Grad Students Demand COLA

Monday, March 16, 2020

UCSF students at both Parnassus and Mission bay campuses came together on March 4 to rally in solidarity with UC graduate students striking for livable stipends.

UC Santa Cruz is currently facing a cost of living adjustment (COLA) strike by graduate students who held teaching assistant positions in the fall and winter quarters. It began in December 2019, when over 200 UC Santa Cruz students withheld grades from undergraduate courses and demanded an increase in pay of $1,412 per month.

UC Santa Barbara graduate students also withheld grades, and as of February 24th officially joined the COLA strike for an increase in pay of $1,807.51 per month. COLA movements have now been sparked across UC campuses.

These strikes are considered wildcat, which is when union workers engage in a non-sanctioned and therefore not legally protected strike against an employer.

Over 19,000 graduate student instructors, teaching assistants, and tutors across the UCs unionized in 1999 under UAW Local 2865, with the one exception of UCSF. This union maintains 3 goals: negotiate with universities on behalf of student employees, organize to defend public education, and to build community and create solidarity.

In Article 19 of the union agreement with the University of California, it states: “The UAW, on behalf of its officers, agents, and members agrees that there shall be no strikes, stoppages or interruptions of work, or other concerted activities which interfere directly or indirectly with University operations during the life of this agreement or any written extension thereof.”

There are two exceptions to this no-strike rule: termination of the contract, or if the union files an unfair labor practice complaint with the California Public Employee Relations Board.

While unions cannot legally support wildcat strikes, UAW Local 2865 filed an unfair labor practice complaint on February 27th regarding the rent burden for graduate students. On March 9th, the union overwhelmingly voted to ratify the Cost of Living Bargaining Demands. It’s important to note that UAW Local 2865 represents members of the entire union, meaning that bargaining extends to all unionized members in the UC system.

Why is UCSF the outlier?

The stipend process works much differently here at UCSF because we do not have an undergraduate population, and therefore have limited TA responsibilities. Due to this stark difference in compensation mechanism, we were not involved in the 1999 union discussions.

UCSF graduate students in STEM have the highest stipends across the UCs. According to a UCOP Student affairs report, the UCSF per Capita net stipend in 2017 was $32,778, while UC Santa Cruz by comparison was $19,906 and UC Santa Barbara was $23,629.

Students at other UCs heavily rely on teaching assistant or tutor positions for income. The current UC Santa Cruz graduate studies website states that TAs who work 10 hours per week earn a monthly salary of $1,217.28, and those who work 20 hours earn $2,434.57. At 20 hours per week for only the 9 teaching months of the year, this amounts to $21,906 annually before tax. It is this half-time wage that UC Santa Cruz students are demanding to increase by $1,412 monthly.

How do the COLA strikes relate to the UCSF community?

Students who attended the solidarity rallies across UCSF echoed a consistent sentiment: just because we are not directly affected does not mean we should not support others in need.

Miriam Goldman, a 2nd year Biological and Medical Informatics UCSF graduate student, stated that “UCSF students care about topics other than medical and there are plenty of us that do stand in solidarity with all of the other UCs.” She explains that the right to demand housing is a struggle anyone at UCSF can identify with.

The challenge of covering basic needs on a graduate student stipend is a universal struggle. Graduate students work an average of 60 hours or more per week across the US. Even if we had the extra energy and time, we are not allowed to seek outside employment while maintaining status as a full-time student.

The median rent in San Francisco according to the SF-based competitor Apartment List is $2,492 per month. That is about 73% of the latest monthly stipend for the graduate division.

Campus housing is competitive to access, and even the newest addition of Tidelands is an unappealing solution given that an efficiency studio equip with a microwave and two burners still costs over $1,600 per month.

We are not other. We are a part of this ongoing conversation.

There is a larger issue here – not every individual faces the same challenges or resource access. Low compensation for challenging work, especially when balancing the advancement human knowledge with extensive teaching duties at other UCs, makes any individual inequities debilitating.

A concern in our UCSF community is that the majority of the work tackling pressing issues in inclusivity and universal ability to thrive, including cost of living adjustments, is done by a minority of students. Further, these students are most often those directly burdened by inequity.

Carlos Zuazo, a UCSF Student Affairs representative and board member of the Associated Students of the Graduate Division (ASGD), has recognized “a common theme of exploitation and isolation of graduate students—particularly first-generation-to-college graduate students.”

He continued: “The one ask I do have of the possibly privileged reader is to break this cycle of apathy and inactivity by realizing their separation from the issue does not exempt them from involvement with the movement: on the contrary, in every conceivable social justice issue, be it abolition or women's suffrage, the most staunch supporters were those who were perched from a place of privilege.

So if you are asking “What can I possibly do?”, you are asking the wrong question. Ask instead, “What have I done?” If the answer is “Not nearly enough,” as it was for me when I asked it to myself, then please contact me at and I am happy to put you in touch with the appropriate person or group on campus.”

You can also reach out to Rachel DeBarge (, our other student affairs representative.

When asked about the ongoing strikes at UC Santa Cruz, Carlos explained that students have clearly been mistreated and undervalued for years and have reached a breaking point. University of California Policies need to adapt to reflect not only the ever-rising cost of living in Santa Cruz, and other UC locations, but also the changing composition of the student body.

We have seen a rise in students from marginalized groups who were previously excluded from academia, specifically first generation to college and low-income students.

Carlos emphasized this point: “I was only able to come here for grad school because of programs that UCSF offered to help financially support my transition to SF, such as a relocation-allocation supplement (now defunct) and the Cost-of-living supplement (now planned to be phased out). Without these programs, you can guarantee I will not have come here, and I can guarantee you will not see these students in the years to come.”

In speaking with students present at the Parnassus solidarity rally, several echoed that while the annual stipend has increased to alleviate financial burden to students living in SF, the relocation-allocation supplement was specifically crucial to their decision to accept their UCSF offer.

Reflecting on the striking UCSC students, Carlos adds that “denying their demands and belittling their grievances perpetuates a culture of inequity in academia by cutting off resources for low-income students, which skews student attrition in favor of those with financial stability.”

Beyond the struggle of inequity from underrepresented communities, students with dependents or families also face an inability to thrive. The additional costs of childcare on top of high rent prices break any possibility of financial security.

The Baker ImmunoX initiative here at UCSF has recently launched the maternity support program, which provides recent mothers with technical assistance to maintain scientific progress while on leave.

The UCSF graduate division also provides childcare grants by application, based on financial need. Even with these efforts, members of our community struggle.

These issues of matching worth and compensation for individuals that are essential to university productivity extends beyond just graduate students.

We see employee strikes around the UCSF campuses annually asking for increased compensation to match the bay area cost of living.

In April of 2019, 5,000 academic researchers or junior specialists petitioned to join the UAW local 5810 union, initially established in 2009 to protect PostDocs across all UCs, including UCSF.

Clearly there are several complicated factors surrounding financial compensation and livability while working in academia. The strikes and solidarity rallies across UC campuses are testaments to the fact that unmet needs exist.

Community engagement tackling inequity is directly in line with UCSF’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, plastered on colorful banners across shuttles, fences, and building pillars.

The universal ask from those actively tackling these issues is for everyone in our community to educate themselves.

Learn the why, question the status quo, and stand behind those asking for help even if you’re not directly affected.

What are your thoughts on this ongoing discussion? What changes do you think are most important to our UCSF community and larger UC family?