And, in the midst of the greatest pandemic of the 21st century (so far), all 82 fired student workers were stripped of their health insurance.
“In light of the recent developments regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m writing to ask if it is still your intention to terminate the spring appointments of graduate students, thus forcing the loss of our health insurance, effective March 26?” wrote LuLing Osofsky, one of the fired graduate students, in an open letter to the UCSC administration. “I am 8 months pregnant and according to my Notice of Intention to Dismiss, I will lose my job, and thus health insurance, in less than two weeks.”
To sum up: academic workers doing some of the most necessary intellectual work of our time — teaching undergraduate students at a public university — asked for nothing more than a living wage. In response, one of the most “liberal” institutions in the world had them beaten, arrested, fired, left exposed to the whims of Trumpian immigration policies, and told, with actions that spoke louder than words, that as far as the university was concerned, they could all drop dead.
Who behaves this way? Only the gatekeepers of a dying system. But then, as I write this in late March 2020, plenty of systems — including capitalism itself — seem to be on the verge of dying (as do many of us who are the subjects of these systems).
The harshness of the response has not prevented the strike from spreading to other UC campuses, and inspiring solidarity from around the world. To give one example, the Ad Hoc Committee of Scholars 4 COLA (of which I am a member) has called for an academic boycott of UC until the fired students are reinstated. It launched on March 16 and currently has the support of nearly 300 artists, scholars, students, and writers, including Boots Riley, Cornel West, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Françoise Vergès, and Noam Chomsky.
Not surprisingly, the boycott was not front-page news that day. March 16 was also the day that, as one news organization put it, the US was officially “closed for business.” The White House issued new guidelines calling for almost total social distancing; the stock market had its largest one-day fall in history. In California, the order to “shelter in place” had already been given; the University of California, like everything else, was “closed for business.”
How do you boycott a university that’s been closed by a pandemic? Or, for that matter, how do you have a strike in a pandemic? Here is where we come to a political problem that extends far beyond the US academic system, and that has the potential to help determine our post-COVID future, for better or for worse.
The political movements that have posed the greatest threats to regimes of power during our lifetime have followed two possible routes. (I’m simplifying, but maybe a pandemic is a time to simplify.) One route has brought masses of people into the streets. In many instances, the whole point was simply to occupy public space. Part of the power of the recent (ongoing) uprisings in Lebanon is that they brought out roughly a quarter of the country’s population, scattered across cities and regions that typically remain separated, into what became a shared public space.
The other route, equally powerful but assuming the opposite form, has involved withdrawing ourselves — generally in a material way. Withholding labor — the strike — remains the most powerful tool of workers, even in late capitalism; the brutal response to the strike at UC perversely confirms its power. There is also the power of the boycott, whether the systematic boycotts that made up a major part of the US civil rights movement, or the global boycott of apartheid South Africa, or the current grassroots BDS movement against Israeli apartheid. Again, the violent attempts to repress BDS speak to its power and potential.