Shake That Cola, Make That COLA!: The UC Santa Cruz Wildcat Strike and the Shape of What’s To Come

Courtesy of Zoe Carrell, @zoathexplora

On St. Valentine’s Day 2020, University of California President Janet Napolitano messaged all students, faculty, and staff at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) addressing student-workers’ two-month long wildcat strike demanding a cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA). The striking student-workers are primarily graduate students who work as Teaching Assistants (discussants and graders) and share professors and adjuncts’  burden of instructing 200+ students crammed into UC lecture halls. The striking TAs at UCSC refused to submit Fall 2019 grades and instead demanded an increased monthly stipend of $1,412 to keep up with skyrocketing rents in their city. The average rent in Santa Cruz is $2,600 – with 80 percent of rents higher than $2,000. Teaching Assistants earn just over $2,000 per month for only nine months out of the year.

Napolitano’s message began by boasting the 3 percent wage increase and childcare subsidy negotiated in the 2018 bargaining round with the student-worker union, United Auto Workers 2865 (UAW 2865). She then rejected the strikers demands to re-open the bargaining agreement to negotiate for COLA. She concluded:

Holding undergraduate grades hostage and refusing to carry out contracted teaching responsibilities is the wrong way to go. Therefore, participation in the wildcat strike will have consequences, up to and including the termination of existing employment at the University.

It should not come to this. We urge the striking TAs to turn in their grades and return to the classroom. The TAs must honor their side of the bargain, just as the University must honor its commitments. The wildcat strike must come to an end.

Irony prevails when the person formerly in charge of the Empire’s security apparatus, which kidnapped and deported upwards of 2 million people under her reign, is now threatening to fire a bunch of bookworms and science enthusiasts for withholding grades using charged militarized language. When Napolitano says that graduate student-workers are taking anything “hostage” she only shows her fascination with punching down and criminalizing dissent. 

Napolitano has given UCSC student-workers until Friday February 21st to return to work. If not, she threatens to terminate their employment.

Yours Very Truly, Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano began her seven-year reign as University of California President in September 2013. She began her tenure as UC President soon after finishing her stint as Secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama. She assumed the position having never administered public education in her career. Her departure drew admiration from a slew of establishment Democrats who remain at the party’s helm today. Senator Chuck Shumer (NY) declared, “”If I had to give her a grade on her tenure, it would be A-plus.” Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised Napolitano’s “strength, intellect, and dedication to duty.” President Obama proclaimed, “Since day one, Janet has led my administration’s effort to secure our borders while also taking steps to make our immigration system fairer and more consistent with our values.” Her Secure Communities Act saw the deportation of upwards of 2 million people while Democrats held a super majority in Congress – a clear failure to deliver on Obama’s core campaign promise of amnesty.  

Upon assuming the UC presidency, Napolitano inherited former President Mark Yudof’s sinking ship, which saw a 32% tuition increase in 2009. In 2010, the UC made national headlines thanks to UC San Diego’s Compton Cookout scandal (now immortalized in the Netflix show Dear White People); and in 2011, UC Davis saw the disgraceful pepper spray debacle (after which then Chancellor Linda Katehi paid tech firms upwards of $175K to scrub “casually pepper spray everything cop” from the internet). Napolitano’s inauguration was met with outcry from students across the state. Maybe she thought she could change hats to that of benevolent leader with less fanfare, but the contradictions just continued to unravel.

When Trump was elected, Janet Napolitano barraged UC students and faculty with a series of emails reiterating the “Principles of Community,” proclaiming that administration “would act upon its deeply held conviction that all members of our community have the right to work, study, and live safely and without fear at all UC locations.” She took to heart the Democrats’ self-appointed role as “the resistance” to Trumpism. Yet, recent administrative emails addressing international student-workers toe the line of intimidation that Trump would be proud of: “Participation in a wildcat strike is not, in itself, a violation of your immigration status,” the statement began, but “any actions that result in student discipline or arrest may have immigration consequences, both on your current status and on possible future immigration applications you may make in the United States.”

Napolitano has a knack for parroting Trump and it should come as no surprise. During a January 13th interview on Pacifica Radio with Brian Edwards, Napolitano promoted her new book How Safe Are We? Edwards initiated the interview with questions regarding mounting US aggression with Iran and Napolitano’s first response was literally verbatim to that of Trump – “Well first of all we have to begin with Soleimani was a bad guy.” She went on further to lambast Trump for not having “thought out” the consequences, but comfortably defended the US’s right to assassinate foreign leaders with impunity. This shameless position is completely in accordance with that of previous high-level UC managers – The Regents, campus-level chancellors, and former UC presidents –  and their legacy as nuke-enthusiasts, cops, weaponeers, and financiers who have grabbed the administrative levers of the UC system. Or, keeping with Napolitano’s prefered metaphor, it is the market-driven interests and war-like approaches of technocrats and entrepreneurs like herself who have sadly “taken hostage” the UC’s noble aim of providing a free and public world-class education to those formerly, and still, excluded from the American university system.

Predictably, the UC continues to underperform in its commitment to diversity despite Napolitano’s endorsement of “resource centers” for underrepresented students across the various campuses. These centers serve as an emblem of diversity management and have been replicated by universities nationwide because they are nice bandaids to systemic issues such as structural racism and other forms of exclusion. A fact that deserves to be repeated is that while Latinx people make up 40 percent of the population they are only 22 percent of the student body. Even worse, while the UC system continues to cry broke and toss crumbs at the state’s Black, Brown, and Indigenous youths, Napolitano’s office was found to be hiding $175 million in funds in April 2017! 

Janet Napolitano is, after all, another establishment Democrat. She is “theirs very truly” and has absolutely no moral credibility nor moral high-ground to stand on while she publicly shames UCSC strikers who just want to be able to do their job under dignified conditions.

The UAW and UC Academic Workers: Business Unionism’s Dead End

         Readers may have noticed that UCSC student workers belong to the United Auto Workers union. In 1999, UC student-workers won union recognition after nearly a decade of autonomous mobilizations. Prior to unionization, the UC categorized Teaching Assistant labor as “coursework,” and thus benefited from exploiting graduate student labor without any obligation to pay them. The UC only agreed to negotiate with student-workers after the student-workers autonomous movement calcified into a local unit of the United Auto Workers (UAW), historically a Democratic Party stronghold.

When neoliberal policies gained ground in the 1990s, factory jobs in the auto and aerospace industries dwindled as capitalists liquidated shop and laid-off workers to relocate their enterprise abroad. At the time, the UAW leadership struggled to combat establishment Democrats’ calls for a neoliberal consensus, in which President Bill Clinton both expanded the Reagan-era anti-union offensive and facilitated the process of outsourcing via NAFTA. The loss of factories meant a loss of dues-paying members, which posed a threat to the pocketbooks of the UAW International leadership. They scrambled to find a new source for dues. Here entered the graduate student-workers. As a large labor force, graduate student-workers posed little risk of offshoring. Currently, there are 19,000 TAs in the UC statewide bargaining unit. The UAW turned to academic student employees’ struggles that were manifesting around the country, harnessing them into a calcified, vertical union structure. By 2009, the UAW’s complicit role in accelerating neoliberal processes became even clearer when International leadership forfeited Detroit autoworkers’ right to strike in return for President Obama’s famous Big Three Detroit bailout loan.  

The UAW International has a culture of self-promotion and corruption in stride with the decadence of the Democratic Party establishment. In September 2019, the UAW’s International leadership was charged with embezzling millions of dollars and using membership dues to throw lavish getaways complete with Cristal champagne, California villas, expensive cigars, steak dinners and golf outings. The UAW International, which represents nearly 400,000 members, declared support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections. 

UC student-workers have a rich recent history combatting the UAW International bureaucracy. In 2009, protests and occupations rocked UC campuses across the state in response to the UC administration and California State government austerity policies. Both the UC and the state worked in tandem to exploit the 2008 crisis and sought to implement austerity in higher education, including a 32 percent tuition increase. Students responded with a resounding call to “Occupy Everything.” Graduate student-workers played a key role in building occupations across UC campuses. They began demanding more of the union, which was sitting on a decades-worth of union dues without having embarked on a single strike. It had the funds and resources needed to aid the popular student movement to save public education across the state – funds that could be used for legal support and strike pay. Instead, UAW leadership argued that spending more than half of the membership dues on lobbying the Democratic Party was in the best interest of student-workers. Both International and Local leaders jumped for joy at any opportunity they had to rub elbows with the California Democratic Party establishment, then and now. The Party has rewarded those who did the dance by streamlining them to the Democratic elite

Building occupation at University of California Berkeley, 2009. Source:

In 2010, amidst a climate of peak statewide unrest, the union went into contract negotiations with UC management and negotiated a wage increase that did not even keep up with inflation. UAW leadership ran their standard plan of putting the contract to a membership vote in the summer to deter membership participation instead of waiting for Fall 2010 classes to resume. Their defense? “We are in a rough time. We can’t be asking too much.” The new labor militancy had not yet arrived at every campus statewide – the new contract met rank-and-file contestation and ultimately passed with 40 percent of student-workers rejecting it. The dissenting student-worker voices coalesced into a dissident statewide caucus, the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU). In the 2011 elections for union leadership, AWDU won nearly 65 percent of the vote. They ran on the principles of campus autonomy, maintaining distance from the UAW International, and a focus on anti-oppression. Once members of the incumbent ADMIN caucus (yes, they called themselves that) recognized the deluge of AWDU support during the vote count, they jumped ship and left the room where the counting was held in an attempt to nullify the election results. In the face of the ADMIN caucus’ attempt to sabotage the results, the members of AWDU locked the room’s doors and set up a live video feed of the ballot boxes until the ADMIN caucus’ vote counters returned to legitimize the AWDU victory. The following three years saw AWDU’s student-workers make fascinating strides and interventions to the UAW’s undemocratic and authoritarian ways throughout the UC campuses. A first step in shaking up the UAW’s culture of bureaucratic unionism was AWDU’s 2013-14 bargaining campaign which was framed around the student-workers’ social reproduction needs and the ongoing fight against UC austerity and privatization measures. Shannon Ikebe, a member of the caucus recalls:

AWDU introduced fundamental changes to the union, challenging the excessive centralization of power into the statewide Executive Board and demanding greater local autonomy. The AWDU-led union played an integral part in connecting the graduate worker struggle to broader austerity in public education, successfully halting a proposed 81% tuition hike in 2011. In addition to demanding more from statewide contracts, AWDU fought for increased worker participation in the bargaining process itself. We implemented open bargaining to be held on every campus across the state, and member-leaders (rather than the UAW reps) took a leading role in bargaining. As a result, over 600 members attended bargaining sessions throughout the year. After two strikes – in November 2013 and April 2014 – AWDU won significant contract gains, including 17% wage increase over four years, union consultation on class size, and the right to access all-gender bathrooms. UC-AWDU’s success has inspired AWDU caucuses in other UAW-affiliated grad unions, including at NYU and Columbia, crucial sites of struggle in the private sector.

Book Barricade at UC San Diego Office of Graduate Studies during 2014 student-worker strike action

The successful 2014 contract campaign saw AWDU slates unanimously voted into Local 2865 leadership throughout the UC system. This victory happened amidst the UAW International’s unfair and undemocratic play. While AWDU-supporting student-workers organized and held planning meetings during breaks from their teaching responsibilities and in sporadic moments throughout the day, the UAW International paid ADMIN-associated membership in the union to move throughout UC campuses and organize a new voting base, especially in STEM departments, where graduate students work primarily as researchers and TAs for as little as two quarters throughout their careers. Some members of the ADMIN goon-squad have moved on to greener pastures as hired paid organizers for UAW5810, the UC post-doctoral student union, and they continue to squander membership dues to travel throughout California to form International-aligned caucuses to sabotage ongoing and future dissident student-worker movements within the UAW.

While the AWDU project won 2014’s Local 2865 leadership elections, its student-worker militants were exhausted by the seemingly endless entanglements with the International and their overall lack of support and sabotage. Some of AWDU’s members had been organizing for half a decade by then and were transitioning out of graduate school. They passed the torch to a new generation who lacked the institutional memory and accumulated experiences that had helped guide AWDU’s winning strategy against the UAW International’s deceptive tricks. In the years that followed, many of AWDU’s members resigned from their positions or just abstained from participation in the UAW altogether.

The result? A disappointing bargaining table debacle during  summer 2018 contract negotiations. The timing was key, as classes were not in session. The new UAW’s  Local 2865 leadership reverted back to the old script with guidance from the ever-present International, the same old script that AWDU had fought hard to change and momentarily threw off-track during its 2014 bargaining victory. Shannon Ikebe describes:

A push to settle on the bad contract began in early August. The management’s offer was for a three-percent wage increase, laughable given the rising cost of living in the Bay Area.  The offer included nothing in the way of housing subsidy or a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), despite housing insecurity being a key concern of student-workers across the state. Other issues that had been key points in the contract campaign went entirely unaddressed, among them protection from police violence on campus, and discrimination against international students in the form of “non-resident fees.”

Things stood on a razor’s edge. Leadership, with more optimism of the will, could have mobilized the latent potential for action. Lacking the votes to pass a tentative agreement, the Bargaining Team instead pushed for an online “straw poll” of all members asking their views about settling on the contract. The poll ended closely divided: 52.6% for settlement, 47.4% opposed). Given that the NO votes were also committed to striking if needed, the prospects for organizing successful militant action were high: the 1,132 workers committed to strike would have provided a promising start for a strike preparation. But the bargaining team was divided in its analysis. Ultimately by a thin majority—8 in favor, 7 opposed, and 1 abstaining—the bargaining team voted to accept the offer and send it to the membership for ratification.

The new Local 2865 leadership pushed the vote to be held within the next few days. They fabricated a message that this was UC management’s “last, best, and final offer.” UC management sent a message echoing the bluff and the union managers promptly returned the favor. Paid union organizers, originally hired to recruit and grow the UAW’s membership, used their time on the clock to promote the call for ratification. No one was physically present on the UC campuses to discuss the consequences of contract ratification nor debate them. By the time all results were counted, 42 percent voted NO – nearly 2,000 student workers throughout the UC rejected the contract and were willing to strike. At UC Santa Cruz, 83 percent of student-workers opposed the contract. The contract passed. 

The chronology of events played out in about two weeks. It was almost as if Napolitano’s office and union bureaucrats were chatting behind closed doors. The decision affected 19,000 academic student employees covered under the UAW 2865 contract.

This is business unionism by definition, when labor leadership avoids shaking the boat because it is more concerned with maintaining its revenue (ie. dues-salary) than advancing a strategy and agenda defined by, and in the best interest of, student-workers. This is also referred to as yellow unionism, when labor leadership aligns itself more with the interests of capital than the interests of the workers it supposedly represents. In more pedestrian terms, the UAW’s leadership has sold out and it is precisely this sell-out model which left UC Santa Cruz student- workers with no other option but to strike. We must remember that this decision was made amidst the significant hardship that striking poses to student-workers in a city whose average rents are as high was $2,600. Precisely because the UAW is a yellow union and sold out a long time ago, striking UC Santa Cruz student-workers are not sustained by the UAW strike fund. Instead, they are supported by a gofundme-page that has drawn over $78,000 in donations at the time this article is being written. 

UC student-workers are not the first to dissent from the UAW company line. In 1968, Black workers in Detroit formed a dissident caucus within the UAW to address their own concerns due to UAW leadership’s neglect and outright antagonism. The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) proclaimed:

The brothers at the plants are hip to the jive the UAW is trying to run. They can try to use these tactics to stop DRUM if they want to. But such counter-revolutionary activity will only heighten the workers’ revolutionary focus and sharpen the contradiction between the UAW and the rank and file. The UAW has messed over the workers for too long. By continually doing so, the only thing they will get in the end is a good ass-kicking.

In Santa Cruz the striking student-workers say “Mueve la COLA! Mueve la COLA!” (“Shake that ass! Shake that ass!”). They say, “Shake that cola! Make that COLA!”

The UAW International leadership acts as more a labor managerial class with political and economy ties to the Democratic Party. They are keen to keep the lid on labor unrest. This is not unique to the UAW but is emblematic of labor unions across the US. The union’s relationship to establishment Democrats is best served by directing rank-and-file unrest towards channels that serve the symbolic function of demobilizing workers and deflating their spirit. The best example of this is the one-day legally-sanctioned strike, which in any other country would only classify as a rally. Union’s sanctioning of the one-day strike is just a spectacle of labor action, a pressure valve more than anything. If this were not enough, union managers tightly control workers’ discourse and behavior during one-day strikes. It is common for paid union managers to even reprimand workers for veering from the script. But, workers are lucky if their unions even offers a one-day strike every four years. 

Nothing disrupts this limp model of labor unionizing more effectively than a booty-shakin’ wildcat strike. This raw expression of joy and emotion is a demand not only for higher wages, but for autonomy. The striking student-workers at UC Santa Cruz are striking for the possibility of life itself! 

Wildcat Strikes, The Shape of What’s to Come…

The UC-UAW interplay represents a microcosm of the power nexus of establishment Democrats, who continue to occupy positions of authority in many of the country’s most lucrative institutions, corporations, and popular organizations — especially labor unions. While UC management’s opposition to the wildcat strike is clear, the UAW International and statewide leadership remain silent on the matter. Both share a common fear of the popular mobilization’s potential to delegitimize their decaying power. We must remember that the UC Santa Cruz strikers are giving shape to a growing  popular sentiment that challenges the Democratic Party’s corporate and labor managerial class. It is expressed at a broader scale in the booming popularity of Bernie Sanders. 

This scenario plays out repeatedly in Democratic Party strongholds. Democrat influence is pervasive not solely because of the Party’s politicians in Washington DC or Sacramento, but because it permeates powerful institutions and organizations such as the UC and UAW. However, what is blossoming currently in America is an insurgent multiracial and dissident working class movement  that challenges Democratic hegemony. Said hegemony is characterized by the ways in which it exerts force– through deflating, disenfranchising, and disengaging multiracial and dissident working class peoples from collectively defining and demanding what is rightfully theirs on their own terms. The Party actively tries to negate everyday people’s participation in the most basic expression of democratic decision-making: voting.  

When you combine an analysis of the current national reality, that of Bernie’s rise and sustained popularity, with a broad opposition to the reigning peace between the labor-industry dyad, you have a recipe for the potential breakdown of the entire infrastructure of the Democratic Party. You instead have the foundation for popular power and you have a potential President who actively encourages non-electoral movement organizing rather than demobilizing it. Yesterday, on  February 19, 2020, Bernie Sanders Tweeted his support for the wildcat strike and expressed opposition to Janet Napolitano’s threats. He declared, “UCSC grad students are fighting to have their labor rights acknowledged. I strongly urge the president of the UC system to stop threatening them, especially immigrant students, for organizing. I stand with @payusmoreucsc.” This message shatters the Democratic Party consensus, which has seen establishment politicians more invested with dividing working peoples based on their citizenship status (good migrants versus bad migrants, migrants versus citizens) while simultaneously fetishizing a proverbial middleground and cooperation with the Republican Party. Bernie Sanders’ popularity represents a new milestone for the US Left and popular actions like those in Santa Cruz are exactly what we need to send establishment Democrats to their final days. 

The UCSC wildcat has sparked what seems to be the last wave of student-worker dissent against President Napolitano. In September 2019, Napolitano announced she would step down as UC President in August 2020. The UC Regents are wise and will likely replace her with another law-and-order Democrat who borrows-and-butchers en vogue progressive discourse. UCSC’s wildcat began in December 2019 and other UC campuses are preparing to follow suit. A pledge is currently circulating amongst TAs, faculty, and lecturers statewide calling them to join the strikers by withholding grades should UCSC terminate the striking student-workers’ employment come Friday night at midnight, the so-called doomsday. At UC San Diego, Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, former program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) the Software and Intelligent Systems Technology Office, Defense Sciences Office and Tactical Technology Office (the backbone of the US cyber-security state), proclaimed, “Cost-of-Living-Adjustments are a midwest thing.” So things don’t look like they will settle down any time soon.

 Furthermore, adjunct lecturers, who make up 40 percent of UC instructors, saw their UC-AFT union contract expire in January 2019 after months of strong arming on behalf of UC management at the bargaining table. They can now legally call solidarity strike actions as are no longer handcuffed by the no-strike-clause. 

Source: Instagram @Snooooot

Imagine this: Thousands of the UC’s TAs and lecturers on wildcat strike at the largest employer in the nation’s largest state economy that also happens to be a key Democratic Party stronghold… 

In 2009, the UCs cried “Occupy everything!” and what we saw shortly thereafter was a nationwide movement to liberate public space, carrying out political conversations about our precarious realities on our own terms: Occupy. Occupy’s conversations were crucial in reintroducing a critique of capitalism to popular discourse. The success of this amorphous movement revealed a porousness in the state apparatus that could only be seen by taking collective risks. Of course, Occupy’s tactics did not interrupt the social relationship of labor exploitation that both the state and market depend upon. A wildcat strike, however, does. We are now at a conjuncture in which a new UC-wide cry beckons: “Wildcat everywhere!” And if our recent history tells us something about a wildcat’s potential for stirring up workers’ imaginations, the cry could very well echo throughout the rest of the country. 

Troy Araiza Kokinis is a History PhD and an adjunct lecturer in Latin American Studies at UC San Diego. He began his stint as a student-worker in 2011, and served as a Head Steward and Bargaining Representative for UAW2865 from 2012 to 2014. He proudly belonged to the AWDU caucus. His academic work explores the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation’s role in the labor movement during the country’s constitutional dictatorship era (1967-73). Jael Vizcarra is a PhD Candidate in Ethnic Studies and Teaching Assistant at UCSD. She was a founding member of the campus’ Lumumba-Zapata Collective. She studies Lao refugee resettlement in Dirty War-era Argentina (1976-83). They met each other and fell in love at a UAW2865 meeting, and have a three-month-old child. Should UCSC workers face termination of their employment, they will be going on strike. Together, all three say, “Spread the strike!”