campus community, the “essential operations” that the strike disrupts are the exploitative conditions to which workers are subjected. Of course, there is an easier resolution to the strike than there is to COVID-19: the university negotiating in good faith around living wages for graduate students.

Photo by UCSC wildcat strikers.

At UCSC, the idea of “instructional continuity” allows the university to conveniently sidestep a disruption of its own making: the firing of a huge chunk of its workforce, weeks before they are set to start teaching in Spring quarter. Classes that previously had Teaching Assistants (TAs) will continue without TAs, meaning that enrollment numbers are now being capped across a number of departments. As a result, many undergraduates are unable to take classes that they wanted to take, or are required for as prerequisites, or are required to graduate. Faculty have the double burden of moving their courses online and carrying these courses out without the workers they specifically appointed to do the labor of grading, teaching sections, meeting students at office hours, etc. “Instructional continuity,” for UCSC’s administration, is designed to jump over two crises at once: one unfortunate and unforeseen; the other, foreseeable and totally avoidable.

“Essential operations:” teaching or grading?

Strikers, then, in resisting the immediate turn to online education, may appear to be presented with something of a contradiction, as we have always emphasized a love for teaching and learning, and a desire to get back into the classroom. But we have always stressed that undergraduates’ learning conditions are our working conditions, and that education suffers when we are not paid adequately to work. What’s more, our picket has been centered around radical forms of teaching and learning; graduates, undergraduates and faculty held daily teach-ins around topics such as debt, the history of the university, histories of policing, housing, pedagogy, prison abolition and international liberation movements, histories of the atom, applying to graduate school, and global waste. Looking to Spring quarter, UC Santa Barbara leads the way in initiating a UC-wide online “Strike University” (free, of course), where such teach-ins will be pooled from all the UC campuses and made accessible to the entire student body (and beyond).

While we have continued to center education, we have also demonstrated that many of the university’s “essential operations” are not necessarily about teaching and learning. Through our grading strike, the administration’s fixation on the grades, or lack thereof, has shown us that the university is particularly interested in a product (i.e., the grade) that is legible to employers. The university’s comparatively limited response to our full teaching strike seems to confirm this. So our resistance to the ways in which UCSC will continue its operations next quarter is not an opposition to the possibility of teaching and learning continuing in a lockdown. Rather, we suggest that the administration believes its “essential operations” are the provision of the consumer product—the grade—rather than teaching and learning.

Photo by UCSC wildcat strikers.

The question we pose, therefore, is not the administration’s question, why not continue instruction?, but instead, what continues under “instructional continuity? One communication from UCSC’s Chancellor and Executive Vice Chancellor states that “continuing to educate in the face of such uncertainty is not an attempt on our part to maintain normalcy.” But tuition will be collected, campus fees (even while the campus is closed!) will be collected, and students will be assessed as normal. And, importantly, the conditions that led graduate students to demand a COLA in the first place continue and remain unchanging. As many graduate students live paycheck-to-paycheck, even those of us who still have jobs on campus will have difficulty accessing emergency provisions. With many of us taking second and third jobs to make rent in Santa Cruz, graduate students’ low pay contributes to the likelihood that student-workers, unable to take time off from their other jobs, will contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

Rent, utilities, groceries, loan repayments, shitty housing conditions, shitty landlords: these all continue as normal.

Disrupting institutional “continuity”

We wildcats reject the continuity of exploitation under the university’s oppressive labor practices. Against the continuity of exploitation, the wildcat disrupts. We have been asked why we would continue a disruptive action in the middle of a crisis—shouldn’t we all pull together in the face of a common (invisible)  enemy? No: we’re disrupting the continuing conditions which exacerbate the most grueling aspects of life under COVID-19 for so many of us. The wildcat doesn’t disrupt the things that keep the campus community healthy and safe in the crisis: rather, it embraces the unknown and unforeseeable nature of the crisis, and (re)asserts that business as usual cannot and must not continue.

The wildcat, as we describe in “How to Be a Wildcat,” is improvisatory, responsive to changing conditions, and imagines a future—both within and beyond COVID-19—that can look more like the university we want. Perhaps low-paid campus workers can be paid an emergency living wage; perhaps tuition and on-campus rent are cancelled; perhaps senior administrators can take drastic cuts to their six-figure salaries, or maybe their positions can be abolished (these changes could all remain after the emergency, of course). Maybe we cancel everything and pay everyone. While the wildcat expects, and navigates, an unknowable and changing future, the university’s emphasis on continuation looks only to the survival of the same. But the status quo was already untenable—striking graduate students say, we were already in the crisis. 

Photo by UCSC wildcat strikers.

The wildcat not only disrupts the continuation of university operations, but the continuation of the operations of the union, and organizing in general. As has been detailed much more broadly elsewhere, UAW-2865 settled a contract in 2018 that only contained a 3% wage increase, and was broadly rejected by UCSC graduate students. Post-2018, the range of possibilities for what union organizing could achieve seemed radically limited: campuses no longer had money to pay organizers; campus union organizers could no longer email their membership, without the emails being first checked by the statewide Executive Board; and a “Two-Year Political Organizing Plan” from UAW-2865 in 2019 imagined the union’s duties as fundraising, canvassing, and registering voters to “help facilitate a friendlier environment” for unions.

The wildcat at Santa Cruz disrupted a bureaucratic tendency in the union, with a focus on electoral politics, that was in the process of stamping out militancy and rank-and-file organizing. The COLA movement has revitalized campus organizing across the UC campuses, and reinstated a utopian impulse that has been lacking in the union’s recent history.

Disrupting the individualization of the crisis

More than anything, the wildcat disrupts life as usual. For many of us, life before the COLA campaign was isolated and individualized. The prevailing work ethic encouraged us to isolate ourselves to read and write, to compete with our colleagues for research and travel grants, to make decisions based on how they furthered our academic careers. This isolation is exacerbated by the housing crisis, which encourages many of us to move further and further away from our community in Santa Cruz. Through the kinds of organizing that brought so many of us together over this academic year, we began to write, read and feel as members of a collective, rather than as individual agents.

The administration’s discipline attempts to make us suffer as individuals—or, alternatively, as individuals, to make moves to avert risks. In the context of a global pandemic, the administration continues to still make offers to rehire individuals for Spring quarter, on the condition that they submit grades. When we posted online about grad students who were fired—pregnant and chronically ill people who risked losing healthcare, international students who risked having to leave the country—we received messages of disbelief that these grads would make the “irresponsible” individual choice to continue to withhold grades, knowing they could be fired. This makes no sense, of course, if you assume that we are all individualized actors, making decisions with only ourselves in mind, assessing our actions based on immediate personal risk and our own (economic) self-interest. It begins to make sense if you understand that fighting alongside your comrades for better compensation and protections for all of us is in our collective interest; that we will have each other’s backs in the short term with mutual aid (please contribute to our strike fund!), and that all our futures look more secure if we fight the boss for a COLA. This, we argue, is in fact the true “pragmatic” or “rational” choice.

Part of the misfortune of the timing of the “shelter-in-place” is that, as we argue in our companion essay, it suddenly superseded the joyful community of our picket line, and the connections that were built and solidified between grads, undergrads, faculty, staff, townspeople etc., in in-person meetings and gatherings over the last month. Despite our bodily fatigue, our organizing and collective health was boosted by being with, and caring for, our comrades—every day for weeks. But, while we cannot be together in person, we refuse to face the shelter-in-place as individuals. Now, we hold online General Assemblies with hundreds of participants. Graduate students continue to withhold grades, now with Winter quarter grades to withhold too, with hundreds of grads at Santa Barbara, Davis, San Diego, and Berkeley withholding with us.

What will continue, and will grow, is our care for one another as we use the networks we have built to organize and distribute mutual aid. What will continue is our anger and determination in the face of an intransigent and obstinate administration. What will continue is the spreading of our movement, as precarious (academic) workers nationally and internationally build collective power and wield it over their bosses. What cannot continue, meanwhile, is the university as it was.


UCSC Wildcat Strikers—We are hundreds of UC Santa Cruz graduate students striking for a living wage and fair labor conditions.

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