The months of struggle to win a cost of living adjustment (COLA), launched in fall 2019 by grad workers at UC Santa Cruz, concentrated a broad wave of political assertion. In addition to the grad workers’ strikes—first our collective non-submission of final grades and then a full teaching strike—skilled craft workers in AFSCME’s K7 bargaining unit set out on open-ended strike in January and ultimately won a contract after years of fruitless negotiation. Grad and undergraduate organizers highlighted food insecurity by taking over dining halls and feeding one another for free. Undocumented students staged actions against their chronic lack of support. And the experience of police violence and arrests on the picket redoubled long-time calls for cops of campus, even before the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd.
This diverse activity crested towards the end of the Winter quarter as COVID-19 cases spiked in New York and California entered lockdown. We recorded some early thoughts on the effects of the pandemic on this wave of struggle. Unsurprisingly, it proved difficult to recreate online the sense of political community and commitment embodied in picket lines and general assemblies. Moored at home and dizzied by rapid developments, we struggled to generate momentum and entered a sapping period of unofficial negotiations, eventually submitting the grades we had withheld without much in return, even though our firings had taken on a new meaning alongside profound economic contraction. The administration, in this context, pushed relentlessly ahead with online instruction, dramatically compounding already poor working and housing conditions.
It is then, in some ways, a matter of poor timing that saw us submit grades and end our wildcat strike precisely at the moment when setting out on strike—particularly on a grading strike—would have been most damaging to the boss. Our inability to generate a new wave of grade withholding at this critical juncture had several causes, none of them strictly reducible to the pandemic. Faculty support, forever tenuous, crumbled entirely with fears of impending budget cuts. The administration also maneuvered teaching faculty to function as strikebreakers and IT staff to better identify and target strikers. Moreover, we cannot underestimate the chilling effect that firing nearly 100 workers had on those who had, in varying measure, participated in the struggle, as well as the dubious targeting of striking workers through the student code of conduct board. And although we pushed very hard and came very close to triggering a UC-wide and union-sanctioned strike based on an Unfair Labor Practice charge, our position on a small campus in an otherwise massive university system coupled with a conservative union leadership severely curtailed our influence. We are, however, pressing ahead, albeit along alternate routes.
Nonetheless, our experience shows that the grading strike is a powerful weapon available to graduate and adjunct workers, whether as a wildcat action or in the context of a union-led strike. In these crisis times of higher education, with so much to gain and lose (and, we must note, with distinct obstacles to physical forms of protest, obstruction, and picketing), the tactic of grade withholding should loom large in strategic discussions and planning. Under the right conditions, this may be the most efficient way to exploit the chokepoint that casual and underpaid academic labor represents in many university business models.
We wrote in April for the MESPI newsletter on the curious way that our grading strike—the refusal to submit grades after a full term of teaching—attracted more discipline and deeper concern from UC administrators than our full teaching strike, which included a month-long picket at the base of campus. (This is notwithstanding later revelations about the extent to which the picket was surveilled, which, we believe, has more to do with insurance and risk management concerns than empty classrooms.) And it remains true today that our grade withholding had the most enduring impact. It is what won us an annual $2,500 “housing stipend,” which while inadequate to address our dismal conditions, represents an 11% increase on our base salaries. It is also what pushed the university to fire more than 80 of us. (On this, it is worth highlighting that firing workers over grades does grave damage to university reputation. It is moreover difficult to hire scab labor so late in the term, and difficult to making the firings stick when workers have fulfilled all their teaching obligations. This became evident recently when the UC reinstated strikers rather than moving ahead with the grievance process.)
The fact is that grades are an integral product in the debt-fuelled models of higher education predominant in the United States and elsewhere. The fluid delivery of grades secures cycles of student debt, which are collateralized for low-interest bonds, leaving administrators (even at public universities) free to invest in non-instructional projects such as construction, captive insurance companies, private hospitals, and myriad other capital investments, some of which are very dubious. In a very material way, the non-delivery of grades—and the public awareness of this form of labor disruption—imperils the university’s funding structure: interest rates increases, even by a tenth of a percent, can cost millions.